Help Beyond Borders
Lin Yuan first visited Myanmar in July 2014. After being a member of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) for only a year, she was selected to participate in a 12-day overseas survey. In an interview with local college students, she met a girl who revealed that her father had passed away and her mother, who lost an arm, provided for the family and the girl’s education all by herself. The girl couldn’t hold back tears while talking about her family. Lin was touched by the family’s resilience. “I should do something in Myanmar,” she thought.
In March 2015, Lin went to Myanmar again for an internship with Mercy Corps and stayed to help set up the CFPA’s Myanmar office. When she visited local governments and possible partner agencies, she found that Myanmar’s people were familiar with public welfare non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the United Nations and from developed countries, but had seldom heard of Chinese NGOs. Lin was once asked how NGOs could operate in a country in which the government plays a dominant role in public affairs. She replied, “Although the Chinese government has a strong capacity, it also welcomes supplements from non-governmental forces. Now that the Chinese society is developing more comprehensively, you will see more Chinese NGOs working overseas.”
In the 2014 survey, Lin and her colleagues realized that education is one of the most urgent needs in Myanmar. Poor college students there need both financial support and capacity building. Therefore, the CFPA’s Myanmar office launched its first public welfare project—the Paukphaw Scholarship Project—in July 2015, after it became the first Chinese international NGO registered in Myanmar. The project is a Myanmar version of the New Great Wall Self-Improvement Project that has been implemented in China for more than 10 years.
To investigate the background of scholarship candidates, Lin visited more than 40 villages and became the first foreign face to venture into many rural townships in Myanmar. “Because of a lack of electricity, many places had only dim light from solar lanterns at night and very little access to information.” But when she saw graduation photos of the students hanging on the walls at their homes, the parents always looked proud. “This is exactly the same as in China.”
In 2016, Lin and her colleagues decided to provide scholarships for 1,300 students from 12 universities in three states in Myanmar. They planned to support 700 of them for four consecutive years and the other 600 for one year, covering 70 to 80 percent of their living expenses. To achieve this goal, the CFPA would invest about 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) in the four-year period starting from 2016. At the same time, Lin’s team also organized activities for the students, such as volunteer work, computer training and visits to Chinese enterprises. In 2017, the CFPA offered 10 Myanmar students a tour of Shanghai including visits to museums and pharmaceutical factories employing advanced technology. “We hope these students will pay the favor forward to others after receiving our help and also enhance their comprehensive competitiveness to get ready for graduation,” said Lin.
In 2018, the CFPA’s Myanmar office launched the Panda Pack Project. To date, 40,000 school supplies packs have been distributed to pupils in poor and remote regions of Myanmar. When Lin and her colleagues visited Myanmar’s Minister of Education Myo Thein Gyi in Naypyidaw last September, he opened the pack and checked every object inside. Lin recalled that Myo Thein Gyi was particularly fond of the paint pens and lunch box. “He declared that the Panda Pack was exactly what the local students needed and urged us to promote the project with full force.”
The CFPA’s Myanmar office now employs 10 staffers, including three from China and seven from Myanmar. When distributing the panda packs, they go to the schools and check every pupil’s signature to ensure the packs are delivered to the people who really need them. At first, Lin and her colleagues disagreed on the situation. “Local schools and Myanmar colleagues found it troublesome to hold pack donating ceremonies and conform to relevant procedures,” Lin explained. “But I didn’t want to leave immediately after making the donation as some enterprises and organizations do. I wanted more interaction with the students. Every step helps us know them better and vice versa.”
Cultural differences have occasionally triggered friction within the CFPA’s Myanmar office. In Lin’s view, mutual understanding and respect is key to their work. “I listen when my Myanmar colleagues ask for conformity with local customs,” Lin stressed. “But the CFPA has its own standard processes, and we also need to consider our donors’ wishes. So, we keep communicating. They take a step back, and so do I, and then we come to solutions. It’s crucial that we all keep moving toward a common goal.”
Thanks to the efforts of Lin’s team, the Myanmar office has become a flagship model for the CFPA’s overseas development. In the future, they will continue projects in education and launch new projects promoting healthy drinking water. In their spare time, Lin and her colleagues like to play guitar and chat by the river bank. After talking with Lin, her Myanmar colleagues found a new understanding of China. “In the past, they looked to Singapore as the model for Myanmar to follow, but after learning about high-speed rails and mobile payment in China, they realized China was amazing,” Lin grinned.
“People’s minds become connected through real mutual understanding,” Lin opined. “We have settled there, become immersed in the community and maintained contact with locals every day. They know us, and we know them. This is how people-to-people bonds really begin to build. NGOs should play such a role and engage in heartfelt exchange.”
Reaching Out to Help around the Globe
Chen Hongtao, executive deputy secretary-general of the CFPA, oversees the organization’s international affairs. He recalls Chinese people once questioning why domestic NGOs would go overseas to engage in public welfare undertakings while there were still so many poor people in China. Today, however, the Chinese public has become the major source of funding for the CFPA’s overseas projects. For instance, after Nepal was hit by a major earthquake in 2015, the CFPA raised more than 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) in China for disaster relief. Most of the funds came in the form of small donations from ordinary people.
“China still has poor people, but the concept of ‘poverty’ is not the same as before,” Chen illustrated. “By 2020 China will achieve a moderately prosperous society in all respects. In the future, Chinese people will pursue better education, health and development. But now more than 800 million people around the world are still plagued by hunger, and more than two billion people are not guaranteed clean drinking water. China received much aid from the international community when it was lagging behind. Now that we have some ability, we should help others as much as we can.”
Since 2005, the CFPA has carried out many international emergency rescue missions. It donated medicine to tsunami-stricken areas of Indonesia, assisted Chile with earthquake relief and supported West Africa in fighting the Ebola epidemic. After establishing the Department for International Development in 2009, the CFPA launched long-term development projects in countries like Myanmar, Nepal, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. By the end of 2018, it had helped about 450,000 people in 20-plus countries and regions through investment of about 160 million yuan (US$23.8 million) in projects involving emergency relief, equipment assistance, NGO capacity-building, hospital construction, school meals, university student funding and comprehensive community development.
According to Chen, the CFPA currently focuses on six key parts of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals: no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth. “What people in less developed countries need most is to improve their living conditions, so we aim at meeting the urgent demand for better livelihood and focus on one or two key strategies that fit the local situation.”
In recent years, the CFPA has recruited more and more employees with overseas education background or work experience with international organizations. “As Chinese people go overseas and communicate with foreigners more often, their international vision and concern for international affairs are growing.”
Since joining the CFPA in 2002, Chen has been engaged in public welfare for 17 years. “We work with the poorest and also the rich,” he explained. “It has dawned on me that ultimately the worth people pursue is achieved by helping others. And that’s exactly what we’re doing now.”