Chinese NGOs Seeking Wider Global Horizons

Chinese nongovernmental organizations are increasingly active abroad; how big is their impact?

May 30th, 2016

Rapid economic growth over the 40 years has transformed China’s position from a recipient of international aid to a donor country. The majority of China’s overseas development assistance is directed at nations, notably in Africa and Southeast Asia. 

This assistance largely takes the form of concessional or low-interest loans, and government-financed infrastructure projects. But China’s development assistance is linked to its own national interests and needs. The bilateral development agreements that require the export of raw materials to China are creating opportunities for Chinese firms by mandating that 50% of project materials and services be sourced from China are visible evidence of linkage to Chinese interests.

These preconditions have prompted questions about the effectiveness and transformative impact of Chinese development assistance for African and Southeast Asian host nation recipients. From a different point of view, China’s development assistance has provided political support to African and Southeast Asian regimes that are otherwise ignored or condemned by Western nations. And just like other Western NGOs, also the Chinese can have an impact on local cultures.

There are no official statistics about the number of Chinese NGOs in Africa and Southeast Asia, but extremely conservative estimates exceed 100. Chinese NGOs tend to operate in jurisdictions where China already has commercial and investment interest, which allows them to tap into the infrastructure established by Chinese state-owned and private companies.

In 2012, a healthcare program was launched in Sudan that sent volunteer doctors from China to train local midwives and nurses. Also, there examples when state-owned enterprises have made sizable contributions to an NGO’s development project. For instance, the China-Africa Brightness Action initiative is funded by Chinese enterprises to provide free cataract surgery. The NGO, which originally developed its capacity to conduct this work on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in mainland China, has now treated more than 2,000 patients in Sudan, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Although the number and scope of Chinese NGOs working internationally is lower relative to other neighbouring nations like Korea or Japan, NGO’s from China are becoming more active abroad. For example in the environmental field, a Beijing-based NGO Global Environmental Institute has run several bio-mass energy projects and environmental governance programs in Laos and Sri Lanka. And for instance, the Institute also collaborates with African and Southeast Asian NGOs to monitor the overseas environmental impact of Chinese companies.

There is a difference in implications between Western NGOs and Chinese NGOs. The Western ones are mostly seen as builders of capacity in host nations, alternative social service provides and trainers for local NGOs in developing countries. On the other hand, the Chinese NGOs doing teaching were born, socialized and evolved in an authoritarian institutional environment, in which they have adapted to tight state supervision and limitations. Projected out further, presumably Chinese NGOs have strong potential to offer valuable best or worst practices and lessons to help the host nation counterparts to operate more effectively under similarly illiberal states. In turn, Chinese NGOs may face criticism from those who hope to use humanitarian and development aid to promote political liberalization and fear that Chinese NGOs will strengthen authoritarian tendencies.

So how big of an influence can Chinese NGOs have on nations, or local cultures? Early evidence from Africa and Southeast Asia suggest that knowledge transfer from Chinese NGOs to their host nation counterparts is limited at this point. There is relatively little direct uni- or bi- directional transfer of knowledge and practices between Chinese NGOs and their African and Southeast Asian counterparts. So for now, these NGOs engage in one-off, project-based interventions in their host jurisdictions. While such one-off projects are easy to control, they lead to a loss of institutional knowledge – something that is also witnessed in the domestic Chinese context – and often the solutions in host nations are short-term and temporary.




Cultural Diplomacy News
Veronika MecnarowskŠ, CD News