Posts Tagged ‘Development’

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.

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.

My 2 Cents on the “China vs. Egypt” debate (part 1)

March 6, 2011

The new favorite pastime of the Chinese blogger community has become, in the last few weeks, to compare China to Egypt and Tunisia. It’s certainly a topic that’s been heavy in my mind the last couple of weeks, and it’s been fascinating to read just how widely the analysis seems to vary, and to defy easy summary.

I was lucky to attend a hearing hosted by the Congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing a couple of weeks ago which highlighted to me, more than I had previously aware, of just how much domestic anger is bubbling under the surface in some parts of the country. Small, localized demonstrations or protests, or “mass incidents,” as the government calls them, have been ballooning in number over the past decade, and already number over 100,000 every year. Elizabeth Economy from the Council on Foreign Relations gave a vivid example:

“In one case in July 2010 for example, officials in Gangkou, Jiangxi Province, offered to relocate villagers away from a heavily polluted site that had sickened them but provided only minimal compensation. When police beat two female petitioners into a coma, thousands of angry citizens used bricks and stones to smash windows and overturn police cars”

Events often start as small personal grievances, inspired by public health hazards due to environmental pollution, by forced evictions, by unfair labor practices, by official corruption, or any of the other dozen serious complaints of China’s underprivileged. Ham-handed management by the police can easily turn one family’s protest into a village-wide riot. Without a doubt, then, public dissatisfaction is growing, and is leading a disenfranchised population, with no open or transparent way to redress grievances against the government, to act out violently.

However, many scholars and journalists point out that China differs from Egypt in one fundamental capacity: the Chinese government’s uncompromising pursuit of economic growth has raised the living standard of vast sectors of the population and garnered overall allegiance from the all-important growing middle class. Egypt’s economy has grown significantly over the last ten years as well. However, as Evan Osnos summarizes,

“Egypt and Tunisia were vulnerable to unrest not because their economies were ailing, but precisely because their economies had improved in recent years, which only accentuated how far the economic gains were outpacing political liberalization.”

Egypt and Tunisia’s middle class turned against the government because “rising expectations” outstripped the ability of a growing (though increasingly corrupt—not so different from China) economy to deliver on those expectations. Consider a series of public opinion surveys conducted in Egypt by Gallup in the years before the revolution, which found that levels of “life satisfaction and optimism” in Egypt were as low as those in the truly stagnating Palestine. Young people and the middle class, particularly those who expected to do well, were disappointed with their share of the economic growth.

Certainly the economic situation in China is quite different. Economic growth there has been not simply strong, but mind-blowingly fast, and without a doubt has raised the living standards of a vast percentage of the population in the last several decades. What is perhaps more important, though, is that the population as a whole perceives that increasing economic prosperity is widespread and is meeting an increasing number of their needs. Harvard Sociologist Martin Whyte, who testified at the same hearing, shared the results of a fascinating public opinion survey on perceptions of economic inequality in China. His research found that, while a majority of people in China recognize the widening income gap (now the largest of any low to middle-income country in the world), they tend to attribute prosperity differences to differences in talent and effort, and remain optimistic about their own chance to get ahead eventually. Even Chinese who have garnered only modest economic gains in recent years trust that their lives, too, will continue to get better under the current regime.

My understanding is that these factors—public satisfaction over domestic, particularly economic, conditions—make up one half of the debate over continued domestic stability in China. I’ve managed to fill up more space already than I intended to, so the other half—government success at maintaining domestic control—will have to wait for another post.

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

A New Gig, Michelle Kwan, and Awesome Videos of Cultural Revolution-era China

February 2, 2011

After two months of mailing cover letters, I’ve made my first, rather halting, steps toward actual employment. I’ve relocated to Washington, DC, where I’ve started two internships, one with California Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, and one with a small NGO called the US-China Education Trust. USCET sponsors sponsors scholarships for Chinese students, as well as a series of academic conferences and symposia, mostly in China, about politics, economics, and media.

I’m particularly excited about USCET, which I think will help me to gain more exposure to US-China partnerships and learn more about the different ways to be involved in US-China relations. Julia Chang Bloch, the former ambassador who runs it, seems to be really well connected within the DC diplomatic community–I got to attend a Chinese New Year party she threw last week, and met the second-in-command at the Chinese embassy, and Michelle Kwan!

 

Me and Michelle Kwan! pwned.

 

 

USCET held another cool event last week hosted by the chair of their advisory board, Nicholas Platt, a retired diplomat who went with Nixon on the first trip to China in 1972. He had the foresight to bring a video camera along with him, and took some amazing images of what China was like in the early 70’s. Luckily, some of these were posted online for a similar event he gave at the Asia Society in New York, and you can see them here.

It was all I could do to not completely nerd out while he was showing these; they of course visited all of the major tourist sights–Great Wall, Summer Palace, Hangzhou West Lake, Ming Tombs–but they’re all completely deserted. There’s a great image early on of a neighborhood in the center of Beijing, not far from the Forbidden City, but completely devoid of the massive buildings you’d see there today. It looks like any of the hutongs you’d see in the most run-down parts of Beijing today, complete with people brushing their teeth on the street. Unfortunately, the little clip that the Asia Society put online doesn’t include the most striking image, of Shanghai’s Pudong district. The area, now a massive forest of skyscrapers, was totally deserted when Platt visited, little more than a collection of little fishing huts.

I’m not quite sure how long I’m gonna be in DC. The “plan” (to avoid grad school and find something interesting to do instead) is still in its initial stages, and will depend a lot on how these internships go and how long it takes me to find something else from here. The first week has gone well though–look me up if you come to DC!

 

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.

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.

 

Microloans and Earthquake Recovery

October 15, 2010

Today I accompanied a representative from one of ARDY’s partner NGO’s to visit the homes of several rural borrowers, including Li Binfeng 李斌风and his family. At first glance, Li Binfeng does not look like what one would expect a typical pig farmer to look like. His tousled bleached hairdo would look less out of place on the street in Beijing, or in a punk rock band. The story of how he, his older brother, and their mother came to establish a new but thriving pig farm in the village of Da Yun 大运 this year is an inspirational one, and one in which microfinance plays a key role. “Our family has always raised animals,” Li explained to me as we stood beside one of the family’s larger pig pens, “I learned how to raise pigs and rabbits at a young age from my father.”

The family was running a large rabbit and pig farm, including over 1,000 rabbits, when the Wenchuan earthquake struck the region in 2008. The Li family’s homestead is up in the mountains and rests against a steep tree-covered slope. The earthquake shook loose rocks from the mountain top which rolled down the mountain and crushed the buildings housing the family’s pig pen and rabbit cages. The family lost most of their pigs, and all of their rabbits except one. Left with no capital to rebuild, Li and his older brother, who is married and has three children, left home to find migrant work in Guangdong. The family had taken out their first microloan from the then newly-established ARDY branch office in Da Yin 大寅 village the year before. While the two brothers did construction work and sent their earnings back home, their mother took out another microloan and slowly rebuilt the family’s pig farm.

 

Site of the the Li family's original pig pen was before it was destroyed by the earthquake. The spot has since been cleared and is used for farmland.

The two brothers just returned from Guangdong three months ago and began work on a new series of brick and concrete pig pens, which are currently about half completed. They took out another microloan and used their accumulated earnings to buy several dozen more pigs. The family is currently raising nearly fifty animals, and plans to make space for twice as many. As I spoke to the family today, with the foundation of their new enterprise already firmly set, they seemed quite confident about their farm’s future success. It is hard to imagine the heartbreak and period of incredible uncertainty that they must have experienced in the aftermath of the earthquake. Without a doubt, microloans played an important role in getting the Li’s back on their feet so quickly.

 

The Li brothers showed me around their pig farm and ran me through the basics of pig farming. When they buy piglets from the local market, they weigh only a dozen or so jin (1 斤 = 500g), and in around four months raise them to around 180 jin, which is the optimum weight to sell. I discovered today that the movie “Babe” had deceived me as to the size of pigs. Full-grown pigs are BIG, much bigger than I had expected. The Li family keeps around 8-10 pigs in each pen, and feed them three times a day. Larger-scale pig farms which can afford higher-quality feed only need to feed their animals twice a day.

Li explained to me that the strongest animals are all kept together in one pen, while the weaker pigs are kept in their own pen and given extra food to encourage faster growth. As we talked, one particularly lean pig hobbled down the walkway between the two rows of pens toward us. “This one is sick,” Li explained. They had given the ailing pig an injection of medicine and would keep him outside of the pens, apart from the other pigs, until after he had recovered.

Most of the pigs which the Li brothers bought upon returning to Da Yun will be big enough to sell around Chinese New Year, which means that they will get a higher price for them. Rather than sell to the local market, they will contact a meat processor in Chengdu, which will most likely send a truck to Yilong to transport the pigs for them.