Increased grassroots engagements will help Chinese NGOs blaze new trail
Increased engagements and people-to-people exchanges, especially between non-governmental organizations from China and Africa, have given a new dimension and perspective to what Africa and the rest of the world thinks about China.
Taking a cue from the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000, many Chinese companies are spreading their wings in Africa and are fast becoming vital parts for Chinese NGOs.
Chinese NGOs have ensured that their activities are broad-based and cover important segments like healthcare, environmental protection and education. Prominent among them are the China NGO Network for International Exchanges and the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. Several national and regional commerce chambers like the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade are also doing projects in Africa. Academic institutions and groups like the Chinese Society of Asian and African Studies are also in the fray.
According to current estimates, there are more than 100 Chinese NGOs in Africa. There are several factors that are unique to these engagements.
Cooperation between Chinese and African NGOs has been increasing in both range and standard. Some Chinese NGOs have launched long-term cooperation with their African counterparts, in areas like disease prevention, AIDS treatment and maternal care.
NGO engagements in poverty alleviation and agriculture have led to an overall improvement in African living standards. Poverty alleviation programs, agricultural technology and management expertise exchanges have blossomed under the aegis of the FOCAC. NGOs like China NGO Network for International Exchanges, Chinese Youth Development Foundation and China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation have been actively working with their African counterparts in this regard.
Human resource training programs between Chinese and African NGOs are now a common feature. China Red Cross and the Chinese Medical Association have teamed up with African NGOs to conduct training courses for Africans and send trained personnel from China to Africa for hands-on support. Environmental protection is another new area of engagement.
The support of the Chinese government has been the major driving force for Chinese NGOs in Africa. After the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the FOCAC held in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2009, more people-to-people groups have sprung up and most are organized by NGOs.
Some state-owned enterprises and private businesses are extending financial support to Chinese NGOs in Africa. They could well provide an alternative financial channel for the NGOs.
Compared with Western NGOs in Africa, Chinese NGOs have some advantages, as well as shortcomings. China and Africa share a long-term and friendly relationship based on respect and equality. Africa has a positive image of China and has been generally supportive toward Chinese corporations and NGOs.
However, because of the differences in language, culture, political system and concepts, Chinese NGOs often find it difficult to get involved in Africa.
Western NGOs have been in Africa for a much longer time with extensive networks. They have a better knowledge of the local society and thus find it easier to get involved in the local community.
At the same time, Chinese NGOs are facing a shortage of international talent, especially those who are familiar with African languages, religions, social customs and the international operating mechanism for NGOs.
More than 1,000 Chinese students go to study in Africa every year, mostly with their own money. Chinese students are studying in universities across South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Kenya.
Hundreds of teachers are also in Africa teaching Chinese. These overseas students and language teachers have a good knowledge of the local community and some are willing to work and live in Africa on a long-term basis. They are a crucial driving force for Chinese NGOs in Africa.
There are now more than 3,000 Chinese enterprises in more than 10 African countries and countless small private businesses. They are becoming more localized and will be an important support for Chinese NGOs. Some have registered social organizations and chambers of commerce in Africa, while NGOs have set up branches on a permanent basis.
As the subjects of China-Africa relations become more diversified, a more grassroots approach will be needed, and this will lead to a further diversification of the objectives and interests of Chinese NGOs in Africa. While this is a positive sign, it can sometimes collide with China’s national strategy in Africa.
The new challenge will be how to guide these NGOs to prevent such a collision. China needs to pay more attention to the efficiency of China-Africa people-to-people exchanges, to get more people involved and to lay a firm foundation for the sustainable development of bilateral relations.
The author is the dean of the Center of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
(China Daily 04/26/2013 page7)