In 2003, after three years working at the Japan Non Profit Organization Center in Tokyo, I started Global Links Initiative (GLI) with a friend who was based in the United Kingdom. The idea was simple: to use Japanese and British experiences as a tool to empower China's civil society. Having heard a lot about the rapid development of NGOs in China, I was eager to be part of the process.
We spent the first two years establishing a network with key organizations in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The main problems we faced quickly became clear: While the number of NGOs is growing very fast in urban areas, the absence of a supporting legal framework makes it impossible for NGOs to acquire the legal status of a nonprofit, and the regulation that forbids NGOs from raising money from the general public undermines the financial health of the entire sector. The majority of NGOs in China rely heavily on grants and funds from international institutions and foundations.
As China develops, aid sources increasingly look to other countries that need assistance. The funds available to Chinese NGOs are already being redirected elsewhere. Generating resources domestically has become a critical issue for NGOs in China.
The dependence of Chinese NGOs on international aid is a problem in another sense. Many organizations are spending time and money on capacity building and fundraising, which often means that they are learning how to apply for grants from international foundations or how to write annual reports that showcase management skills and good governance. While these are critical skills for NGOs, they should not be priorities for Chinese organizations.
The recent snowstorm in southern China and the absence of NGO involvement in the response proved that the civil society sector in China does not have close community ties or the capacity to engage citizens in disaster relief. Even though they are civil society leaders, NGOs in China have a long way to go before they can have a significant impact on society, as well as deliver high-quality services to meet local needs.
Empowering civil society in China requires a creative approach. Social entrepreneurship has become a powerful tool around the world for community regeneration and for tackling difficult social issues. The ways in which social entrepreneurs have developed partnerships with government and business, and created national networks among community leaders, could be good reference points for China.
GLI's work in China is focusing on promoting the concept and best practices of social entrepreneurship through exchange programs and information dissemination, as well as partnerships with community organizations, entrepreneurs, academics, and governments. With the rise of Chinese 'new rich' philanthropists, as well as a growing interest in corporate social responsibility nationwide, more people and resources are seeking to support or partner with public goods initiatives. The spirit of social entrepreneurship helps NGOs use business skills to generate income, and those same problem solving skills are helping to raise the capacity and social impact of civil society in China, through resource mobilization and community engagement.
Social entrepreneurs and their networks can also play a creative role to improve understanding and relations between countries. Take Japan and China for example. Traditional donations and aid to Chinese NGOs is shrinking, together with overseas development assistance (ODA). At the same time, however, the new generation of social entrepreneurs is looking for like-minded people from each country to work together to address social issues, such as the aging society or global warming. Success stories in different countries inspire players on each side, which leads to a long-term, mature relationship.
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