Chinese Volunteers to Test the Water in Africa

China Development Brief, no.49 (Spring 2011)

中文 English

Introduction: This article profiles two Chinese volunteers who are in the first batch of volunteers to be sent overseas by China through the international organization, Volunteer Services Overseas (UK). These volunteers will participate in international poverty-relief and development efforts in Africa. Along with an earlier CDB piece on the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation’s international strategy, this article is yet another example of the gradual internationalization of China’s nonprofit sector.

Through the efforts of VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas UK) over the past 30 years, more than 750 international volunteers have served in China. On February 16, VSO held a press conference to announce the first batch of VSO volunteers from China to go abroad to participate in international poverty reduction and development projects. This shows a new role for Chinese civil society as a partner in international cooperation efforts.

In 2010, after approval by the Ministry of Commerce, VSO (, together with the China International Center for Economic and Technical Exchanges (中国国际经济技术交流中心), the Beijing Volunteers Federation (北京市志愿者联合会), and the Volunteers Working Committee of the China Association of Social Workers (中国社会工作协会志愿者工作委员会), recruited for the first time ever volunteers from throughout China to participate in VSO’s global projects.

To better understand the experiences of these volunteers in Africa, China Development Brief profiles two of these volunteers.

Liu Jie will serve as a management consultant for AIDS projects in Nigeria for 12 months, starting in February of 2011.  Wan Fang will begin a two-year stint in March as a development consultant in Kenya, supporting capacity building in local non-profits.

We also interviewed the VSO’s chief representative in China, Li Guozhi, who spoke on VSO’s recent strategic transformation, its new domestic and international positioning and other plans, including the unprecedented move to send Chinese volunteers overseas. Chinese volunteers will conduct testing on the water supply in African communities, work that is emblematic of China’s expanding world-view, focusing not only on economic and trade relations between government and business, but also on international development and assuming responsibility for social harmony at the international level. Through the efforts of volunteers like Liu Jie and Wan Fang, China hopes to bring about a more lasting impact on the world.

Readers interested in contacting these two volunteers about their experiences in Africa, can do so through email.  Liu Jie: liujie.tracy @; Wan Fang: Readers wishing to learn more about VSO’s international volunteer programs may contact Wang Qinghua: wang.qinghua @ .

Liu Jie: Sharing life, knowledge, and skills in far away Africa

VSO International volunteer Liu Jie has never been to Africa, and her impression of the continent was limited to her own speculation and a host of conflicting facts she gleaned from the media. Initially, she thought of Africa as a land of blue skies and white clouds, where people led simple, happy lives close to nature. At the same time, she heard that Africa, including Nigeria where she would soon travel, was developing rapidly. As a Chinese citizen, Liu Jie knows what [rapid development] can mean. Furthermore, oil-rich Nigeria has encountered a problem common to many developing countries: the resource curse. The exploitation of natural resources has brought with it a large wealth gap and social conflict, as well as instability and violence.

Liu’s notions of Nigeria reflect different aspects of its complex reality. On March 4, Liu left Beijing for Nigeria, to test her impressions through personal experience.

Liu will work in the city of Kaduna, a two hours’ drive north of the capital city of Abuja. There, she will work with a local NGO engaged in AIDS prevention, working primarily with women in the Muslim community. Of Nigeria’s population of 150 million people, some 3 million live with HIV; this large-scale epidemic has become a source of widespread suffering in this country. Liu previously worked at the China HIV/AIDS Information Network (CHAIN, 全国艾滋病信息资源网络) and the Global Fund to promote civil society organizations’ involvement in AIDS prevention and to increase the overall capabilities of NGOs.

Compared with the experience of Wan Fang, who left for Kenya at the same time, Liu Jie’s path to Nigeria was long and bumpy. After her application was accepted, Liu Jie began to prepare for her trip. After leaving her job, she received news in March of 2010 that her trip would be delayed. When she heard that there would be a possible opportunity to volunteer later in November, she turned down a satisfying short-term job opportunity, only to find that at long last, in February of 2011, she would finally be able to leave for Africa.

“At first, I felt excitement. When it was time to prepare to leave, I felt panicked and then when I left work only to have to wait again, that first time, I was frustrated. Then I had to wait again for another opportunity and I was impatient. Then, to finally to be able to start volunteering left me feeling the excitement again. Now, I feel remarkably calm. It seems strange to me and I wonder, how can I feel tranquil?” Liu described the ups and downs of her preparation process as “dramatic.”

Like Liu, Wan faced doubts and confusion leading up to her departure. Liu notes that “the culture and customs [in Africa] are so different from China’s and even Asia’s. I do not know how I will make myself useful.” During the long waiting process, she questioned her own ability to offer real help once in Africa, and wondered whether she was just wasting resources and her own time. However, after two rounds of training in the Philippines, she gained more confidence. Her training included classes on cultural immersion and acceptance, how to adapt to different ideas, and especially how to be tolerant towards different religious beliefs.

Concerns about disease were also ever-present. “Psychologically, I’ve been preparing for a long time, but even so, I’m worried about malaria, and other contagious diseases. It’s virtually impossible for Chinese people to avoid mosquitos and infection over there.” Wan completed her required vaccinations last year, after which she went about purchasing preventative medications, though she wasn’t able to purchase medicines to treat the actual diseases. Wan found some consolation in reports that her post is in an area with decent medical care.

Traditional family values in China are such that a personal choice is rarely personal—rather it involves the whole family. This is especially true for Liu, an only child. Liu’s family have questioned, even opposed, many of her life choices, but ultimately they have respected her right to choose her own path. Liu is grateful for and proud of the open-minded support from her parents. Soon before her departure, Liu’s grandmother suddenly fell ill with an advanced cancer, adding yet another complication to her departure. With her departure date fixed, Liu spent as much time as possible with her grandmother, but ultimately left as planned.

Any given choice has its own logic. Previously, Liu left the China HIV/AIDS Information Network and joined Ark of Love (爱之方舟), an organization serving AIDS patients, where she volunteered for nine months. Working with this demographic that has no choice but to persevere in the face death influenced Liu’s eventual decision to go to Africa. “As a volunteer there, I felt like I wasn’t being useful, but they were in my life and I was in theirs. It was such a meaningful experience.” Now, after more than five years of experience working with AIDS organizations, Liu finally feels that she has something to bring to the table, and using VSO as a platform, Liu can share her knowledge and skills with needy communities in distant Africa.

As “a representative of a handful of passionate idealists,” Liu is looking forward to going to work in the communities and sharing life, learning experiences, and skills with locals. If time allows, she further hopes to apply her experience working on capacity building in grassroots organizations in China for the benefit of local, African organizations.

Speaking of the future, Liu declared herself to be unambitious, and without specific plans: “When the year is up, if they still want me, and if I’m being useful to them, I’ll plan to stay on for another year. From the perspective of project management, you need two years before you can look back and really evaluate what you’ve accomplished.”

Wan Fang: Looking forward to an exotic trip

While one’s thirties are a period of newfound maturity, there is still time to try new things. And for the unfettered heart, there is a chance to start another life. Wan Fang, at 30 years old, and as a member of the first batch of Chinese volunteers sent abroad by VSO, left for Kenya on March 3rd for a 24-month period of voluntary service to provide capacity building support at a community school.

After six years of working in sales and market research, and after many years volunteering and participating in public service projects, Wan Fang ultimately found success in her application to volunteer through VSO. She will work at a school located three hours from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital; her main task will be to develop academic curricula, provide capacity building support, and vocational skills training for marginalized youth.

“I wanted to try this while I’m still young; as I age, I’m not sure whether I will have the same enthusiasm and abilities, or the desire to travel to far off places.” In Wan’s eyes, life is a series of journeys, and while some people are content to stay on a fixed, steady course, she wants to experience the joys of discovery, learning, and sharing with others. The chance to use her marketing expertise and skills to do something for Africa, while experiencing a different culture and ways of working, proved irresistable to Wan.

“Helping real communities through an NGO is so much more attractive to me than chasing profits in some corporation.” Although Wan previously worked in the for-profit sector, she also pursued public interest work . In 2007, she participated in Green River’s (绿色江河) immigrant-village project in Ge’ermu, Qinghai, where her work focused on training, developing goods for sale in tourism, and a waste census. Her choice was carefully considered, and not simply a leap into the unknown.

Having passed the VSO international volunteer preliminary application, Wan attended two rounds of intensive volunteer training in the Philippines. There, she met prospective volunteers from many different countries and received cultural adaptation training in this international environment. This was also a period of psychological adjustment as volunteers reached the stage of final selection. This gradual process allows hesitant volunteers the opportunity to opt out, and it galvanizes those who are more committed. During her training, Wan met nearly 40 other individuals (her “sworn brothers and sisters”) from Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and other countries, all with different backgrounds in international volunteerism. Meeting them broadened her understanding of internationalism.

And yet, Wan’s vision of the future is tinged with uncertainty and a trace of apprehension.

“Will I be able to adapt to life there?” Wan asked friends, half-jokingly, at the bustling VSO exchange conference. Many VSO international volunteers experience feelings of excitement and exhiliration on arriving at their post, but that usually fades within the first three months, often leaving them depressed. In fact, Wan admits to not feeling completely prepared. Water and sanitation are both concerns. Wan, who is used to the amenities of life in a large city will certainly need to adjust to life without them. There is also the question of cultural immersion and getting to know the local community there, which presents a more exciting challenge.

Of course, with China’s growing influence, some elements of Chinese culture are no longer strange for Kenyans. At the exchange conference, Wan Fang remarked to a Kenyan consulate official that she wanted to learn the local language, Swahili, as soon as possible. The official replied, half-jokingly, that there was no need since many locals have already begun to learn simple Mandarin.

“This is neither the first paragraph of my own life story, nor the last.” As for the challenges she will face, Wan says she’s not trying to be a martyr, nor is she trying to bring sweeping change to the world. And while her initial motivation sprung from idealism and a yearning for new experiences, Wan says her focus now is on setting realistic goals and working steadily toward them. She hopes to share her experiences in a book, and maybe, in the process, learn something about herself.

Wan is caught up in this era of globalization and caught up in the transformation of China. China’s vision of the future, meanwhile is expanding beyond political and economic affairs, and increasingly includes international development and social equity. Through volunteers like Wan Fang, China may indeed achieve a more lasting impact on the world.

过去的30年间,通过VSO(英国海外志愿服务社)努力,已有750多位国际志愿者专家到中国服务。 2月16日,VSO举办了一个发布交流会,宣布第一批来自中国的VSO国际志愿者即将赴海外参与国际扶贫和发展。 这预示着中国民间层面的国际合作进程展开了新的一页。
2010年,经商务部批准,VSO( 联合中国国际经济技术交流中心、北京市志愿者联合会、中国社会工作协会志愿者工作委员会,首次面向全国招募中国志愿者派遣到VSO全球项目国家服务。 2011年2月开始,刘洁作为艾滋病项目管理顾问到尼日利亚服务12个月。 3月,万方作为发展咨询顾问,将用24个月在肯尼亚支持非营利组织的能力建设。
为此,《中国发展简报》试图将两位志愿者的个人故事呈现出来,看看她们远赴非洲之前,经历了怎样的心路历程。 同时,我们还采访了VSO的中国首席代表李国志,
他就VSO近年来的战略转型、新的全球和在华定位、以及向海外派遣中国志愿者的开创性举措等议题进行了阐释和说明。 中国民间志愿者试水非洲社区,标志着中国的视野更为开阔向外,不只是盯着政商经贸往来,也开始关注国际发展,在国际层面承担社会和谐的责任。 中国将通过刘洁、万方这样的民间志愿者的交往,带给世界更为持久的价值。
对VSO国际志愿者刘洁而言,从未去过的非洲谈不上什么印象,就着自己的猜测,结合朋友们的言谈,来自非洲的信息还是有些互相矛盾。 原本觉得在那里应该是每天可以看到蓝天白云,能够在美丽的风景下亲近自然,老百姓过着很简单但幸福的日子。 但又有人说,非洲,包括她马上要去的尼日利亚,现在已经是快速发展中的国家,工业化能够带来什么,作为中国人并不陌生。 而石油资源富饶的尼日利亚,逃不出许多发展中国家遭遇过的资源诅咒:资源开发带来的贫富悬殊和社会冲突、动荡和暴力,曾像阴影一样挥之不去。
这些点滴印象都从不同侧面折射出尼日利亚多样化的现实。 3月4日,刘洁启程离开北京远赴尼日利亚,去亲身感受、亲眼验证这些暂时还浮在半空碎片化的印象。
刘洁的工作地点在首都阿布贾北面开车2个小时左右的Kaduna市。 她将在那里的一家本土NGO从事艾滋病防治工作,主要为穆斯林社区的女性服务。 尼日利亚1.5亿人中,艾滋病病毒感染者和患者达300万,大规模的艾滋病流行和死亡,已经成为这个国家苦难的象征。 刘洁此前曾相继就职于全国艾滋病信息资源网络(CHAIN)和全球基金,促进民间组织参与艾滋病防治,并提高民间组织的能力。
相比另一位同期赴肯尼亚的志愿者万方,刘洁成行之前的过程颇有些漫长、坎坷。 去年1月申请通过后开始准备,3月份辞去工作后得到消息,说要继续等待。 后来预计11月份有个机会,于是在9月推掉了自己挺满意的一份短期工作,但赴非计划再度泡汤,最终成行已是2011年的2月。
“从 开始的exciting(激动),到第1次准备出发的panic(惊慌),再到因第1次工作取消的frustrated(挫败感),再到等待第2个工作的 impatient(不耐烦),再到终于可以出发的exciting,我现在的心情竟然是calm(平和)。我自己也奇怪,现在内心怎么会这样的安静?” 刘洁在回复采访问题时,用“戏剧化”来形容其间经历的起伏转折。
和万方一样,刘洁在内心对于此行并非没有困惑。 “那里的文化、习俗与中国甚至亚洲完全不一样,还真不知道到了那里能起到什么作用。”在漫长的等待过程中,她甚至怀疑过自己到非洲是否能真的对当地社区有所帮助,而不是浪费资源和自己的时间。 但在菲律宾经历的两次培训,让她对赴非的志愿者生活更有信心。 这些培训就包括怎样去接纳不同的文化、不同的理念,特别是不同的宗教信仰。
对疾病的担忧也始终萦绕不去。 “心理方面应该早就准备好了,但对疟疾等有些传染病还是很担心。中国人在那里招蚊子,患上疟疾是逃不掉的。”去年,她已经完成了各种必要的疫苗注射。 在今年等候签证期间,她还忙着购买预防性药物,但买不到感染后的治疗性药物。 好在听说要去的地方医疗状况尚可,稍稍放下心来。
在看重家庭传统的中国,个人选择在某种意义上也是家庭的选择,这对独生女的刘洁来说更是如此。 对自己在过去以及现在所做的每一次职业生涯上的重大选择,父母尽管不理解甚至反对,但最终还是尊重了她的决定。 刘洁对父母的开通和支持心存感激,非常自豪。 临近出发前的繁忙中,刘洁的姥姥突然查出癌症晚期,为她的非洲之行又一次添加波折。 行程已定的她尽量抽出时间陪陪姥姥,然后远行。
任何一次选择都有背后的逻辑。 当年从全国艾滋病信息资源网络离职后,刘洁去感染者的组织——爱之方舟做了9个月的志愿者。 感染者在生死之间的坚持,影响到她现在的选择。 “当时做志愿者,觉得自己并不能起到多大的作用,但我的生活中有他们,他们的生活中也有我。这是一种很重要的感受。”现在,有着5年多艾滋病组织工作经验的刘洁,终于觉得自己有能力和资本,借VSO搭建的国际志愿者平台,与遥远的非洲社区分享知识和技能了。
作为“一小撮有激情的理想主义者中的一个代表”,刘洁期待着融入将要工作的社区,和当地人一起学习,一起分享生命,分享技能。 如果时间允许的话,她希望把在国内得到的加强草根组织能力建设方面的经验运用其中。
谈及未来,刘洁称自己是一个胸无大志的人,还没有具体的打算。 “如果到时候当地工作还需要我,而且我的经验在那边也用得上,就计划再做一年。毕竟从项目管理的角度,两年才有可能对项目有个小的回顾。”
30岁正是迈向成熟,却仍有回旋余地的而立之年。 如果处于心无羁绊的状态,还有机会启动人生的又一段选择。 万方,在而立之年,将作为VSO中国海外志愿服务行动的首批志愿者,在3月3日启程远赴肯尼亚,从事为期24个月的志愿服务,为当地一所社区学校提供能力建设支持。
过去6年里从事市场研究和营销,长期以来以志愿者的身份关注并参与公益活动,加上其他一些个人特质,最终使万方成功地成为VSO志愿者。 她要去的这所学校位于距离肯尼亚首都内罗毕3个小时车程的一个小镇上,主要任务是开发课程,提供能力建设支持,针对边缘青少年进行职业技能培训。
“想趁自己还年轻的时候去试试,我不确定老了以后,自己是否还有这样的热情和能力,去更远更艰苦的地方。”在万方眼里,人生就是一段段的旅程,有些人是单色调,自己却想涂抹上多样的色彩,在此过程中体验探索发现和学习分享的喜悦。 利用自己所具备的市场营销的专业知识和技能,能够在非洲做些事情,同时体验不同文化下的工作方式和当地的人文生态,这让她非常憧憬。
“能够参加NGO帮社区做点事情,比在公司追求利润更有吸引力。”此前万方虽人在商界,却一直关注公益。 2007年还曾参加绿色江河在青海格尔木的移民村项目,负责培训、旅游产品开发和垃圾调查。 她的选择有着现实的思想和行动基础,并非简单的寻求体验式的跨界跳跃。
申请VSO国际志愿者初选合格后,万方参加了VSO在菲律宾组织的两次集中培训,来自各国的准志愿者们会在国际化的环境下,接受理念和相关知识的培训。 这也是一个心理的调适期和进入最后选择的过渡期。 这个渐进的过程给一些犹豫者退出的机会,同时使留下者更为坚定。 万方通过培训结识了近40位来自印尼、菲律宾、日本等多个国家,背景阅历各异的国际志愿者们(她称之为“拜把子的兄弟姐妹”),一下子打开了她的国际视野。
“我能不能适应那里的生活?”在VSO举办的相关交流会上,热热闹闹的场景中,万方对朋友们半开玩笑地说。 这不只是问别人,其实也是在问她自己。 据说,VSO的国际志愿者到达非洲,在经历短暂的兴奋之后,现实的落差会使人在头三个月内陷入低落情绪。 其实万方心里对一些情况还不太有底,坦言自己还没有完全准备好。 当地的生活用水和卫生条件,是长期生活在中国大城市的她需要面对和调整的。 此外,如何能够尽快融入当地的社区和文化,也是一个让她感到兴奋的挑战。
当然,随着中国的影响力渐增,各种各样的中国元素对于遥远的非洲,对于很多肯尼亚人而言已经不再陌生。 交流会上,万方向肯尼亚使馆官员表示一到非洲,要尽快学习一点当地的官方语言——斯瓦希里语。 这位官员半开玩笑地说,其实不用了,当地人已经开始学习简单的汉语了。
“这不是我自己人生的第一段,也不是最后一段。”对于远赴非洲可能遇到的各种艰险,万方并没有试图拔高自己,表示并没有期待要去改变世界,给社区带来革命性的变化。 对理想和对新的人生体验的憧憬,是支撑此行的动力,但她更愿意立足现实的目标,在有限度的期待下脚踏实地推动力所能及的改变。 她还想收集有趣的故事,写一本可爱的小书与大家分享。 她还期待自己,能通过非洲之旅对人生有所领悟。
万方赶上了一个全球化的时代,赶上了一个全球化时代的转型中国。 中国的视野更为开阔向外,不只是盯着政商经贸,也开始关注国际发展和社会公平,将通过万方这样的民间志愿者,带给世界更为持久的价值。

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