China, NGOs and accountability

Martin Vielajus
4 August 2008

The development of civil society in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and in particular the activity and influence of the NGO sector, has become a leading topic of discussion as part of the country’s rise to global prominence. In 2008, it was especially highlighted by the response to the earthquake in Sichuan on 12 May, when a host of NGOs (as well as groups of concerned citizens in informal association) mobilised quickly and in extraordinary fashion to come to the aid of their fellow-citizens and compatriots in the affected areas.

Martin Vielajus is deputy director of the Institut de recherche et débat sur la gouvernance (Institute for Research and Debate on Governance)

But as the work of NGOs in China expands, the question of how their relationship with other institutions and influences - such as public authorities and private donors - is an important question with many political sensitivities. Much discussion of NGOs around the world addresses the issue through the lens of “accountability”, and this was the theme of an international conference held in Beijing on 26-27 April 2008 which sought to bring international experiences and analyses on NGO accountability into a shared space. The conference - co-organised by Renmin University's NPO Research Centre, the China Social Entrepreneur Foundation and the Fuping Development Institute, and supported by the Ford Foundation - attempted to address this issue in two ways: by reviewing the wide range of accountability relationships NGOs are involved in, and appraising the innovative tools with which they attempt to respond.

Inward, downward, horizontal

The conference offered an opportunity for NGOs from many countries to discuss their legal status, relationships to other actors and their role in their respective societies. In the Chinese context, the importance of NGOs and their peers - including government-organised NGOs (or “GONGOs”) - elaborating their own systems of evaluation was striking. For example, four major Chinese GONGOs have published the draft of a self-regulation framework, which seemed to be a strategic attempt to provide some guidance on the Chinese situation without overstepping local boundaries.

This initiative, and the Chinese input to the conference more generally, reflect the evolving idea that questions the standard “upward” model of NGO accountability. A situation where the state, the private sector, and international organisations both finance local NGOs and design external systems of accountability creates conditions where the fundamental autonomy of NGOs can be breached and their initial mission blurred. In such circumstances accountability must be internalised and shared rather than transferred to these “higher” authorities.

Also in openDemocracy on civil society in China:

Agnes Chong, "Chinese civil society comes of age" (22 September 2005)

Simon Zadek, "China's route to business responsibility" (30 November 2005)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Li Datong, "China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

Both in China and beyond, the exponential rise of the “third sector” has gone hand-in-hand with the state’s creation of new control-mechanisms to ensure NGO accountability. This broad trend has (as Peter Van Tuijl argued at the Beijing conference) spreading to many countries, and is in part justified by the need for internal security and stability. Patricia Armstrong insisted here that states should evaluate NGOs on the basis of what they do; while Xu Yongguang of the Narada Foundation and Na La of Renmin University called in this respect for the Chinese state to evolve from being a “monitor” to a “facilitator” of NGO activities.

The question of the relationships between NGOs and their private donors also connects China with the rest of the world. It has, however, a particular relevance to China where most NGOs are funded by the private sector (the Chinese Youth Development Foundation, for example, depends on private donations for 90% of its income - most of which come from overseas). Jennifer Chapman emphasised that the source of funds could also mean the exercise of control, and other contributions echoed this warning that over-dependency on private donors could entail an imbalance in the accountability relationship.

A number of reforms were proposed in this respect to ensure the autonomy and credibility of NGOs. The most interesting was the idea of new kinds of “accountability bond”:

* a “downward” accountability focusing on the bonds between an NGO and the people it serves (an example here is Action Aid’s initiative “accountability learning and planning system” [ALPS]), which combines stakeholder participation and flexible adaptation to changing circumstances)

* an “inward” accountability focusing on the NGO itself, its staff and volunteers

* a “horizontal” accountability that puts the activities of the NGO under the scrutiny of its peers.

These ideas too are especially relevant in the Chinese context, for they would require a development of the capacity to build networks, which remains weak in China. Some initiatives in China (such as the Human Service Centre and the Asia Foundation) are attempting to develop such networks; though they - and even more grassroots and/or unregistered NGOs still face many unofficial or semi-official restrictions.

The peer-to-peer way

These new directions for accountability were reflected at the conference also in discussion about the way that NGOs’ operation might be improved by developing more self-regulation mechanisms. Three foundations in China - the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), the Amity Foundation and the Chinese Youth Development Foundation - have released a framework of common standards that elaborates three aspects of this theme:

* accountability goes with rights, and this means legal status (which the vast majority of Chinese NGOs still do not have to a full degree). The absence of legal status is a barrier to professionalisation. A good example here was given by Xie Lihua of the (unregistered) Rural Women’s Cultural Development Centre, who asked: how can the board of trustees of an NGO can be evaluated if the organisation lacks the proper legal status to officially establish a board? Wu Yuzhang of Social Sciences Academic Press (China) made the point that several Chinese provinces have passed laws on associations to alleviate problems with the registration process

* the community of peers that can initiate self-regulation standards needs to be precisely defined. The effort to design international standards remains inconclusive, partly because of the difficulty of reconciling a universal approach with the diversity of national legal and political cultures in which NGOs operate.

* common standards of self-regulation between peers need to be flexible enough to serve as a tool for the capacity-building of small and under-professionalised NGOs. Wang Ming of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Centre insisted on the need to combine a strict overall framework that can ensure NGO professionalism with an specific tools for fragile NGOs to improve their structures and activities.

Chinese civil-society actors are engaged in a profound rethinking of their role, their obligations and their rights. The accountability challenges that surround them are shared by NGOs across the world, but also have distinct Chinese characteristics. The ongoing Chinese initiatives in this field have been sharpened by the events of 2008. As the post-Olympics period of China’s globalisation enhances the links between China and the world, the exchange of experiences and understandings reflected in the Beijing conference may increasingly shed light on what China’s NGOs have to teach as well as to learn from their western counterparts.

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