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NGOs' role evolves in changing China

By Meng Jing (China Daily)

15:05, May 12, 2012

(Photo by Li Min/China Daily)

Giving back to the community and charity are the common tag lines used globally to identify non-governmental organizations. But that may soon change as organizations in China are fast reshaping the role and definition of NGOs in modern times.

Here is how that could soon be a reality. In the foreseeable future, farmers from Africa may soon find that high-yield rice seedlings, being developed jointly by the Chinese government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, may help the continent stave off most of its hunger problems.

Rather than funding projects to tackle China's hunger challenge, much like what the Rockefeller Foundation did about 30 years ago, the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has opted to work with the Ministry of Science and Technology to help Chinese scientists find solutions to food problems in other developing nations.

"China has progressed rapidly to something that is in-between a developed economy and developing economy. It is now willing to do things for others and becoming better at it. We consider China an integral partner in our endeavors to help the not so well-off nations," said Ray Yip, chief representative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in China.

By the latest count, there are about 2,000 international NGOs operating in China. Like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, many NGOs are watching with close interest the pendulum swinging slowly from receiver to donor in China.

Experts, however, said that the role of global NGOs in China is poised for even more changes as the nation transitions from the "upper middle income" economy to a "high income" economy over the next 15 to 20 years.

Technology transfer

Experts from the nonprofit sector feel that global NGOs in China will be more focused on technology transfer rather than financial assistance. Such a shift will not only shape a stronger civil society in China, but also create more Chinese organizations willing to be a part of sustainable development efforts across the world, they said.

Though China is still a developing nation, it no longer receives funding from many bilateral and multilateral agencies such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In November, the fund froze payments for several of its projects in China, which till then was one of the biggest recipient nations.

Government aid from other richer nations such as the United Kingdom and Australia, the other major source for international NGOs' China operations and Chinese grassroots NGOs, has also been steadily shrinking.

According to the latest statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, official development assistance to China from developed countries has shrunk from about $1.37 billion in 2008 to $703 million in 2010.

China's growing economic prowess, and the successful hosting of several big-ticket events such as the Olympic Games in 2008 and the Shanghai Expo in 2010, have to some extent contributed to the changed global mindset, said Wang Ming, director of the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing, adding that it is no longer money that China needs the most.

China's private donations exceeded 10 billion yuan ($1.59 billion) for the first time in 2006, and jumped to 103.2 billion yuan in 2010, according to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Part of the reason why the coffers have not been strained is the growing number of rich people in China and Chinese foundations.

"Rather than money, what China needs is the knowledge and skills that international NGOs have learned through decades of global practice, especially at a time when the government wants to play a more proactive role in global issues," Wang said.

Starting this year, China has released various positive signals in social development, including easing the registration regulations for social organizations, which is considered by many as a "breakthrough" in China. Several global experts including John Fitzgerald, the China representative of the Ford Foundation, have welcomed the initiative and expressed the hope that it will strengthen the social sector further.

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