New Frontiers In China’s Third Sector Development: Strategizing For Effective Advocacy

China Development Brief, no.43 (Fall 2009)

中文 English

Given the growing collaboration between the government and both international and Chinese NGOs in recent years, he sees more opportunities for advocacy networks to shape policy, particularly in the areas of environmental protection and social development (e.g. education, poverty alleviation and health). These are areas consistent with the government’s own development agenda which he argues is the most important consideration when strategizing for effective advocacy. Advocacy is also more likely to be effective if it is based on concrete experience, technical know-how and scientific study. Finally, Noakes recognizes that Chinese NGOs are often seen as lacking the capacity to serve as effective partners in advocacy networks, and recommends that international donors and NGOs do more to strengthen the skills and attitudes of Chinese NGOs to serve as effective local partners.

Recent years have witnessed an explosion in the sheer number of NGOs in China, as well as important renovations to the institutional space they have come to occupy. The privatization of state assets begun during the 1990s left behind a vacuum for many of the services previously provided by government agencies that needed to be filled. Meanwhile, the break-neck rate of growth experienced by the Chinese economy, especially in the eastern coastal region and Pearl River delta, has created a niche for non-profits having technical expertise in certain areas to assist the government in addressing key development challenges.

These trends have led not only to more vigorous exchange between Chinese organizations and their international partners, but the enhanced engagement of both with Chinese authorities. Third sector expansion is furnishing new opportunities for NGO participation in the policy process through more direct consultation with the state, opening the door for issue advocacy networks, comprised mostly of international NGOs (INGOs) and a few of their domestic counterparts, to play a more active role in public decision-making.

But not all advocacy campaigns are influential. On the one hand, the central government is highly responsive to the needs of the Chinese people, and mindful—indeed, even welcoming—of input from external sources. On the other hand, it has remained selective in the policy advice it adopts. What then determines whether NGO networks in China become effective as advocates? Why are some apparently more successful than others? What, in other words, explains the variable policy influence of groups in China’s emergent advocacy community, and what, if anything, can groups in that community do to help ensure their success?

China’s Burgeoning Third Sector and Its International Supporters

The rise of China’s third sector owes more than a little to the support of foreign actors. Though they often work together on matters of common concern, a distinction needs to be made between the nearly 6000 INGOs working in China (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Greenpeace) and the large number of domestic groups built with the help of foreign donors that include INGOs and grant-making agencies (like the Ford Foundation or Carter Centre), as well as several national governments.[1]

Due to the lack of uniform reporting standards and differing goals of aid providers, measures of international assistance to China’s third sector are invariably crude. However, some general trends can be identified in who gives what, and for what purpose.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the main clearinghouse for information on foreign aid expenditures, the Japanese led the way in terms of gross bilateral assistance to China in 2007, supplying nearly three times as much as any one else at roughly 1.25 billion USD. Most of this money has been spent on economic restructuring, and to some extent, reform of the Chinese legal system for compliance with international standards. This has included, among other things, the provision of formal legal training for judges in order to facilitate smoother investment by Japanese companies. Germany, France, the UK, and Spain round out the top five donors for 2007, providing about 450, 200, 140 and 81 million USD respectively.[2]

The OECD also details specific provisions for “governance and civil society aid,” which are typically funds aimed at NGO capacity building and promoting cooperation with government through the creation of consultative fora and numerous village-level deliberative democracy experiments. The United States is the leading benefactor in this regard, giving just short of 12 million USD in 2005. Significant contributions have also come from the European Commission and Canada, (who gave an estimated 10.5 million apiece in 2005) and Australia (who gave 4.9 million) that same year.[3] However, not all civil society aid comes in the form of a direct cash grant to Chinese NGOs. For example, the Canadian government makes funds available for projects to be implemented jointly by Canadian or international experts and parallel organizations on the ground in China. Such arrangements tend to shift the focus of donor policy away from “foreign aid” in the conventional sense toward technical cooperation that helps build the capabilities of Chinese organizations and affords the Chinese government greater ability to direct assistance where it sees fit.

A good deal of external support for civil society also comes from multilateral agencies. In addition to providing direct financial assistance for specific project initiatives, the World Bank has been an active partner in facilitating internal capacity development and networking among Chinese NGOs since 1995. In 2000, it financed start-up of the China NPO Network, the first organization of its kind, funding several workshops, newsletters and training activities for domestic groups. It has since sponsored a number of international, national, and provincial-level colloquia in order for domestic and international partners to share experiences and information on best-practices.[4]

Further, the OECD indicates that the education and health sectors comprise the bulk of all international spending in China, with much assistance also going towards multisectoral projects that include significant spending on environmental and social development programs. Taken together, these areas stand out as particularly vibrant and deserve special mention as having been instrumental in offsetting some of the externalities associated with China’s modernization. As areas of closest cooperation with government, they present the some of the strongest possibilities for NGO networks to engage in issue advocacy.

NGOs in China’s environmental sector have performed important consciousness-raising and agenda-setting functions. Groups like Roots and Shoots, (a Chinese NGO operating under the umbrella of the Jane Goodall Institute) have focused attention on the need for environmental citizenship training, working in the classroom with Chinese students to promote environmental stewardship among future generations. Due to the resulting increase in attention to ecological concerns, other organizations have succeeded in partnering with the Chinese government to support the interrelated causes of biodiversity and ecosystem health. The World Wildlife Fund is among the most active and visible in this area. Wang Limin, Deputy Conservation Director at the organization’s Shanghai office, attributes the success of its biodiversity campaigns primarily to the input of scientists and technical experts who were simultaneously able to assist local and provincial authorities in providing public goods such as safe, clean drinking water.

A second major area of focus has targeted economic and social development. These are usually poverty alleviation and educational programs, but many also focus on providing basic infrastructure such as improvements to plumbing, roads, schools, and hospitals. Many also seek to open new markets by providing assistance to struggling farmers or entrepreneurs in relatively underdeveloped rural areas. The Chinese government has been an active partner in these efforts, particularly in the new market initiatives in resource-rich parts of western China where local people may lack the training necessary to perform the kinds of jobs required if those local economies are to take off.

Finally, in partnership with foreign donors and grassroots groups, the Chinese government has made major strides toward eradicating treatable, preventable illnesses. While this effort has generally not been acknowledged outside China to the extent warranted, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, diphtheria, and hepatitis have all been on the decline thanks to cooperation between INGOs and the authorities, as vaccines and clinical care have become more widely available outside large cities. There have also been major improvements in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, as both foreign and domestic NGOs have pushed for sexual education and the provision of supplies such as clean needles and safer blood transfusions in affected regions.

Navigating the Institutional and Organizational Terrain

Foreign assistance has helped advocacy in some respects and hindered it in others. Like third sector growth itself, advocacy around various issues is led overwhelmingly by INGOs, while domestic NGOs primarily restrict their activities to service provision. This is due to the fact that, despite the good intentions and best efforts of donors, the internal capacities of Chinese organizations have lagged well behind those of their international confreres. On occasion, situations have arisen where Chinese organizations in dire need of internal capacity development have benefitted less directly from aid programs than relatively experienced and professionalized INGOs. And funding levels out of sync with the number of Chinese NGOs who can execute aid strategies or competently liaise with government officials compound the challenges of effective advocacy.

Some observers have pointed out that many domestic NGOs in China face low levels of transparency and accountability, and consequently are not always assets as part of a larger issue network. Anecdotal reports from the field also suggest a considerable amount of infighting among Chinese NGOs who must learn to work towards common goals in a more cooperative and civil fashion.

At least in part, this conflict is created by foreign donors themselves. Funding for a given project normally goes to Chinese partners who are articulate, western-trained, and English-speaking because donors find them easier to work with.

But the number of reliable and committed Chinese partner organizations has not progressed at the same rate as foreign funding. Those that have reached a functional level of professionalization are thought to be a tiny fraction of the total NGO population—perhaps just a few thousand groups. As a result, aid often flows to the same recipients over and over again, causing some Chinese partners to over-commit themselves to multiple international stakeholders, and projects to suffer as a result. Some international practitioners also report a tendency for some grassroots NGOs to exaggerate their internal capacities, due largely to stiff competition in grant-making processes.

Additionally, with international funding on the increase, the temptation for domestic recipients to take advantage may be very strong. In a large proportion of new NGOs, foreign support can make up some or all of their operating budgets, effectively turning non-profit work into a for-profit enterprise. There is also substantial risk that the scale of foreign support could outstrip the absorptive capacities of domestic organizations leading them to become donor-dependent instead of more self-sufficient. However, few other viable funding sources are available to most Chinese NGOs at the moment.

Beyond issues of organizational capacity, there are several other factors determining whether NGO networks become successful policy advocates. One major possibility centers on the characteristics of the external environment in which these groups operate. The configuration of Chinese institutions, relationships between the Ministry of Civil Affairs and local Civil Affairs bureaus, the availability of resources in other government offices concerned, or in outside stakeholder organizations can all affect the outcomes of advocacy campaigns.

Moreover, while the growth of NGOs over the last decade offers compelling evidence that China’s reforms are providing new actors room to cooperate with government, these changes are not yet complete, and NGO networks must contend with the uncertainty of a system that is not optimally equipped to handle them.

Opportunities for advocacy are limited by the fact that the concept of NGOs has yet to gain wholesale acceptance in China. Nor are the functions of NGOs generally well-understood by the Chinese public. As recalled in a 2008 report by the Swedish International Development Agency, the term non-government (feizhengfu zuzhi) has sometimes been perceived as anti-government in the Chinese context, a conviction that has yet to be entirely shaken.[5] Coupled with a historic and not completely unfounded suspicion of foreign intentions, this makes the going rough for many would-be advocacy groups, whether they are INGO-led networks, or simply domestic groups assisted through international funding schemes.

While the loosening of official requirements for domestic NGOs has led to the registration of some new organizations without the required sponsor in some cases, the corresponding lack of an enabling legal framework for dealing with INGOs sometimes creates difficulties for foreign groups seeking access to Chinese institutions and partners. Where access is granted, it is often determined by a pre-established level of trust, built on long-standing personal connections, between representatives of the INGO and well-placed officials in the relevant government agency. This works to the detriment of foreign groups without any prior connections to the government, and hammers home the importance of cultivating solid Chinese contacts before launching their programs.

Making Advocacy Work

Each of these factors is certainly relevant, but the weakness of institutional, organizational, or “supply-side” conditions for effective advocacy suggests that success in this endeavor has far more to do with the “demand” for certain policy prescriptions at certain times than it does with the internal capacity of networks themselves, or the resources available to them. Professionalization and financial solvency rarely hurt, of course, but do not provide any guarantee that NGO networks will gain the state’s ear. Rather, policy input from outside sources is much more likely to be accepted when it directly speaks to the government’s established development agenda by addressing the twin themes of maintaining social stability and economic growth. (Occasionally, this demand also comes in response to unforeseen or unanticipated events like natural disasters, as illustrated by NGO involvement in the 2008 Szechuan earthquake recovery effort).

Put another way, NGO networks may be more influential where overlap with state goals leads to mutually beneficial outcomes. This is precisely why the areas of environmentalism, social development, and public health have seen the strongest level of state-NGO cooperation.

One important caveat is that effective advocacy is much more likely if it is based on concrete experience, technical know-how and scientific study. This tends to make any advice given seem more objective and impartial. Advocacy that comes packaged in ideologically-motivated rhetoric is almost certain to be rejected, a fact that creates problems for some groups with explicit U.S. government backing which can sometimes be more a liability than an asset.

But even the most unbiased expertise is ultimately unimportant if there is simply no demand within government for a given set of recommendations. From a practical standpoint, this implies that the most important thing activists can do to become successful is tailor their goals to government priorities, as opposed to telling the government what its priorities should be. This applies as much or even more to foreign groups as it does to domestic ones. Besides forging deeper Chinese connections, it is the most pivotal thing they can do ensure the government considers their advice.

That is not to say, of course, that a few further systematic modifications would not allow advocacy networks to serve the practice of governance in China the best it can. Greater attention should be paid to cultivating the skills and attitudes needed for fledgling Chinese NGOs to serve as viable local partners, and foreign assistance programs should be tailored to ensure grassroots groups reap direct benefits in the form of coaching and training. Notable strides have already been made in this regard by Zhuang Ailing, who runs the NPO Development Centre in Shanghai. Since 2004, her organization has offered professional development training to non-profits, focusing on capacity-building, accountability, and collaboration among these organizations.

Donors should also do more to prevent aid projects from being double-funded, or activities from being duplicated, two problems that have gone unaddressed for far too long. One possible fix would involve the establishment of a project database that is open and accessible to all stakeholders, in order to better track flows of financial support. Building China’s philanthropic sector would also assist in creating a home-grown base for NGO financing in the long term. In particular, the enactment of charity legislation would help create a more sustainable institutional framework for the third sector.

Though the number of organizations involved remains relatively small, refining the techniques of advocacy promises a great deal for tackling the practical challenges of governance in a climate of rapid reform, and presents a more collaborative approach to China’s development agenda. For government, advocacy offers access to useful knowledge and expert advice that allows it to govern with greater efficiency and responsiveness. For foreign and domestic NGOs who have the necessary expertise in priority areas, it holds the potential for more meaningful participation in public management, and perhaps an opportunity to shape policy discussions or even their outcomes.

[1] Though not all domestic NGOs benefit directly from foreign funding, their total number likely exceeds 300 000 (the Ministry of Civil Affairs reported 280 000 registered as of 2005), while the number of unregistered groups in China may number as many as 1.2 million. See the European Commission’s “Evaluation of EC Cooperation and Partnership with China, Country Level Evaluation,” (2007), p. 90.

[2] These figures are based on 2006-07 data, the most recent available. See OECD aid-at-a-glance chart for China, 2008, retrieved from (August 9, 2009).

[3] These numbers reflect calculations by the author based on 2005 OECD spending estimates and program information from the donors. However, the myriad purposes for which governance and civil society aid is used and the attribution of third sector growth specifically to these funding schemes, (as opposed to other aid programs channelled through non-profits in general), makes the task of measuring their impact especially difficult.

[4] “The World Bank and NGOs in China” (2006) retrieved from,,contentMDK:20600359~menuPK:1460599~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:318950,00.html (August 8, 2009).

[5] “Emerging Civil Society in China: An Overall Assessment of Conditions and Possibilities Available to Civil Society and its Organizations to Act in China,” retrieved from, April 4, 2009.

Stephen Noakes
中国第三部门的兴起,国际机构/组织的支持是不可忽略的一个因素。尽管这些支持方往往就共同关注的议题进行合作和推动,但还是有必要对在华活动的国际NGO(如盖茨基金会、绿色和平)、众多在包括国际NGO和赠款机构在内的国际资助方(如福特基金会、卡特中心)支持下发展起来的国内组织,以及对华提供援助的政府机构之间做出区分。“并非所有国内组织都直接受助于国际资金。正式登记的国内组织数量可能超过30万家,而其他未正式登记注册的组织数量可能多达120万。” 欧洲委员会欧盟与中国合作伙伴关系国家级评估报告[EB/OL],2007:90.
根据全面掌握国际援助信息的经合组织(OECD)的报告,日本在2007年对华援助为12.5亿美元,位居各国对华援助之首,是位居其后的德国对华援助额度的3倍左右。日本对华援助大部分用于中国的经济结构转型,有一些用于改革法律制度以符合国际标准,这部分资金包括对法官进行正式培训,以改进日本企业在华投资环境。日本与德国(对华援助4.5亿美元)、法国(2亿美元)、英国(1.4亿美元)和西班牙(8100万美元)占据了2007年对华援助榜单头5位。OECD对华援助一览表(2008)[EB/OL],August 9, 2009.
同时,OECD还给出了用于“治理和公民社会援助”的具体条款的信息。通常这类资金用于NGO能力建设,通过论坛以及大量的村级基层民主试验来推动与政府的合作。美国在这方面是最大的资助方,2005年的资助额度接近1 200万美元。欧盟和加拿大在这个领域也有相当投入(各自大约资助了1 050万美元),澳大利亚也资助了490万美元。这些数字是报告作者根据OECD 2005年 支出和资助方的项目信息算出来的。然而,和通过非营利部门的渠道提供的资助不同,由于“治理和公民社会援助”资金用途多样,以及难以将此类援助与对中国第三部门成长的影响具体对应起来,要就双边援助对中国非营利部门产生的影响进行衡量非常困难。 然而,并非所有的这类资助都直接以现金形式投入中国NGO。例如,加拿大政府向由加拿大或国际专家与中国的类似机构共同执行的项目提供资金,这样的安排将资助方的政策从常规意义上的“国际援助”转向帮助中国组织进行能力建设的技术合作,也使中国政府有了更大的能力将援助用于它认为合适的地方。
多边机构也对公民社会提供了相当的外部支持。除了对具体的项目活动直接提供资金外,1995年以来,世界银行在推动中国NGO能力建设和合作方面很积极。2000年,世界银行资助了NPO信息咨询中心,这是第一家为NPO提供能力建设的组织,还资助了国内组织举办了几次研讨会,以及举办通讯和培训活动。世行还为几个国际、国家以及省级层面的学术研讨会提供了赞助,以便国内和国际合作方共同分享最佳实践的经验和信息。世界银行和中国的NGO(2006)[EB/OL], ,2009/08/08。
此外,OECD的 报告表明,对教育和健康领域的资助构成了所有国际对华援助的大头,也有相当的援助投入了多部门合作,包括环境和社会发展项目在内。这些项目投入到相关的领域,对抵消中国的现代化过程产生的一些负面的外部性影响起到了特别值得关注的重要作用。这些国际援助与政府最密切合作的领域,也是NGO联合进行议题倡导具有最大可能性的地方。
环境NGO在 提升公民意识和议程设置上起到了重要作用。像珍·古道尔研究会下面的“根与芽”,关注公民的环境意识,在中国的下一代群体中进行环境教育和责任培养。出于对生态问题的关注日益增加,其他组织在与政府合作支持有关生物多样保护和生态系统健康的议题方面也有成功的经验。世界自然基金会(WWF)是其中最活跃和引人关注的组织之一。WWF 中国项目实施副总监王利民将WWF生物多样性项目的成功之处主要归结为科学家和技术专家的投入,他们协助地方政府提供安全清洁的饮用水等公共产品。
国际对华援助的第二个主要领域是经济和社会发展,通常是扶贫和教育项目,但也有很多项目的重点是在基础设施建设,如改厕、道路、学校和医院建设等方面。还有很多资金用于在欠发达的农村地区,通过向艰难的农民或者企业主提供支持以打开新的市场。中国政府在这些方面均积极配合,特别是在资源丰富的西部地区打开新 的市场方面非常主动,因为一旦这些地区的经济开始起步发展,当地人将面临缺乏培训以满足所需的就业技能的问题。
但 是能够进行合作并胜任有加的本土组织在数量上还无法与国际资金的投入量相匹配。在本土组织中,能够达到相当的专业化程度的组织只占少数,结果资金总是重复流入到同样的能力较强的组织,使一些组织超出自身的能力去承接来自各方的资助,致使项目执行效果受到影响。一些国际业内人士也报告说,一些草根组织有夸大 自身能力的倾向,很大的一个原因在于争取资助过程中存在的激烈竞争。
更 有甚者,在国际资助增加的情况下,对受助方而言,这种机会的诱惑可能是很强烈的。在相当比例的新成立的组织中,国外资金支撑了部分或者所有的预算,(容易使它们)将非营利变成营利性活动。另外也带来了一个相当大的风险,即由于国际资助的规模超过了国内组织对资金的吸纳能力,使它们养成资助依赖而非尝试自给 自足。当然,目前对大多数中国(草根)NGO而言,除国际资助外,很难有其他可行的资金来源。
由于NGO的概念还没有在中国获得全面接纳,NGO的功能总体上也还没有获得公众的普遍理解,因此开展倡导活动的(成功)机会还很有限。正如瑞典国际发展署在其2008年报告中所回顾的,“非政府”在中国的语境里面有时候还被误读为“反政府”,这种观念至今仍未被完全摆脱。兴起的中国公民社会:公民社会及其组织行动的条件和可能性总体评价[EB/OL],, 2009/04/04. 加之由于历史上就存在、延续至今对国际意图并非完全捕风捉影的疑虑,使许多有意从事倡导的团体,无论是国际NGO领导的联合,还是单由获得国际资金支持的本土倡导组织,都面临坎坷之路。
当 然这并不是要否认,一些进一步的制度调整能够使倡导性的联合行动尽可能有效地帮助政府改进治理。更多的注意力应该放在帮助作为地方伙伴的本土组织成长,帮它们培养适宜的技能和态度,外部援助也应该做出调整,使草根组织能够从培训和辅导中直接获益。庄爱玲领导下的上海映绿公益事业发展中心在这方面取得了长足 的进步。她的机构为非营利组织提供专业的发展培训,主要集中在能力建设、问责和组织的合作等方面。
尽 管目前倡导性组织在数量上还相对很少,在快速变革的时代,改进倡导的技能对应对治理的现实挑战将助益良多,也能为中国的发展议程提供更多的合作途径。对政府而言,倡导提供了直接有用的知识和专业建议,能帮助政府更为有效地回应治理国家的需求。对在某些重点领域拥有必要的专业技能的国际和国内NGO而言,它们具备了更有意义地参与公共管理的潜力,以及影响决策讨论甚至决策结果的可能机遇。
[作者Stephen Noakes是加拿大皇后大学(Queen’ s University)博士研究生,复旦大学国际关系与公共事务学院2009年度访问学者。付涛译]

Stephen Noakes is a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University in Canada and was a visiting scholar at Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs in 2009.

Translated by Translated into Chinese by Fu Tao, CDB Editor

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