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China's social sector set to boom
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By Pang Li
China.org.cn columnist

The time has come for Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGO) to embrace rapid development, says Long Yongtu, chairman of the two-day China Global Philanthropy Forum, a groundbreaking event that kicked off on November 1, 2008.

First of all, China's rapid economic growth over last 30 years has laid a solid foundation on which to build the charity sector, Mr. Long observes. China has seen its economic aggregate increase by 1,500 percent during its 30 years' dedication to the course of opening-up and reform, and it now ranks fourth in terms of global economic power. At such a time, the country ought to put some of its wealth to use to help those in need.

Secondly, China's authorities must put more emphasis on sustainability of development, and begin to address urgent problems. Adopting people-oriented policies will increase the number of ordinary people who will benefit from the country's economic achievements. With a political strategy that underpins these principles it will be much easier to conduct charitable activities. Encouragingly, the government is now considering how to make tax reductions and exemptions more accessible, and build up a favorable environment for charity organizations.

Thirdly, an encouraging emergent phenomenon is that the whole country, from business ventures to ordinary people, is passionate in responding to urgent needs, Mr. Long says. Ordinary citizens especially displayed great initiative to help after the deadly Sichuan earthquake in May. NGOs also played a significant role in the disaster relief.

Wang Zhenyao, director general of the Social Welfare and Charity Promotion Department under the Ministry of Civil Affairs agrees. Mr. Wang says the Sichuan earthquake had transformed the landscape of the country's social sectors. Touched by the wretched suffering of their fellow citizens, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, whether formally organized or not, rushed to the disaster areas to help. This natural disaster brought about a fundamental change in people's values. To date, financial donations to quake victims have reached almost 70 billion yuan (about US$10.236 billion), a figure that would have been considered impossible just a few year ago. Mr. Wang views the earthquake as a catalyst for China's charitable activity.

During the Olympic Games, in Beijing alone there were about 100,000 volunteers working at the venues and another 400,000 working in the community. It is therefore reasonable to say that the Olympics too were a significant promoter of voluntarism. According to a survey conducted by Global Charity magazine together with the portal website Sohu.com, 90 percent of 55,000 people polled said that they participate in voluntary activities purely on their own initiative. 50 percent agreed that volunteers should not be paid.

But the Chinese social sector has a number of problems to address.

The most serious one is that Chinese NGOs have very low accountability. Their operations are not transparent enough to make Chinese donors trust them. Rarely do they give feedback to donors, and the latter have no means of knowing how their money has been spent. Even worse, some scandals have further damaged the organizations' credibility in general. In some cases Chinese people would rather give money to foreign NGOs to help people in other parts of the world, Kin-man Chan, an Associate Professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, pointed out. Therefore, it is most urgent for these organizations to build up indispensible trust.

Chinese non-profit business is far from professionalized. Mr. Long reveals that in the West, working for NGOs is among the best-paid of careers, whereas in China it means salaries far below average, or even no pay at all in some cases. It is therefore hard for domestic NGOs to recruit even though China has a surplus in its work force. Dr. Graham Davis of the China Children and Teenagers' Fund views professionalism as critical and urges NGOs to improve in this respect.

In addition, the domestic social sector is quite isolated. A foreign expert says that the world community knows little about Chinese NGOs. Other than the Red Cross Society, they did not know to whom to send their donations when China was hit by earthquake in May.

For the Chinese public, charity is not a priority except when deadly disasters befall. In the US, most charitable donations come from individual citizens, accounting for 2.17 percent of the country's gross domestic production (GDP). In China total donations make up a mere 0.05 percent of GDP. For most Chinese, giving is not their business but an obligation of the rich. They expect that the wealthy should give generously. This common mindset needs to be thoroughly overhauled, many experts urged during the forum. Philanthropy should never be a monopoly of the wealthy and everyone should play a part. Natural kindness rather than considerable wealth is the basis of philanthropy. Therefore, everybody, whether rich or poor, has a role to play. Every philanthropic contribution matters and makes a difference, no matter what form it takes or how large it is.

Meanwhile, the government and media should try to raise awareness of philanthropy among the general public. The authorities should provide guidelines to society by legislation and by creating favorable policies. The media should shift their focus from the wealthy to ordinary people, and play a check and balance role in the not-for-profit sector.

(China.org.cn November 14, 2008)

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