NGOs in China

By Jasmine Qu

Editor’s note: Among many issues created by China’s rapid development, the issue of organizations not controlled by the one-party state has repeatedly emerged. Before “Reform and Opening” the socialist system sponsored and controlled all organizations, whether national, provincial, or local; economic, social, political, or cultural. The recent advent of entrepreneurialism, a freer labor market, a freer press, and the (limited) rule of law has challenged the government to loosen up. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are a particularly interesting phenomenon. They were unheard of before the 1980s. Still in their infancy, they face official suspicion and have no tradition of private philanthropy to tap. In this follow-up article to her account of waste pickers in the November-December issue, Jasmine Fei Qu sheds light on one particular case, and reflects on the difficulties facing China’s NGOs.

The Institute of Contemporary Observation (ICO) is a China-based NGO in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. My two-month internship there in 2006 offered me an opportunity to work with waste pickers as well as a valuable experience inside a Chinese NGO.

In some ways, what ICO has achieved is very impressive. Its name has appeared in major international newspapers because of its expertise on the south China labor movement. Recently, its director was even interviewed by the Brunswick Times Record for a report about Shenzhen city. Besides its reputation as a research institute, it has conducted several projects relating to south China migrant workers, including a Migrant Worker Community College, in cooperation with UC Berkeley, and the waste picker project. It has offered free or low-cost education and vocational training to 3,000 workers. It also provides training programs to factories and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) audits to multinational companies. It is a partner with many famous brands, such as DuPont, Fuji, Xerox and Nokia.

It is not surprising that ICO has received a number of awards from both Chinese and international institutions. In short, ICO is a successful model of a Chinese NGO. It should be a good representative of the emerging Chinese non-profit world.

In 2006, with questions in mind like, “How does ICO work, and what makes it successful?” I went to work for ICO as a summer intern. I mainly worked in the Waste Picker Project, a one-year project, sponsored by the World Bank, aimed at improving the lives of people who sort through refuse. It is one of ICO’s major undertakings.

Although it was a major undertaking by an institute which has more than twelve full-time employees, the World Bank funded it for only $30,000, or $2,500 per month for the whole project. This modest level of support meant that there are things that ICO could not do.

For example, ICO arranged for a group of waste pickers to have physical exams. Serious health problems were discovered. However it couldn’t treat these problems because the funding was not in the budget. Financial limitations also meant that ICO lacked the staffing for follow-up. Staff replacements happened just when project coordinator had worked for a few months, causing the trust just established between the coordinator and waste pickers to collapse.

This problem was exacerbated by the fact that ICO’s operating expenses (such as rent and utilities) as well as expenses on the Migrant Worker Library were not covered by any funding. ICO’s funds only come from oversea resources. Raising money or receiving donations are constrained by extremely tight governmental restrictions.

Financial resources, or their absence, have become a severe issue. Through the study of its history, I discovered that ICO has developed a strategy to deal with this. It has attempted to create as many channels of funding as possible. In particular, it makes money out of promoting CSR. This includes training classes in factories, CSR audits for supply chain factories, and workshops for promotion of the idea of CSR in China. Through these channels, ICO gets money from factories, multi-national companies, and international labor institutions.

However, I wonder whether this solution to ICO’s financial problems will become its principal focus. Will the mission of ICO be altered by this solution? Through interviews of other south China NGOs, I learned that all Chinese NGOs have similar problems. All are funded by foreign sources. Some small ones have only one project based on such funding. Even some large ones, like ICO, can be totally destroyed overnight if they lose financial support from abroad. Survival is the measuring stick of success, and because of the restrictions of fundraising, Chinese NGOs are facing a more difficult challenge than should be the case.

[From March 2007 CAFAM Newsletter]

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