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China cautiously enlists NGO help in poverty fight

JINZHU VILLAGE, China (Reuters) - Zhang Fengjiao might not be a development expert, but she knows what she needs to improve her lot -- a proper road to her village so she can take her products to market with relative ease.

Locals walk in front of a home in Jinzhu village of south China's Jiangxi province in this file photo from March 21, 2007. Jinzhu is part of a Chinese government pilot programme for involving non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in poverty alleviation work. March 21, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Subler/Files

Her wish is on its way to being granted under a pilot project that is cautiously exploring the potential for the Chinese government to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in tackling poverty in the world’s most populous country.

“If that road can be finished, it’ll make a big difference,” said the 37-year-old mother of two, her neighbors huddling around out of curiosity.

Zhang currently has to trudge about 2-½ km (1.6 miles) along a muddy, red-dirt path just to get from her home to the main part of Jinzhu, a remote village in a mountainous part of Jiangxi province in China’s southern interior.

But the promise of a new road has given Zhang and her husband enough confidence to plant an orchard of lychee trees and medicinal herbs -- products that fetch higher prices, but are more risky than staples like rice if the market is hard to reach.

“I have the spirit to do more with my land. I have enough land -- I just haven’t made good enough use of it yet,” she said. That the Chinese government would pay for such a road is nothing new -- conscious of the threat of unrest resulting from growing inequalities, it is increasing spending on rural areas, especially on health and education.

What sets this pilot project apart is that it addresses the need for more nimble efforts to help the 21.5 million people living below the official absolute poverty line of 693 yuan ($90) a year, who are increasingly clustered in hard-to-reach areas.

That’s where NGOs come in. The government increasingly recognizes their strengths in reaching out to disadvantaged groups, and so it is experimenting in Jiangxi with essentially sub-contracting some of its poverty relief work to NGOs, through a bidding process.

The selected NGOs go to their assigned villages to listen to residents about how they want their 500,000 yuan in government aid to be spent. They then help implement the plans.

Each NGO receives up to 50,000 yuan per village to cover its costs, provided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is assisting in the project with the help of British funding.

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Chris Spohr, an economist with the ADB in Beijing, said the government’s readiness to take NGOs on as partners showed its commitment to spreading the benefits of prosperity more evenly.

“It suggests that terms like ‘building a harmonious society’ and ‘government role transformation’ are not merely rhetoric, but are being at least cautiously explored and pushed ahead,” Spohr said, referring to two stock phrases the leadership has employed to etch out its priorities for reform.

What is happening in the 19 Jiangxi villages that are part of the project hardly appears revolutionary -- Jinzhu residents are using their cash to help build two roads, upgrade the water supply, and install a small bridge and a public toilet.

But the step of transferring government funds to the bank account of a civil society organization, for it to spend on behalf of citizens, could be seen as undercutting the power of local officials to control the purse strings.

Beijing itself has traditionally been cautious towards NGOs, maintaining strict registration requirements that have led many of them to operate without official permission.

But so far the experiment, limited to NGOs registered with the government, appears to be riding that fine line successfully.


During a recent training session for the project held in Jiangxi, the NGO staff and local development officials were surprisingly open about their mutual strengths and weaknesses.

Zhang Zhihao, the effervescent head of Jiangxi’s poverty alleviation office, said he was glad to implement a project that would help put into practice two of Beijing’s priorities -- to modernize the bureaucracy and improve transparency.

“We’re the first to eat the crab,” Zhang said, using a Chinese saying to describe a pioneer.

Many of the participating NGOs said they saw the project as a way to raise their profiles while finding a steadier source of income than international aid money.

ADB’s Spohr said the project could also be a model for local governments and civil society to provide other services like health care and basic education at the grassroots level -- something he said had been successful in countries from Bangladesh to South Korea.

“The ultimate beneficiaries are the poor villagers themselves,” he said.

Huyan Qin, a project officer with an NGO, has noticed a difference in the attitudes of many of Jinzhu’s residents over the past year or so.

When Huyan first went there to help Zhang Fengjiao and her neighbors work out how to spend their 500,000 yuan, many of them were skeptical whether a system for converting pig manure into cooking gas was worth the effort.

After visiting another village to see how it worked, they added it to their wish list, he said.

“Now they think more about how to change their lives.” ($1=7.73 yuan)