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Chinese NGOs in Africa are New and Making Some Mistakes but They’re Learning Fast

“Chinese embassy staffs in local countries said we are a non-governmental organization and won’t help us with anything, while many local NGOs and journalists see us as some kind of ‘Chinese government propaganda’ and they’re very rude towards us. It’s so difficult,” said Ms. Zhang, a 50-year-old staff member in a Chinese NGO in Kenya who preferred not to share his full name.

After years of working in the Chinese non-profit sector, Zhang is very frustrated.

“People, especially westerners always discriminate against us and pick on us. Recently, we gave free school bags to local children, and they criticized us for being sexist just because we gave boys blue ones and girls pink ones. We want to do the right thing, but it doesn’t seem like people always appreciate us.”

Her perceptions of how many locals and foreigners often perceive Chinese NGOs and their staff is consistent with a lot of the rhetoric I’ve heard over the years.

For example, when I interview local and international NGO activists and researchers and ask them anything about Chinese NGOs, invariably most dismissive comments like “G-NGOs,” as in government-run NGOs, or that they represent an outdated, “old fashion charity.” And the one that I like the most is that Chinese NGOs and their staff are all part of a “white washing” effort to cover up misdeeds by the Chinese government.

It’s not easy.

We Shouldn’t be Surprised That People are Ignorant. Chinese NGOs Are Relatively New.

The idea of Chinese people going to other countries to do humanitarian or conservation work is a very new concept in our history. After all, up until the late 20th century, China itself was among the world’s poorest countries. So, for much of our history we’ve been guided by a philosophy that dictates to “first take care of self, then family, community, country and finally the world.” Not surprisingly, this mindset has led to most Chinese people to, well, just care about China.

But that’s now starting to change.

In recent years, as China opened up to the outside world and became wealthier, a growing number of people have become more interested and concerned about critical issues abroad. And as more Chinese people travel internationally for business and holidays, there’s greater exposure to the outside world. All of this has led to more people becoming interesting in doing the same kinds of volunteer and charity work that are commonplace among Europeans and Americans.

Now, we’re starting to see more Chinese people, particularly young people, volunteer in Southeast Asia, Africa, and other developing regions; more Chinese companies engaging in legitimate corporate social responsibility initiatives; more Chinese NGOs, even some of those famed “G-NGOs” start to operate overseas and more Chinese people at home respond to calls for donations to support humanitarian and conservation campaigns in Africa and other developing regions.

Following a Well-Trodden Path

The history of U.S. and European aid programs in Africa is littered with waste, corruption, inefficiencies and, well, lots and lots of mistakes. A lot of that learning took place decades ago when globalization was still a new concept. And today, as more Chinese people take their first steps out into the world to do similar work, they’re making a lot of the same mistakes.

The “white savior complex” (that’s arguably still present) has now morphed into a “Chinese savior complex” in movies like Wolf Warrior II. All those U.S. and European vacationers who want to “make a difference” on their two-week holidays doing meaningful “voluntourism” is also now becoming trendy among China’s urban elite. And that whole idea of focusing on what they want to give rather than what people need that has long been common in the U.S. and EU aid efforts is, indeed, becoming increasingly pervasive in China too.  

Don’t get me wrong. Just as most of those European and American volunteer and aid workers weren’t motivated by bad intentions, neither are the Chinese who are now going abroad to do this kind of work. They haven’t read books like “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo or graduated with an advanced degree in international development.

I’ve met a lot of these people and I can tell you their intentions are good but they still have to learn about sophisticated, modern day NGO work:

  • “I made my profession in Kenya, I want to give back to society,” said a Chinese company leader in Kenya, after donating to local orphanages.
  • “I just love to see the kids smile,” said Zhiyang, a Chinese university volunteer who raised funds to build two small schools in Kenya slums.
  • “I never learned to become a professional NGO worker. My major was art. But I just want to help people get out of poverty,” said Zhang, the frustrated aid worker I mentioned earlier.

I’ll be the first to admit that not all of the charitable work that Chinese NGOs and their staffs are doing in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa is always very good. In fact, a lot of people would even say they’re not doing anywhere near enough. And, we should also be upfront about saying that not all of the work is even motivated about helping people in need but about putting a shine on China’s global image. So, yes, critics of some of China’s G-NGOs are partially correct.

But just as it was 30, 40, 50 years ago when Americans and Europeans ramped up their humanitarian programs and went out into the world, we too are just starting now to do the same. And just as they improved, we will too. But it will take time.

Cut Us Some Slack

If we want to solve of the world’s most pressing problems from climate change to poverty and, yes, to viral pandemics, then China and, more importantly, Chinese civil society will have to be part of the solution.

And that means we need to encourage Chinese people to devote their time, money and energy to supporting these causes and giving them the chance to make mistakes and learn from those experiences.

But we need time and, more importantly, a bit of space to move within. But I’m becoming increasingly worried that may not be possible in today’s polarized world.

“No matter what we do,” goes the thinking among a growing number of Chinese people considering development work, “the anti-China sentiment in the U.S. and Europe is so strong and they’re so good at the PR war that a lot of local people [in Africa] often have a lot of negative perceptions about us.”

I’ve heard this complaint from Chinese people more and more over the past few years, and they’re becoming increasingly defensive, doubting that “good heart will eventually be recognized”.

As the founder of an organization promoting global citizenship education in China, I have to admit that I’m a bit discouraged about this trend. While I will continue to encourage them to embrace the outside world, become more focused on international development and learn how to work according to internationally-recognized standards, I also think it’s equally important that others give them a chance as well.

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