Archive for the ‘Rural Development’ Category

Yup, rural China is still out there

August 15, 2011

It’s hard to believe I’m already nearing the three- month mark for my return to Beiijing.

Near a Teach For China placement school. I admit I didn't take it, but pretty nonetheless...

Work at Teach For China has been pretty exciting thus far; the work is really fast-paced, the office full of smart and motivated people rushing around in an attempt to get too much done in too little time. My first grant proposal, written frantically in my first week of work, unfortunately failed; the Canadian Embassy’s charitable fund decided this year to focus on women’s empowerment. However, the mild disappointment at this has been almost completely lost in the flurry of other new and exciting work. The Development team’s fall fundraising campaign is starting in earnest next week, and I’ve recently been anointed manager of Teach For China’s social media campaign. I blame this new gig primarily for my lapse in maintaining regular blog updates; tweeting is considerably more time-consuming than I ever would have guessed, and it’s hard to convince myself to sit and type at a co outer in my free time when I already do it from 9-6 Monday to Friday. In the absence of regular updates here, I instead make a shameless plug for the Teach For China WordPress, which I’ve now been updating with regular stories from teachers’ (called Fellows) lives in Yunnan. I’ve been gathering really great stories from their lives in the boonies, with great pictures to boot.

Though I’ve settled for now back in the big city, I was inspired to write this post the other day by a sudden reminder of my time in Sichuan. Devoted readers will remember Qiu Yukun, my friend in the rabbit-raising business who during my time in Sichuan tried to rope me into scheme of starting a restaurant in his hometown. He continued to try to sell me on this idea right up until I left Sichuan; and I, unsure of how to deal with the situation, continued to give him noncommittal responses right up until when I returned to the US. When I returned to Beijing this time, I sent him a text, but by then he had already switched phone numbers, and I feared I had lost touch with him for good. Then last week I happened to sign into QQ (the Chinese instant messenger) and to catch him online.

It really was quite a stroke of luck that I managed to run into him; Yukun rarely used QQ, and I hadn’t signed into the Chinese chat program since leaving Sichuan over half a year ago. Yukun was ecstatic to find me. When I met him last year he was already married, but I was shocked to hear that, in the time since I had left, his wife had given birth to a son. In the two years since graduating college, most of my friends have started some kind of graduate school, and only a tiny handful have gotten married; in the last couple of months, I’ve been so proud of myself for crossing such major milestones to adulthood like renting an apartment, and having a kitchen with actual pots and dishes. Speaking to Yukun was a jarring reminder of how, in a place like Yilong, Sichuan, real adulthood comes along a lot more quickly.

We exchanged phone numbers again, and since then, he’s called and texted repeatedly, but mostly during work hours and I, guiltily, sent only apologetic text messages in response. Today I happened to be already out the door of the office as his call came through. “Finally, you answered!” he exclaimed, but our exchange of pleasantries was followed by an awkward pause in which neither of us new quite what to say to each other. “When are you coming back to Sichuan?” he asked, and I struggled to find a diplomatic answer. I would, of course, love to go back, but as a real person with a real job now I only get a limited number of vacation days a year, and will inevitably spend many of those visiting family in the US. Yukun seemed equally uncertain of when he would have a chance to return to Beijing—he previously worked here has a migrant worker for several years, but now he has a family and a farm to take care of. “You should hurry back, I can introduce you to a nice girl to marry here too!” he insisted, and rattled off the appealing traits that I must surely be looking for in a future wife. “I know some very pretty ones, very tall, and with light skin!”

The conversation had the same anxious air that I remembered from conversations with him and some of my other friends in Yilong. I’m still the only foreigner he knows, and must still represent his only window into the larger world outside of rural northern Sichuan. As I’ve written about before, Yukun was one of several friends in Yilong who, throughout my time there, was constantly approaching me with new schemes of how we could go into business together. He seemed certain that I was the secret to getting rich quick—either as a source of American investment capital for his restaurant scheme, or simply as a front man who would attract business simply by virtue of being white. Somehow, as a foreigner, I represented an elusive alternative to the rather dismal choice that most young people in rural China face: stay at home and farm for menial gain; or live the hard but comparatively lucrative life of a migrant worker.

Unfortunately, the chances of my becoming the financial backer for his restaurant are pretty slim. I thus attempted to deflect his invitation politely, not wanting to get his hopes up. “I really want to come back to Yilong, I’m just not sure when I will have time,” I urged. Though I really meant it, the words sounded hollow, even to me. I suddenly remembered the attitude he and some of my other friends had taken on the day I left. I had insisted then that I would certainly come back, but many had seemed skeptical; foreigners had always passed through periodically, to teach English, or volunteer with Wokai or another international charity, but then they returned to their own lives. I realized that, just as Yukun was desperate to maintain a link to the outside world through me, so I, a suburban Midwesterner, want desperately to maintain some connection to his world, which I gained access to for a short period of time but even now remain intensely curious about.

I hope you can maintain a friendship on that.

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Nonprofits in the Chinese Context

June 12, 2011

Greetings from Beijing! I’ve been back in the smoggy city for just over a week and just finished week 1 at my new job at Teach For China. Already I’ve hit the ground running, having banged out a whole grant proposal in three days!

One of the most interesting experiences of being back so far though has, strangely enough, been the experience of simply explaining to Chinese people what exactly it is that I, and by extension what Teach For China, do.  Having interned for the organization as well as other nonprofits in China before, I have by this point collected into my Chinese vocabulary quite a number of words for NGOs: “non-profit organization” (fei zheng fu zu zhi 非政府组织), “non-profit organization” (fei ying li zu zhi 非营利组织), “non-corporate organization” (fei qi ye zu zhi 非企业组织), “charity” (ci shan 慈善), “community organization” (gong yi zu zhi 公益组织), etc. Over the past few days I’ve used these words in various succession in attempt to explain to cab drivers, real estate agents, and others what Teach For China is; no matter which term I’ve led with, though, I’ve invariably gotten blank looks until by some combination of synonyms and explanation in more detail of Teach For China’s model I’m finally able to get the point across.

The most interesting encounter so far came over this past weekend while visiting a potential apartment. The owner of the apartment had asked where I worked, and after “non-profit” 非营利组织 and “NGO” 非政府组织 had drawn no recognition, I went with “charity” 慈善. “Oh, you give out charity!” He said, “well you know, most of us Chinese are poor, we all need charity. Where do you hand out charity? Where’s my charity?” It took a good while to explain that the organization doesn’t simply hand out money, but implements a specific program.

Their confusion is, of course, understandable. As the nonprofit sector is still so new (and so tightly controlled by the government) in China, it is not as widely understood by the general public here as it is in the US. After all, it’s only in the last 10 years  that there’s been enough surplus wealth anywhere in China for nonprofit work to be possible. This means that Teach for China’s fundraising efforts (of which I am now a part) can potentially tap into the vast new resources of the recently wealthy in China. On the other hand, this is in some ways much more challenging than fundraising in the US, where large private foundations and corporate social responsibility initiatives operate under fairly well-established rules.  After one week, anyway, I’m excited to see where that takes us.

One Chinese Peasant’s Story of Personal Development, pt. 2

February 26, 2011

Last week I wrote about a friend of mine in Yilong, Yang Taigang, whose search for a new job and source of income fascinated me. I was struck by the way he talked about his own “development” (fazhan 发展), his search for career advancement in a rural environment that provided few economic opportunities.

On subsequent visits to Yang, his development remained a major topic of discussion. He seemed in particular to take meeting me as a tremendous opportunity and peppered me with endless potential cooperative business ventures. He proposed that we open up a Chinese hot pot restaurant in the US; that we export baijiu alcohol or some other Chinese product to the US together; that I could serve as translator for a tour company based at Jiuzhaigou national park. Here, it appeared to me, was a would-be rural Chinese entrepreneur if there ever was one. As I rode along with him on his motorcycle, he frequently stopped to greet people and to schmooze. He seemed to be friendly with everyone we encountered along the road, and went out of his way to pull over and introduce me to them—which was nice, but which made me feel a little bit like a trophy, as if his social capital was increased by his prominent visibility with a foreigner.

The last time I saw Yang left me with a still different impression which puzzled me even more. He had informed me on our first meeting that he had a friend who ran an alcohol distillery and, still thirsting for the blog scoop that had propelled our first meeting, I convinced him to take me to visit it during my last week in Sichuan. When he showed up on his motorcycle that last time to meet me, it was without the usual big grin and friendly greeting that had accompanied our other meetings. Before he would drive me to the distillery he insisted that I come back to his house first; his Internet connection had mysteriously stopped working and he wanted me to attempt to fix it. He was preoccupied, even glum, as he drove me home, failing to make small talk or pitch business schemes as usual.

 

This home belonged to another ARDY volunteer, but it is similar to the house built by Yang Taigang and most families who had earned enough money through migrant work to build one

Yang’s many years of migrant labor had earned enough money to build a concrete, two-story abode of the type that has become ubiquitous in rural China today. Though the bare concrete walls are rather sparse and cold, the structure is roomy and has all of the modern utilities: electricity, gas, Internet (a personal Internet connection is, I believe, still somewhat of an impressive luxury). His wife’s parents occupied the concrete house next door. Yang dropped me on the second floor with his basic Lenovo laptop and then rushed out to meet a friend, with whom he said he was considering starting a small trucking company. Unfortunately, my limited technical expertise was even more curtailed by the Chinese version of Windows. After fiddling around in the network settings for a few minutes, I returned to the ground floor and chatted with his wife while we waited for Yang to return. Yang’s wife had a hard day of farm work ahead of her; it was the end of the fall harvest season, and time for the family’s patch of sweet potatoes to be picked. Suddenly painfully aware of my own frivolous plans for the day, I apologized for whisking her husband away to accompany me. “It doesn’t matter,” she said as she strapped the basket to her back which would hold the sweet potatoes, “He never helps me anyway. I do all of the farm work, I harvest the crops, I tend the pigs, I do everything all by myself, and he never helps. He’s always off trying some new scheme, or looking for a different job.”

 

 

Yang's wife cleaning fish

I really didn’t know what to make of this; I certainly had never been privy to Chinese marital troubles before. She chuckled good-naturedly as she complained, though, as if this was something that she had long resigned herself to. “Whenever I need him for help on the farm, he always rushes off somewhere else. Last week he went off to a birthday party for an old army buddy in the county capital. He drank too much and then crashed his motorcycle.” It wasn’t until he returned from his “meeting” that I saw the evidence of this crash, which I had somehow missed at our first meeting that morning. Yang’s right cheek was scraped up and swollen, and he was missing several front teeth. Had he first greeted me with his customary big smile, it would have been obvious.

 

As he drove me back from the distillery, we returned again to his favorite topic. “I can’t just stay around here for the rest of my life, I have to get out, I have to find a way to develop myself outside of my hometown if I’m going to make a living and raise my family.” Though he had already worked for years to provide his family with a home, the pressure to keep supporting them was no less acute. The pressure he felt served, sometimes, to drive him further away from his family, to the chagrin of at least his wife. As I learned that day, furthermore, Yang’s relentless pursuit of his own and his family’s “development” wasn’t without a reckless streak.

 

 

One Chinese Peasant’s Story of Personal Development, Pt. 1

February 21, 2011

My friend Yang Taigang, impeccably dressed as always

I wrote a post near the end of my time in Sichuan about Yang Taigang, the old army buddy of one of the volunteers at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County who took me fishing while wearing a coat and tie. Yang was an incredibly interesting character, and in the few times that I hung out with him besides the fishing trip I took some other notes about him but never managed to write anything after them. I know that for last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to get more into current events with this blog, but I hope the reader will indulge me a turn for the more Peter Hessler-esque this week.

I got to know Yang originally out of some rather strange happenstance—he was passing through Jincheng one day and the ARDY volunteer who had been in the army with him invited him to lunch with us, but beyond the standard comments about me being able to speak Chinese (which by that point I had more or less begun to just tune out), we didn’t speak much. That afternoon was a particularly boring day at the office and, thirsting for new blog material, I took off in search of an alcohol distillery which I had been promised was close enough to reach by foot. I had been walking down the main road off the mountain which Jincheng is built on for about ten minutes when Yang drove by on his motorcycle and pulled over to talk to me. I told him of my plan and he revealed that the distillery was actually much farther away than I had thought, and offered to give me a ride on his way to run some errands. I leave it to the reader to judge the advisability of getting on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a man I just met, but pretty soon we were speeding off down the mountain. I had been driven around on motorcycles frequently since getting to Yilong, but Yang drove even faster than most, and I did my best to conceal how tightly I was gripping the back of the seat with both hands.

After another ten minutes (it would have been really far to walk), we came to the distillery, but it turned out to be closed. Rather than face the prospect of an entire boring afternoon in the office, I accepted Yang’s offer to follow him around on his “errands.” We drove uphill into the next valley, and he revealed some of his back story as he told me his plans for the day. As I discussed in the fishing post, Yang had been in a paratrooper division of the army with my friend and fellow ARDY volunteer, leaving in 1999 to seek work as a migrant laborer. He moved up through the construction hierarchy, finally saving enough money to quit in 2008 and set up his own hot pot restaurant. The restaurant failed, though, and he has been back in Yilong since then planning his next business move. He explained that he was still in the research stage, and had spent a while looking around at what different business options in the area seemed to be working. In particular, a large fish farm on the main road just outside the town of Dingziqiao 丁字桥 had caught his attention, and he was driving over there today to talk with the owner and check it out.

Yang’s voice was full of energy as he spoke, which seemed to be a symptom of his profound impatience with his current predicament. He had been out of work for several months and was itching to get a jump on his next career move. As he shouted to me over his shoulder above the din of the motorcycle, he made frequent use of the Chinese word fa zhan 发展, “develop,” in a way that sounds a little bit strange in English. The term can be used to describe economic and social development, but it can also refer to personal development, whether economic, educational, or in terms of career—to participate in the Bildungsroman of one’s own life. People tell me that I’ve come to China to “develop” myself. “I’m the kind of person that, in this life, has to keep developing. I can’t just stay in the same type of job; I just have to figure out the best way to develop myself.” Yang explained to me.

The fish farm outside Zhouhe, also funded in part through microloans from ARDY

Eventually we reached the fish farm, and I watched him explore this potential option for his development. Unfortunately, the owner wasn’t there that day, and I think we were outside the optimal fish-farming season. Across the street from the farm the land dropped off into an expanse of farmland where a grizzled old man was pounding the earth with a hoe. Yang pumped the man for information about his neighbor, though I followed little of the rambling conversation in Sichuanese that followed. He explained to me later that he had learned that the fish farm was not particularly well run—the owner had failed to make some necessary investments in it and the farm had seen a drop in returns. Yang was apparently disappointed, and had decided that this particular venture was not his ticket to “development.”

I’ll post the continuation of this story later this week

I’m Famous!

January 18, 2011

So I was interviewed a few weeks ago for an article in the People’s Daily about foreigners volunteering in China. I didn’t realize until today that the article had already been published in December, so here it is. I’m just a little miffed at them for picking the other guy for the picture. And for massacring my last name (“Komblun?” *sigh*). The corny title also is a quote from one of the other volunteers they interviewed: “Stories of Foreign Volunteers in China: ‘A Smile Bridges the Distance Between Me and China.'”

Here’s the parts about me, translated back to English from their rough translation of my initial interview responses:

…“I think the person who often benefits most from volunteer work is often the volunteer him/herself, who gets the chance to learn about a new environment, to learn from the people they meet, and to understand a society.” Evan Kornbluh, who graduated from Harvard in the spring of 2009, arrived in China this year.

He taught a year of history at Peking University before starting work this fall with the American microfinance organization Wokai’s rural partner organization, the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. He works with his colleagues to connect donors all over the world with Chinese microfinance borrowers, and to help these borrowers to escape poverty and eventually achieve self-reliance. Besides his daily work responsibilities, he traveled from village to village, recording everything he saw and heard. He wrote about his experiences on the Wokai website, so that American donors could better understand rural China.

More and more foreigners are coming to China to do volunteer work, and as they work alongside their Chinese counterparts they inevitably encounter obstacles relating to language, culture, and way of life.  “Sometimes because I was a foreigner, I felt that people treated me like a child, everytime I would go out I was bombarded with superfluous safety advice,” says Evan. Most of the time, however, foreign volunteers work happily alongside Chinese volunteers, leaving them eager for closer interaction with Chinese young people.

“My Chinese friends and my American friends are not that different from one another, they are familiar with global affairs and eager to learn about different peoples and cultures.” Evan has met many Chinese young people in the course of his volunteer activities, and he believes that “Chinese and Americans can work together and learn from one another as long as they are familiar with and respect one anothers’ cultural differences.”

It’s a fairly faithful translation of what I said, except for the error that I actually first arrived in China in 2009. Can’t argue with free publicity.

The End of Microfinance’s Honeymoon

January 17, 2011

ARDY's Fu Xing branch office

I’m a couple of weeks late, I know, in commenting on article in the New York Times about the recent image issues that the microfinance industry has suffered. The article describes how major microfinance lenders, in particular in South Asia and in Latin America, have begun to come under greater public scrutiny, and even resistance, from the media and from political leaders. In the most extreme example of resistance, the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has banned microloans altogether.

…as with other trumpeted development initiatives that have promised to lift hundreds of millions from poverty, microcredit has struggled to turn rhetoric into tangible success.

Done right, these loans have shown promise in allowing some borrowers to build sustainable livelihoods. But it has also become clear that the rapid growth of microcredit — in India some lending firms were growing at 60 percent to 100 percent a year — has made the loans much less effective.

Most borrowers do not appear to be climbing out of poverty, and a sizable minority is getting trapped in a spiral of debt, according to studies and analysts.

…even as the results for borrowers have been mixed, some lenders have minted profits that might make Wall Street bankers envious. For instance, investors in India’s largest microcredit firm, SKS Microfinance, sold shares last year for as much as 95 times what they paid for them a few years earlier.

The article confirms something that we probably should have known all along–that an organization isn’t necessarily doing good for a community just because it labels itself as “microfinance”–rather, effectiveness is inevitably going to vary by organization and each microfinance firm must be evaluated individually in order to determine its effectiveness. In my experience, the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County is one of the better-run organizations, and its successes carry lessons for both implementing microfinance successfully, and for evaluating the reliability of other organizations.

In the last month of my time in Sichuan ARDY hired an outside software distributor from Nepal to help them install a new data management system–something I’ve blogged about previously here. The two men who came in from Kathmandu to oversee the installation process had been to China several times before to work with other microfinance firms in various parts of the country. When I asked them how ARDY compared to the other Chinese firms they had worked with though, they respondingly responded that ARDY was quite different. Many of the other organizations, it seemed, fell into the same pattern that the article describes as inspiring suspicion. They ran their operations strictly as a business, beholden primarily to the profit motive, and with little concern as to whether their borrowers were really being lifted out of poverty. ARDY, they said, was the only Chinese microfinance distributor they had seen which was really motivated by social goals, and which really worked to change peoples’ economic situations.

As I have discussed previously in this blog, one of ARDY’s really unique characteristics is its organic relationship with the local community. Gao Xiangjun and the other directors all grew up in this community, and have a strong sense of personal dedication to improve it. They know what local inhabitants need and are personally dedicated to providing them with the instructive and material support that they need. However, I was equally impressed by the shrewd business acuity which Gao and her colleagues display in their work. ARDY maintains an incredibly high repayment rate, and reinvests much of its profits from interest back into the organization, such that its lending pool increases each year. How can an organization combine both profit motive and social good?

I think one important element is the need to distinguish profit motive from profit as a performance indicator. ARDY seeks to help local farmers by creating sustainable local enterprises which borrowers will be able to manage and develop themselves. Traditional indicators of business performance, in particular profit, are the best way to determine if borrowers are in fact moving toward financial independence rather than simply accepting handouts. They should also inform the way in which potential microfinance entrepreneurs manage their new enterprises, and ensure that they can eventually turn a profit on their own.

However, in order for these more conventional business practices to be successfully integrated into a community which previously lacked them, they must be combined with an intimate understanding of the community and a willingness to work with borrowers to overcome the greater obstacles that inevitably arise from starting a business in a more extreme environment. When a borrower from ARDY fails to make a payment, a loan officer visits them at their home, and works with them to figure out a strategy for repaying the loan and, hopefully, salvaging their failed business endeavor. Without this sensitivity to local conditions, any organization that treats profit as its bottom line is inevitably going to leave some people behind. Instead, profit motive should inform socially motivated projects, allowing an organziation to meet its social goals within a competitive capitalist environment and with a more efficient use of resources.

How to Talk to Peasants

December 25, 2010

 

Gao Xiangjun speaks at a training session for community leaders

Perhaps the biggest challenges that I faced during my time in Sichuan was, of course, the language barrier. My Mandarin was good enough for most people here to understand what I said, and for me to communicate with very little difficulty with most people who had learned Mandarin at school, but I had great difficulty understanding the more rustic brand of Sichuanese 四川话 that most of the borrowers of the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County spoke. However, it became clear to me by the end of my time in Sichuan that simple language skills were not the only thing standing between me and effective communication with Sichuanese peasants. Had I, miraculously, been some sort of brilliant linguistic scholar with a specialty in rustic dialects, I still wouldn’t have been qualified to help ARDY’s staff and leadership in their grassroots organization and mobilization efforts. This is because effective communication on this level also requires a fluency in the way that Yilong’s peasants see the world and the way that they express themselves, which goes beyond just grammar and pronunciation.

 

ARDY director Gao Xiangjun adopts a particular persona whenever she conducts meetings or training sessions for borrowers or for rural cooperative managers. She speaks slowly and deliberately and explains things in simple, concrete terms whenever possible (which is great for me, because it means I can understand more through the Sichuanese pronunciation). She jokes with them frequently, and allows them to joke back. At a meeting with the rural cooperative directors for the town of Dingziqiao, one peasant was particularly feisty, frequently making wisecracks and interrupting the session.  Gao responded to each wisecrack with “你个狗日的,” which is hard to directly translate into English but approximates some variation of “fuck you”—generally a pretty severe insult, but in context was taken as light-hearted, eliciting no more than another laugh from the audience.

“Do you think this way of speaking with them, half-joking, half-teaching, is natural?” She asked at a training session for ARDY staff, “I’ve developed this over ten years of working with and teaching the people here. As you teach them, you have to keep their interest and their trust, otherwise you lose them.”

 

Community leaders from the town of Le Xing celebrate the opening of a new ARDY branch

Effective communication also requires taking into account the customs of the community. In particular, it requires rather delicate management of the local alcohol culture. It is standard practice to eat both lunch and dinner with a healthy dose of baijiu 白酒, the fierce local hooch that, if you’re lucky, is only 110-120 proof. On many of the occasions that I’ve accompanied ARDY staff and volunteers on trips into the countryside, a morning’s worth of meetings and talking has ended with a big lunch and enough baijiu to bring on a sizable daytime buzz, frequently followed by a lazy afternoon of playing cards and chatting.

 

This habit poses a problem for Gao whenever she holds training sessions for peasants. After one morning meeting a couple of weeks ago, the group broke for lunch and went to a nice restaurant near the office. When asked if the party would be drinking alcohol, as is customary for the peasants, Gao refused, imploring that the group still had important work to do in the afternoon. However, the message didn’t pass quickly enough to the entire wait staff and several tables of peasants eagerly poured pitchers of alcohol before Gao could get a word in. She stood up in frustration, and politely but firmly told the peasants not to drink, an order which they, giggling, ignored. Gao stood in silence and contemplated the situation for a few minutes, before apparently deciding to concede lost territory and resolving to only scold the wait staff, “don’t bring any more alcohol! If you bring more we’re not paying for it.”

 

A training session for Yilong Peasants

At a training session the next day for staff only, she scolded the staff for drinking too much with the peasants. “You go out into the countryside to meet with them and to teach them, not to have fun and party with them.” She acknowledged that this is a delicate balancing act for ARDY staff, however. Social engagement is a necessary part of their work; they drink and play cards with borrowers to build mutual trust and respect.  Without a doubt booze plays an important part of social customs and cannot be completely erased. When ARDY opened a new branch office in the town of Le Xing several weeks ago, the opening meeting was followed by a big banquet for all of the community leaders and organization staff, in which ARDY provided the baijiu.

 

Correspondence with local stakeholders is thus a delicate balancing act. Fluency in local customs allows ARDY staff to build relationships with borrowers and community leaders. However, as Gao seeks to build local capacity she must also confront those elements of local culture which could undermine successful integration with China’s transforming economy.

 

What does the future hold for rural China’s small-scale family agriculture?

December 21, 2010

 

A small family plot

A few weeks ago I posted an entry about the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County’s efforts to organize rural cooperatives in Yilong, and argued that the “problem of scale” is one of the main challenges facing Yilong’s farmers.  Most families occupy the small parcels of land which were redistributed to them after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms broke up the collective farming system in the late 1970’s, amounting to about 2-3 mu 亩, or 1/5 of a hectare, each. While this provides enough land to meet many of the family’s own immediate nourishment needs, it leaves little room for families to produce a surplus that they would be able to sell effectively on the market. Furthermore, each family is traditionally responsible for all of the input costs for their own production, such as their own seeds, fertilizer, and pesticide. The need to meet each of these costs individually means that the marginal profit that each family is able to gain from the sale of surplus agricultural goods is quite small, and the additional costs associated with bringing the products to market—such as transportation—often make commercial farming not cost-effective.

 

Having studied Chinese history in college, my discussion with Gao Xiangjun about the reasoning behind the Rural Mutual Cooperatives made me first think of the historic roots of economic dilemmas that Yilong’s peasants face. After all, the United States had also once been a nation of small-scale farmers. What had happened in the United States that could not happen in China?

Over the course of the late 19th and 20th century, many small-scale American farmers sold their lands and sought urban jobs, leading to the rapid expansion of a small number of farms that were able to manage agricultural production on a large, industrialized scale. However, a number of social and political barriers in China prevent agricultural consolidation in the same way. First of all, under the Chinese government’s current legal property regime, all land is technically owned by the state, while current occupiers of land can only buy and sell long-term leases of the land’s use. This makes buying and selling land for the purpose of consolidation more difficult.

In addition, while a large number of Yilong’s peasants travel to cities annually to find work, a number of barriers make it incredibly difficult for them to move there permanently. Probably the most insurmountable of these barriers is the Chinese hukou system of residency permits, which the government instituted in part to prevent a massive rural exodus that would strain urban infrastructure. Without owning an urban residency permit, which is incredibly difficult or incredibly expensive for non-natives of Chinese cities, it is impossible to get access to urban government services such as health care and education.

Moreover, my experience in Sichuan has taught me not to underestimate the power of Chinese family ties as a guiding social force here. While I have met many people in Yilong who spent many years working outside of Sichuan, often hopping from one Chinese urban center to another in search of work, they all eventually moved back home in order to be close to family. Many people in Yilong are quite confused when I explain to them that my family, not atypically of American middle class families, is quite spread out. My parents live in one city, their siblings with their families and children in different cities, my grandparents in another city entirely. Most of the families whom I have met in Yilong have occupied the same several mu of land for several hundred years and uncounted generations. The idea of permanent dislocation from their ancestral homeland seems for many families to be out of the question.

These barriers to agricultural consolidation raise some interesting questions for the future of economic development in China. Without major overhauls to some of the fundamental underpinnings of the current social and political system, it will be impossible for rural areas in China to follow the same pattern of rural to urban migration and consolidation of farms which worked for the United States and so much of Europe. Only on such large-scale farms does the adoption of more sophisticated farming equipment and chemical fertilizers and pesticides become economically feasible, and thus make possible the huge increases in agricultural productivity which American and European farms experienced during the twentieth century. Can the region continue to grow economically without an increase in agricultural productivity?

 

 

Big Fish in a Poor Pond: Confronting Chinese Rural Poverty from a Position of Privilege

December 15, 2010

I’m famous! Check out this guest post just published on Akhila Kolisetty’s social justice blog, “Justice for All:”

Sorry, not really relevant, but this picture was too incredible not to share

The Making of a Rural Chinese Social Entrepreneur

December 14, 2010

 

Gao Xiangjun leading a peasant training session

It is hard to imagine the existence of the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County without its secretary-general, Gao Xiangjun 高向军.  As one of the first social entrepreneurs in China, she has been navigating uncharted territory since the earliest days when such activities were even possible.  The success of the association up to this point is a testament to her persistence, creativity, and passion for helping her home province.

 

Mrs. Gao, a native of Yilong County, spent most of her career working as a government official. In 1992 she made her first entrepreneurial endeavor, opening a small grocery store to supplement her income as a local government official, which at that time did not exceed 50 RMB a month.

China first started accepting investments from foreign NGO’s in 1987, about a decade after the original start of the Open and Reform movement that spurred the development of a market economy and foreign trade.

Gao travelled to Beijing for the first time in 1995 on her own initiative in an attempt to raise money for a local development project. She spent her own savings to buy the train ticket, despite the high cost and no guarantee of success. Gao chuckled as she recounted the first time she entered the UNDP office to apply for funding. “I was so pretty at that time…I remember the first time I walked into that office, all of their eyes lit up!”  She secured 8 million RMB (about 1 million USD) in funding for development projects in the county. Out of this overall grant, 400,000 RMB was set aside for a pilot microfinance project, and it was out of this funding that ARDY was founded.

 

ARDY headquarters in Jincheng

In her first microfinance initiative Gao closely followed the original model laid out by Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning originator of microfinance. Loans were granted to groups of five borrowers, who were collectively held responsible for the payments of the group. In 2003, however, the program ran into serious problems. Borrowers took advantage of the group model to miss payments, and a lack of accurate, rigorous financial record keeping threatened to bankrupt the association. Gao directed a complete reassessment of the program to figure out the source of the failure. In 2004, the program was launched again with a new plan of operation.  Financial records were much more rigorous, and the system for evaluating loan candidates was overhauled.  The group model was also abandoned in favor of loans to individual families.

 

In 2008, the burgeoning success of the new model was threatened again when Gao contracted cancer.  She spent a year in Beijing, undergoing treatment at one of the best hospitals in the country. “Everything was so uncertain then, we didn’t know if she was going to recover or what would happen,” said Li Shibing 李世冰, the organization’s assistant director.  Her cancer is currently in remission, though Gao often only works half-days in the office as part of a continued rest regimen.

 

Gao visiting the home of a peasant near the town of Dingziqiao

Despite this challenge, the organization has experienced a period of uninterrupted growth since its lending and oversight practices were re-tooled six years ago.  It now works with a yearly lending pool of over 10 million RMB, and has reached more than 3,000 families in Yilong county. Adding in the roughly 2,000 households that have been incorporated into rural cooperatives throughout the county, ARDY reaches roughly 5000 families each year. The program has been so successful, in fact, that the Chinese government has begun using ARDY as a model for promoting both microfinance and grassroots organizing initiatives in other parts of the country.

 

“I have always been an enterprising person,” Gao mused as she told me the story of ARDY’s origins, “it’s because my family is originally from Shanxi, Shanxi people have enterprising personalities.” She was successful, she explained, because “I was always willing to expose myself to new things, to new ideas, to observe and learn from the success of others.  As a public official, one sees problems all of the time, but I was one of the few who knew how to look beyond my surroundings for solutions.”

In the main meeting room of the ARDY headquarters hangs a photograph of Gao smiling alongside Muhammed Yunus, taken at a conference in Bangladesh in 2002. The two of them first met when Gao travelled to Bangladesh to observe Grameen Bank, the first successful microfinance firm, in 1996.