Chinese NGOs exert increasing influence in Africa

DONDO, ANGOLA - APRIL 1: Chinese railway workers interact with villagers while taking a break from work on April 1, 2007 in Dondo, about 200 kilometers outside Luanda, Angola. Chinese companies are building and upgrading two different railways in Angola, and this part is about 500 kilometers long. All the special equipment has been shipped from China and hundreds of workers live in military style road camps. They are moved as the tracks are laid down. Tens of thousands of Chinese has come to Africa the last years to work in infrastructure projects and businesses. Chinese companies are often the lowest bidders for contracts, pricing out the more expensive European companies. The Chinese people often live where they work and rarely interact with the local population. Most Chinese don't speak English and they are mostly staying in the compounds cooking their Chinese food. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

Every year, Wang Ke, CEO of a Beijing-based communication company, spends a big chunk of his time and money in Zimbabwe. There, he holds another identity – founder of a Chinese NGO which is dedicated to preserving local wildlife as well as alleviating poverty.

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times

Founded in 2015, Wang’s NGO brings advanced equipment to the African country to monitor a vast wildlife park and help locals track down poachers.

“Many people criticize the Chinese for smuggling wildlife out of Africa. I want to prove to them that we do care about wildlife and can shoulder the responsibility to protect it,” he told the Global Times.

“But while we are doing the good deeds there, we are still facing mistrust and lack of understanding both within and outside China, as well as competition from Western NGOs,” he added.

Li Xiaoyun, a professor at China Agricultural University, told the Global Times that more and more Chinese NGOs are working in Africa and China is witnessing the third wave of overseas expansion which is led by NGOs.

“The overseas expansion of Chinese NGOs is an important part of globalization and it represents the third wave of China going global,” he said. The first wave occurred between the 1950s and 1970s and was dominated by government actions to help “third world” countries. The second wave started in the 1980s when Chinese businesspeople began to go overseas, Li elaborated.

“In Africa where the government is weak, the position of NGOs is very important … Compared with Western NGOs, Chinese NGOs can provide a selective experience for Africa,” he said.

Caught in the middle

In March, Deng Fei, founder of the “Free Lunch for Children” charity campaign, revealed on his Sina Weibo that the campaign was expanding to Africa. Its first 1 million yuan project was dedicated to children in Kenya. The campaign helps rural children avail healthy lunch.

While most of Deng’s posts on Weibo have few comments, this particular post drew a lot of attention. Many Netizens argued why he was spending money on African children while many Chinese children were starving. Some even said that they wanted to withdraw their donations if the money was sent to Africa.

Deng responded to some of the comments, emphasizing that the domestic donations are used in China. The money for the African project comes from Beijing-based NGO Pearl Humanitarian Rescue Institution and in the future he will raise donations overseas to support projects outside China, he said.

Wang said that it’s not uncommon to meet backlash from some Chinese people. “This can’t be called a problem. The most important thing is you think clearly what you should and must do,” he said.

Besides, Wang is also facing mistrust from African people and competition from some Western NGOs.

“Western NGOs have been active in Africa for decades, while we are newcomers. Some of them think we are there to undercut their work,” said Wang.

Once, local authorities told Wang that a Western NGO had accused them of smuggling elephants to China in the name of protecting wildlife. That NGO even provided authorities a photo of Wang’s plane. “The ironic thing is that the plane in their photo is too small for an elephant,” he said.

Wang’s team also has to overcome the mistrust of locals. Some of them told Wang directly that they thought his NGO won’t stay there for a long time and was there just for “image promotion.” Compared with Western NGOs, local people’s recognition of Chinese NGOs is generally low, according to Wang.

This, he said, is due to a lack of understanding. The West had colonized Africa long ago and the locals are immersed in Western culture. “While many don’t like the West, they still consider the West to be superior. In comparison, they have limited knowledge of China. So they hold a prudent attitude towards us,” he said.

Correct attitude

Wei Jiangang, founder of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, a Chinese NGO dedicated to improving public awareness about LGBT people, is promoting its “Queer University” project in an African country. Queer University aims to empower LGBT groups by teaching them how to produce documentaries to make their voices heard. Besides basic trainings, the project also offers attendees a year’s funding and instruction to complete their visual works.

The project was launched this year in a country where gay sex is illegal, according to Wei. As it is a sensitive topic in that country, he didn’t reveal its name.

According to Wei, he participated in an LGBT-themed meeting hosted in Africa in 2015. There he talked about Queer University with African NGO counterparts. An NGO in that country then invited him to do the trainings.

The NGO helped bring about 10 participants. Money came from a foreign foundation.

“Stepping onto the African continent is beneficial for fostering mutual understanding. Before, it was all about the Western countries spreading their knowledge and experiences. But now we can have this South-South talk which enables us to see each other,” Wei said. He believes that the exchange among the developing countries is more useful as both sides can understand each other better.

The African people Wei’s organization trained felt surprised that China had so many advanced technologies to make LGBT-themed visual works. They found that the interviews with gay parents were particularly instructive.

On the other hand, Wei also thinks his understanding about Africa is too limited. He had developed a stereotypical view of its poverty and backwardness from the media, but now his opinion is changing.

“While gay sex is still illegal, the country’s LGBT NGOs are doing more fundamental things than us. They are even successfully cooperating with some local hospitals. The country is like ‘half sea water and half fire,'” he said.

For Wei, it’s important to have a correct attitude toward charity work in Africa. “Instead of thinking of ourselves as savior, we should know that both sides have useful lessons to learn,” he said. He is considering bringing Queer University to more African countries in the future.

Call for improvement

Li Yinuo is director for China office at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has established partnerships with China’s Ministry of Commerce to carry out pilot projects in Africa on public health and agricultural solutions.

She said a major obstacle is the lack of understanding of China’s development and aid model. “What China has done in Africa is quite different from what is portrayed in the Western media, but there is few channels for the world to know about China’s development assistance in Africa,” she said.

Compared with most NGOs who spend lots of energy writing papers, Chinese are doing more practical things, according to Wang. “It’s their way of doing things,” Wang said. “But there are lessons we can learn from our Western counterparts. It’s undeniable they have more in-depth understanding of Africa and they have more experience.”

Wang is hoping that more Chinese NGOs can join them in spreading their charitable activities to Africa. “China, the world’s second-largest economy, should have the number of NGOs to match that status. We should shoulder more global responsibilities,” he said.

In his eye, this isn’t about “improving the country’s image,” but about doing the right things that Chinese culture also advocates.

At present, most of the money comes from Wang’s own pocket. In two years, he has spent millions of yuan. He told the Global Times that Chinese enterprises and government like to make donations to local people directly instead of donating to an NGO which can help supervise how the money is spent, a model he hopes to change.

Another problem with Chinese NGOs going to Africa is that in China there is a lack of special talents who have good command of local language and culture.

For Chinese followers, Wang suggests that they should get accustomed to African way of doing things, such as, the low speed of the government.

Newspaper headline: Generous outreach