China’s economic development has been as uneven as it has been rapid: While living standards in coastal cities have seen vast improvements, large numbers of people have been left behind by economic expansion. As both central and provincial governments look for ways to encourage development of poorer areas, international NGOs like Habitat for Humanity have been playing a larger role. China Economic Review spoke with Kester Yim, general manager for south and west China at Habitat for Humanity, about the changing opportunities for NGOs in China, and how government plans help to focus the efforts of non-profits.
Q: How would you describe Habitat’s operations?
A: We want to help people to get out of their poor living conditions, to provide shelter. You could say this is our core business. On the other hand, we are not just building houses. The way that we work is we do not just simply give money or a house to beneficiary families – this is handing out, not handing up. We want them to get involved themselves. We want to build houses, we want to build lives, we want to build hope, and that’s what Habitat for Humanity has been doing for 34 years now, serving in over 3,000 communities around the world.
Q: What about in China?
A: We have been in China since 2002. We just started on a very small scale in Yunnan, but in 2004 and 2005, we started to expand our operations in southern China, in Guangdong and Guangxi. And then obviously in 2008 because of the earthquake in Sichuan, we set up our operation in Chengdu to look after the post-disaster reconstruction projects. After the earthquake, we have built and rebuilt roughly 2,000 houses in China. If we compare that with the 400,000 Habitat for Humanity houses worldwide, that’s a very insignificant number, but if we look at it from a marketing perspective, there is a huge marketplace for us to develop here. There is a lot of work for us to do.
Q: Has the earthquake been your main focus then?
A: Because of the Sichuan earthquake, in the last few years in China I think 65-70% of our efforts have been on post-disaster projects. But the post-disaster reconstruction projects are coming to an end. We are working on our last post-disaster reconstruction project, and then we are shifting our focus more or less to our “normal” Habitat for Humanity projects.
Q: Where are you focusing your efforts for these “normal” projects?
A: Our philosophy is to help people that are in need. Most people that are in need of shelter are in rural areas, so our work is more likely to be in rural areas than in urban areas.
Q: How closely will you be watching the 12th Five-Year Plan as an indicator of government development priorities?
A: We will definitely pay attention to and follow the 12th Five-Year Plan as an overall guideline in developing our long-term strategic plan. In the last few years, we have been focusing on a government policy called Renovation of Dilapidated Buildings. It’s one of the programs under the 11th Five-Year Plan. We work closely with that program because it tells us where the government’s focus is in terms of housing development. When the 12th Five-Year Plan comes out we will definitely digest and understand it, and see which policies should be the ones that we follow closely.
Q: Is the government changing its approach to dealing with NGOs?
A: More and more, the Chinese government is paying attention to the abilities of international NGOs. It believes that NGOs can supplement and complement its work. But as we have learned from experience, when we start a project in China, we have to work together with the government. In other words, for all the projects that we work on, the government – be it the provincial, county or even village government – will be our partner. We are not able to do everything alone, so we work with the government, which helps us to organize and ensure everyone is in agreement.
Q: How much control do you have of these projects?
A: It all depends on what control you mean. The government will usually recommend potential sites. In this aspect, we do not have much control, but once we have decided on the site, we control the program. When we first started in China, we did try to work on our own, but it took much more time and much more effort to get things done. Now we work together with the government, especially for the earthquake project, where we’ve had a very good and friendly working relationship with the Sichuan authorities.
Q: Your relationships seem to be with local governments – what about Beijing?
A: We haven’t worked with the central government very closely yet. We certainly hope that in years to come we will have a chance to do that because it would give us high-level opportunities to look at what we’re going to do in China. If we are able to work with the central government, then we would know the overall strategy for housing development in all parts of China, probably five years in advance.
Q: What advantage would that give you?
A: One of the unique things about our work is that we can mobilize a lot of volunteers worldwide to come to China to help build, but they need quite a lot of time to organize their trips. We often have requests asking us to confirm a site for a volunteer build eight or nine months down the road. It is quite a challenge for us to give an answer right now because we can only see projects up to six months in advance. If we have a stronger working relationship with the government and know where our efforts will be in two or three years, that would be a huge help. There’s a gap in the schedule, and we’re trying very hard to close it.
Q: How would you gauge your success in that?
A: Our objective is to help people, so at the end of the day what we look at is how many houses we have built, how many families we have helped, how many communities we have helped, and how many volunteers have experienced the happiness of helping people.