Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

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.

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Some Stats for International Women’s Day

March 8, 2011

So I know it’s remarkably ambitious of me to post three times in one week, but with today being International Women’s Day (at least for 5 more minutes on the East Coast) and all, the timing was just too good.

Among the grab-bag of my work at the US-China Education Trust has been the opportunity to help the president, former Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, prepare remarks for some of the variety of speeches/keynote addresses/bar mitzvahs that she is invited to give from time to time. Next week she’s speaking at a luncheon as part of a “Women in Politics” seminar series at Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute. I’ve been doing research the past week about changes in the career conditions of women between when Ambassador Bloch started her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-60’s and today. Not surprising, women are doing a bit better now than they were then–but the statistics vary in some interesting ways.

My job has been made a lot easier by the release of the White House Council on Women and Girls’ Women in America report earlier this month. The report details the current state of women in the US in a variety of ways, focusing in particular on family dynamics, education, employment, and health. The education section highlights a trend which, while old news at this point, is still remarkable. Women are outpacing men almost across the board in the American higher education system. Women constituted 57% of enrolled undergraduates in the 2007-2008 year, and earned 57% of degrees conferred in that year. They’re earning more masters’ and doctoral degrees. The only fields in which men still significantly outnumber women are in the hard sciences, and they still dominate engineering and computer science fields. Women earned less than 20% of the engineering/comp sci degrees awarded in 2008.

The biggest  headline-grabber of this report, however, has been the data on earnings figures. Despite now roughly equaling male presence in the workplace, and despite notable gains in most career fields which had previously been male-dominated, women still continue to earn significantly less than men on overall.

At all levels of education, women earned about75 percent as much as their male counterpartsin 2009

Even more interesting, though, is the report’s breakdown of earning gaps by race:

Compared to the earnings of all men (of allrace and ethnic groups), Black women earned71 percent and Hispanic women earned 62 percent as much in 2009. White and Asian women earned 82 percent and 95 percent as much as all men, respectively.

Compared to their direct male counterparts,however, White women earned 79 percent as much as White men in 2009, while Asianwomen earned 82 percent as much as Asian men. For Blacks and Hispanics, the figures were 94 percent and 90 percent, respectively

So Asian women trail overall men’s earnings by the least, but remain equally outpaced by the disproportionately high earnings of Asian men. On the other hand, Black and Hispanic men have a much less significant earnings advantage over Black and Hispanic women.

What might be some possible explanations for this? Why don’t Blacks and Hispanics have the same employment gaps between genders that other ethnic groups seem to have?

I should note along with this, though, that earnings data for Asians is particularly problematic. In the course of doing research for another keynote address, this one for an Asian American advocacy group in DC, I’ve been doing some research on the demographics of Asian Americans.

  • According to the most recent community survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for Asians nationwide was higher than that of non-Hispanic whites.
  • HOWEVER, the nationwide poverty rate for Asian-Americans, 12%, is also significantly higher than the 9% poverty level among whites. The poverty rate for Asian Americans is also higher than the rate across immigrant groups of all ethnicities in the United States.

So Asian Americans straddle both the top and the bottom of earnings groups in the United States. So the “model minority” image is much more complicated than often portrayed: the “Asian American” demographic includes both high-achieving middle class families and a significant percentage of working poor, mostly first-generation immigrants, who struggle at low-paying jobs in major cities.

What was I talking about? Women? Anyway, these numbers left me really curious, and I would love to hear some other responses. How should we reconcile these gender achievement gaps with ethnic achievement gaps?

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

Using Chinese Twitter to Combat Human Rights Abuses

February 10, 2011

A really inspirational story has been all over the Chinese media and generated some buzz in the China blog sphere the last couple of days. Amid the continued uproar over human rights abuses in China, the issue of human trafficking rarely gets much foreign press. A Chinese NGO called Baobeihuijia 宝贝回家 (literally, “Baby Come Home”), has been working for several years to confront the grievous and ongoing problem of human trafficking in China. The organization owns a website which posts photographs of missing children and tries to help parents to reconnect with them. China Geeks reported today about a really cool development in this movement:

Yu Jianrong, a Beijing man, set up a Sina Weibo account and asked people to do something simple: take photos of child beggars, and send them to him to be republished in his feed…. Yu Jianrong’s microblog has accrued nearly 95,000 followers, with no signs of slowing down2.

Yu Jianrong then forwards the photos and information about the child’s last known location to Baobeihuijia, which can help track them down and get them help.

I’m excited about this story for two reasons:

1. Implications for Human Rights in China and the growth of domestic human rights civil society: The US State Department continues to list continued rampant “trafficking in persons” as one of the major blemishes on China’s human rights record which the “government” had “failed to address.” This is a major issue that has been going on for a long time, especially in Xinjiang  Province. Unattended young children are picked up off the street and transported thousands of miles to another province, where they are then pressed into slavery as cheap workers or as beggars. I learned about the practice from a friend of mine who has spent extensive time in Xinjiang. “A van will drive around and find kids, and someone will call out that they’ll go buy ice cream or candy.” Ethnic minority children, such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang, are especially vulnerable because they may not be able to speak Mandarin. “They’ll find themselves in a place with no ability to communicate and no one to contact. Then they’ll be forced to work for free until they can learn enough Mandarin to escape.”

According to C. Custer at ChinaGeeks, 9,165 cases of selling women and 5,900 cases of selling children were reported in 2010. However, public reporting for this tragic practice is often lost among the great media fanfare surrounding more politically charged human rights abuses in China. The lack of political liability around this issue, though, also means that there is a space for Chinese domestic participation without any fear of suppression from the government. I would like to think that this issue represents the emergence of exactly the sort of civil society institutions which foreign human rights and democracy advocates have long been working to foster in China. A domestic community of individuals and organizations has emerged on its own accord to fight on behalf of the victims of these crimes. A space for public activity on human rights abuses already exists in China for issues that are essentially apolitical in nature.

2. Implications for the future of information technology in politics: The growing political presence of internet social media has become everyone’s favorite catch phrase since it was decided that Facebook and Twitter had played a big role in the political upheavals in Tunisa, Egypt, and throughout the Middle East. I hope readers will excuse a sudden spike in the nerdiness level of this post, which is probably at least the result of my having recently read a William Gibson novel. In any case, the way in which technology, in this example, is being used to transcend limitations of space and distance is really exciting. C. Custer explains that child traffickers have, for a long time, been able to “remain relatively anonymous even in the middle of the street when no one was paying attention.” The vast distance which they carried the child away from their home was enough to conceal the crime. Now, however, the internet is being used to pool information about where they encounter these children, creating a public record of the child’s whereabouts and making them easier to locate.

For anyone still in China, you can contribute to this effort by forwarding information and pictures about child beggars you see to C. Custer at China Geeks:

custerc at gmail.com, or twitter @ChinaGeeks and weibo @ChinaGeeks

 

Another article on this at the China Media Project: http://cmp.hku.hk/2011/02/08/9929/

Dating and Romance in Rural China, Part 1

January 23, 2011

A bridal car 婚车 of the sort that carries off the bride and groom after a wedding

In coming to Yilong I was particularly eager to learn whether or not the rapid changes in romantic attitudes in urban China had made any headway into rural China. What I observed first and foremost, however, was that the lonely heart in rural China faces a much bleaker landscape than one would in a big city. Even without having to deal with more conservative social norms, the severe drain of young people to the cities to work leaves few options. Out of the few young people I met who had stayed behind in Yilong to work, many of them were already married, even those close to my age; I could probably count on my fingers the number of young single people I met in my whole three months there.

Beyond this general scarcity of potential mates, I was fascinated to observe the contradictory forces at work in the dating scene in rural Sichuan, which I imagine are even more extreme than those operating on romantic conventions in more cosmopolitan parts of the country. On one end, arranged marriages, or at least extreme family involvement in the orchestration of matches, are still quite common. I met several couples in their late 20’s and early 30’s who, when I asked how they had met one another, replied that they had been “jieshao” 介绍–“introduced,” or essentially set up, by family members. On the other hand, the practice of dating in high school, still controversial in urban China, has already started to percolate into the countryside. High school couples can occasionally be spotted discreetly holding hands leaving the school. I once walked by a pair of high school kids who had found a secluded corner besides the old MiG fighter plane on display at the memorial to the civil war hero and Yilong native Zhu De 朱德 and were using it to practice some aggressive PDA.

Chinese Gothic: My roommate's aunt and uncle had had an arranged marriage

This collision of traditional values with evolving attitudes was even more vividly brought home to me by the experience of my roommate and fellow volunteer at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. In many ways, Li (names omitted to protect the innocent) personally embodies this dichotomy of traditional and modern. A native to Yilong and the son of local officials, he was one of few of his classmates able to attend college, in the northern city of Dalian. After graduating, he spent several years working and volunteering in various NGOs in different parts of the country before returning to Yilong to work at ARDY. While proud of his roots and staunchly traditional in some respects, his views have also been inevitably changed by prolonged exposure to Western colleagues in various NGOs. Over the course of two months I observed his surprising and rather increasingly conflicted courtship of a local girl, Jin. Jin had studied at a teacher’s college in Chengdu and returned that year to teach English at a local middle school in the nearby town of Ma An 马鞍.

The two’s meeting had been a classic case of old-school match-making. Li’s great aunt had invited the two of us over for dinner on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It was only after we arrived for dinner that the aunt informed Li that she had invited a potential suitor as well, much to his embarrassment. The two barely spoke to one another for the whole course of the evening; however, Jin had procured Li’s cell phone number from the aunt and called him the next afternoon, and the two ended up chatting for over an hour. These hour-long phone conversations soon became a nightly ritual, though it was over a week before Jin was able to get a reprieve from teaching and take the 40-minute bus from Ma An back to Jincheng and see Li in person again.

I was utterly shocked how soon it was after this second “date” that the two began to talk about marriage–somewhat jokingly, of course, but nonetheless with definite intent behind it. I went to pay a visit to Jin’s classroom the week after they had started dating. Over lunch, she told me that although she had barely spoken to Liu Yi at their first meeting, she had felt an instant connection with him, “as if we had been married in the previous life.” She had already begun to weigh the possibilities for their future life together; would Li commit to stay in Yilong with her, or would she have to come with him if he went to work for an NGO in Chengdu which had previously employed him? I was utterly baffled at the speed with which their relationship had progressed to this planning stage, and skeptical that Li, who had worked with a different NGO in a different city each of his four years since graduating from college, would agree to settle down so soon.

I realize I’m already over the conventional length limit for a blog post, so you’ll have to stay tuned for the shocking conclusion 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?