What about Guizhou? Reflections on cooperation prospects
On December 8-9 2004 the Guizhou Environment Protection Bureau held an international conference in Guiyang to discuss environment protection, poverty alleviation and development in Guizhou, with particular emphasis on the possible contribution of international aid agencies and NGOs. World Wide Fund for Nature China Representative, Jim Harkness, was billed to make a keynote address to the conference; but illness prevented him from attending. China Development Brief founding editor, Nick Young, read to the conference Jim's message from his sickbed, and added some thoughts of his own. The following transcript thus provides a double helping of comment on Guizhou's situation and prospects for international cooperation.
I shouldn't be standing in front of you here today. WWF China representative, Jim Harkness was invited to deliver a keynote address, but unfortunately he has been struck down by a very nasty bout of flu, and isn't able to join us. I can assure you that Jim is not making this up -- I spoke to him on the phone yesterday and he sounded absolutely terrible! However, he has sent us some notes, which I am now going to read out; and when I get to the end I am going to add some remarks of my own.
Jim begins by saying that he is not an expert on environment and development in Guizhou. This, in fact, is just American modesty. Jim first came to Weining County in Guizhou almost twenty years ago, when he visited on behalf of the International Crane Foundation, and since that time he has had a long involvement with a community development project in Caohai Nature Reserve. This has been widely acclaimed as a successful example of reconciling nature protection with local development. It is, however, true that Jim has had even more experience of working in Yunnan and Sichuan, firstly as a Program Officer for the Ford Foundation, and later as Representative of WWF China. He reflects on that experience in the remarks that he sent us, and which I am now going to read:
'I was asked (says Jim) by the organisers to address two questions:
1. Why hasn't Guizhou benefited as much from outside assistance as other provinces?
2. How can Guizhou attract more international support?
'If Guizhou has been neglected by outsiders, it is certainly not because it lacks the things that international development or environmental organizations care about! Despite its relatively small size, Guizhou ranks fourth in China in terms of its biological diversity. WWF has since 1996 considered Guizhou Plateau -- a biological region including parts of some neighbouring provinces -- to be a globally distinct eco-region, due to the assemblage of plant and animal species that have evolved in its unusual karst landscape and moist forests. Its western highlands are the easternmost extension of the range of high-altitude Tibetan species such as the Black-necked crane, whereas its southeast features unique and threatened lowland subtropical forests. This richness is severely threatened, however. Hardly any of the province's original forest cover remains, and less than three per cent of Guizhou's territory is under formal protection, a much smaller proportion than in neighbouring provinces.
'Along with biological diversity, Guizhou also has remarkable cultural diversity: more than one third of its people belong to non-Han groups, of 17 different ethnicities. Many of these groups maintain a relatively rich, living culture compared with other nationalities that have been mostly assimilated by the Han.
'Guizhou is also a strong candidate for international assistance in social development. It is China's poorest province -- but I won't go into this, since Mr. Fu Jing will be giving a full introduction to the development situation in Guizhou later today.
'Clearly, Guizhou should be a high priority for anyone concerned about social development or nature conservation in China. So why hasn't it gotten more attention?
'Most of Guizhou's neighbouring provinces are more wealthy, and have either seaports or the Yangtze as lifelines for trade. These characteristics makes them naturally more open to outside contact. Only Yunnan shares the characteristics of being landlocked, poor and mountainous.
'But Yunnan was able in the late 1980s and 1990s to attract large amounts of support, from both international NGOs and foundations and from larger aid organisations, including many European governments and the World Bank and Global Environmental Facility. Why was Yunnan, similar to Guizhou in many respects, better able to get access to international resources to support poverty alleviation and nature conservation?
'I am sure there were many factors. Yunnan is China's most biologically diverse province, and has a large number of people living below the poverty line. The beauty and pleasant climate of Kunming, probably also influenced the decisions of some international NGOs. But I would like to talk about several other factors that were more relevant to this week discussions. I hope that understanding Yunnan's experience will help us think about how Guizhou can get more outside assistance.
'Located where the Himalayas meet mainland SE Asia, Yunnan is of interest to a number of international groups focused on these two areas. For instance, the Macarthur Foundation funded a number of projects focused on the eastern Himalayas in the 1990s, and Yunnan institutions benefited. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, with its special interest in the Himalayas, has also carried out more work in Yunnan than anywhere else in China. Part of the rationale for Ford Foundation's seminal decision in the late 1980s to focus on Yunnan was the perception that Ford could build on successful community forestry work in Thailand, due to the ecological and cultural similarities between that area and southern Yunnan. WWF chose to work in Xishuangbanna in the early 1990s in part because the only true tropical forests in China aside from those on Hainan are found in southern Yunnan. At that time, the international donor community was especially concerned about tropical rainforests, and donor funds were often earmarked for use in these ecosystems only.
'Wedged between southwest and southeast China, Guizhou does not have the locational advantages of its western neighbour. Too far north to have tropical forests, the province's characteristic physical feature --- karst landscape with specially-adapted plant and animal communities --- is not well-known outside of China. Even within China, karst landforms are generally known for their scenic value, and not associated with either biological diversity or endemic poverty.
'Yunnan's location helped it get the attention of international donors and NGOs, but another important factor was human resources. Already the home of a number of excellent research institutions, Yunnan got further help through a fellowship programme funded by Ford Foundation throughout the 1990s that sent many young government staff and researchers abroad for training related to environment and development. The Ford Foundation programme also teamed up government departments with research institutes to work on solving difficult environment and development challenges through field projects in poor areas. Virtually all fellowship recipients returned to Yunnan following their training. Many continued working on Ford-funded demonstration projects, but over time advanced to positions of greater authority in government departments, became core staff of international NGO offices in Yunnan, served as local experts for large donor-funded programmes, or founded local NGOs.
'This group of people have served as a vital link between the government of Yunnan and outside organisations. They helped outsiders and locals to understand each other, not in terms of language but in terms of how they perceived development and environment. In the late 1980s, the whole logic and language of international development and environment was radically different from the approaches being taken in China's poor areas and nature reserves, where targeted poverty alleviation and biodiversity protection were still very new responsibilities of local government. Within just a few years, Yunnan had a cohort of people who understood the terminology and techniques used by international groups and required by donors -- concepts such as Participatory Rural Appraisal, indigenous knowledge, community-based resource management, micro-credit, gender, empowerment, and stakeholder involvement.
'Because of the links that had been built between researchers and government, and because of the exposure through training to contemporary theories and approaches to development, Yunnan (and Sichuan, which also participated in the programme) was relatively well-equipped to meet donors' requirements for designing and implementing larger projects. In the mid 1990s, the director of the Sichuan Forestry Department told me that they had been in discussions with the German government about a large reforestation project. Based on experiences in other provinces, the donor assumed that a long design stage, led by German consultants, would be needed in order to ensure full participation of local stakeholders. Instead, the Sichuan Forestry Department demonstrated in the scoping stage that they already had the capacity to use such methods. As a result, the project was not only approved, but its size was increased and its timetable moved forward by two years. And, needless to say, a much smaller proportion of the budget was needed for foreign consultants! I was told the same thing about several donor-funded nature conservation projects inYunnan: the presence of local experts who could analyse problems and design solutions according to the standard conventions of international development made project design and approval much smoother than it otherwise would have been.
'At the same time, practitioners of new approaches in Yunnan and Sichuan gained valuable field experience working on such larger donor-funded projects, which meant they were able to craft more interesting and relevant proposals for other donors. They also adapted ideas from abroad to fit Chinese conditions, grappling with the difficult question of how small-scale, community-based or participatory approaches could improve the planning and implementation of large, state-led programmes. And increasingly, they founded their own NGOs and research centres, which in turn become strong candidates for funding from international donors interested in supporting civil society initiatives.
'The third important factor I would like to mention is the openness of Yunnan's government, in the 1980s and 1990s, to international cooperation. The province has always been relatively welcoming to international NGOs, and in the mid 1990s even established an office to assist them. As a result, organisations that found it difficult to register officially in Beijing found Yunnan to be a safe haven where they could base their China operations. International donors and NGOs have also been granted access to high levels of the provincial government. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, was able to work directly with the Yunnan Provincial Planning Commission on sustainable development planning for northwest Yunnan, and it is not unusual for representatives of international organisations, when they are in Yunnan, to meet with vice-governor or heads of provincial government departments . . .
Jim's notes stop at this point. Presumably he was overtaken by a fit of coughing and carried off to hospital! Now I want to add here some reflections of my own, mainly to reinforce the points that Jim was making.
Some of you may know that I am connected -- by marriage! -- to a major NGO that works in China, Save the Children (UK). My wife is the China representative. She brought Save the Children to Kunming in 1995. I tagged along and spent five years there, watching the growth of the local and international NGO community in Yunnan; so I recognise many of the things that Jim was talking about.
When she first went to Kunming, my wife negotiated Save the Children's entry with the Yunnan Department of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation (DOFTEC). The main person in Yunnan DOFTEC, who eventually agreed the permissions to operate legally in Yunnan, said this to her: 'I am doing this because I know your organisation will be a magnet to others, and you will bring more foreigners to Yunnan.'
Now here was a man of vision. Because we find, ten years later, a very large community of international and local NGOs in Yunnan; you can hardly go out into the streets there without tripping over one.
Now I want to ask the question, very generally: 'Why would a provincial government want international NGOs in its province? What use are they?'
It is easy to understand why a provincial government would want international investors and businessmen to come in, why they would want technology transfers, joint ventures with high-technology industries and so on. That is very easy to understand. But why international NGOs? International NGOs do not have very much money. There are some foundations, particularly American, with significant resources; but most international NGOs bring in just a few tens of thousands of dollars if they want to come and implement a project. Even the big international development agencies - the government departments of Germany, Canada, Australia and so on - bring only a few millions of dollars to China each year, and even they feel small compared to the size of China's economy, such that theirs is a tiny amount of money - not particularly significant. So why would anyone want to court international NGOs?
I think the first answer is that this is an important aspect of China's internationalisation: because international NGOs represent a way in which governments and non government organisations and people in China can begin to understand the ways foreigners think. And, as Jim was saying in the remarks that I read out, it is actually the concepts and developmental techniques that have been used around the world - whether they are good ideas or not - that people in the Chinese government and research institutes and agencies can learn from, as a kind of door on the wider world. It is the ideas that count.
I want to give you an example, again from Yunnan and again talking about Save The Children UK, since I know their programme very well. For several years they have been running, with the local education authorities, a 'basic education for minority children in poor areas' project in several counties and in schools with children of ethnic minorities. Now, I believe that in China there is some tendency to regard schools as serving children in much the same way that gas stations serve cars: children go to school to be filled up with knowledge and then leave, much as cars are filled up with fuel and then pull out. Given this approach, it is not surprising that China should have expended so much effort on getting children into school in the first place, with relatively less attention paid to what actually happens in the classroom and in the community. Save the Children took a rather different, but very simple view, saying 'Let's think again about what education really is!' And they suggested: 'Let us think of education as a set of relationships between parents and teachers and children. Let's see if we can change the relationship slightly; and particularly between the teachers and the children, so that the children learn in a more active way.' Therefore, basically, the project was composed of training for teachers in remote areas, with new methodologies, so that children were included more in the learning process; and efforts were also made to include parents more in decision-making about the way that the schools were run.
That project was certainly successful in so far as the Yunnan Provincial Education Bureau is very keen on it, and is now planning to use their own resources, along with World Bank loans, to replicate the project in many other counties of the Province. All the outsiders really contributed, all they brought, was an idea - very simply, with little cost or cash transfer involved.
I am not saying that international NGOs have all the good ideas, or are especially clever, or know how the world works; because, very often, when international NGOs come to China, at the beginning they may be naive, make simple mistakes, have silly views or misunderstand things. But most of them will work with experts in research institutes, with people in government and with local communities to come to understand the place they are working and the processes unfolding in that place. And they bring a set of international ideas to be developed by the community of local, Chinese actors. That was the process that Jim described as having happened very successfully in Yunnan, where a new community of people was developed: a community who grasped development concepts from outside and applied them in their own way, to their own province.
So, in a sense, what the international NGOs do is to mobilise local resources to create and stimulate the development of local knowledge. This operates at another level too. I want to turn now to the World Wild Fund for Nature(WWF) - the organisation Jim works for. WWF does not have a major project in Guizhou, but does work in Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet and the Central Yangtze. It tries to work in a cross-boundary manner, with people in different provinces, looking at biological and ecological regions rather than administrative regions. When they start to work in an area, they begin with scientific and ecological studies. But then, most importantly, they bring together different Chinese government departments and agencies in 'stakeholder analysis' of the problem they want to adress. So it is not a case of foreigners saying 'You need to do this.' Rather, the foreign organisation draws attention to a set of problems, encourages local researchers to work alongside foreign specialists in better defining those problems, and then convenes local authorities to work on inter-departmental resource management plans. Again, this is fundamentally a case not of importing solutions but of utilising local resources to identify solutions.
The final point I want to make here is that it is extremely important to recognise that China's fundamental and most important resource is people. Nearly all international development organisations, whether they are NGOs or bilateral donors, would agree that development is and has to be about people. International experience has shown over the last three or four decades that development is not something that you can do to people, not something that can be delivered or donated to people; it's a process in which beneficiaries themselves must be actively engaged. This is what the whole discourse of 'participation' really means.
I was very happy last night, in the introductory session, to hear Professor Yang, in his presentation about ethnic minorities in Guizhou, describing the history and difficulties suffered by the ethnic peoples. The Professor was very clear that these people have always met their history with ingenuity and willingness to adapt, and with remarkable personal resources of creativity. And I think that really is the best attitude and best possible starting point. It is critical not to regard people as the problem, but to start to regard them as being the source of solutions.