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The Role of Chinese NGOs for China’s Opening Policy(4)

AF: You are talking about local pilot initiatives. If they rely too much on specific local conditions they can not be scaled-up nation-wide.

HHM: That is right. That is because they are determined by the local conditions. Let me give you an example of how primary and secondary stakeholders participate in such pilots. In silk farming the primary stakeholders who breed the silk worms need to plant mulberry plants. By protecting the water and soil and by raising silkworms they can make profits. But if you can not sell the silkworm cocoons than you had better not raise silkworms—do not even start planting mulberry trees. It is this kind of chain. We call it a philanthropic market virtuous cycle or double loop cycle, not a single loop cycle. NGOs need to study double loop cycles.

AF: This also relates to the question of whether or not NGOs are learning organisations. To what extent do you require your member organisations or other cooperation partners to record their work, for example in the form of project reports? Are these internal documents or do you publish them? Have you experimented with new forms of documentation, for example blogs, micro-blogs, or documentaries? If NGOs do not record their work, they may not learn from successful or unsuccessful pilot initiatives.

HHM: These are good points. In the past project reports were the norm. Nowadays we also have blogs, micro-blogs, documentary or audio recordings etc. In general we at CANGO are quite diligent and pay attention to document management. But we have also encountered problems. One problem is that during project implementation it is not that convenient to announce things to the public, for the fear of misleading the public. The second issue is policy direction. The third issue is the degree of sensitivity, for example if this work relates to human rights, sex workers, HIV/AIDS. When we do this kind of projects we are very careful. It all depends on the relationship between your project and the public, society and government.

AF: My next question is related to the issue of impact and sustainability. How do you measure the social impact, how do you evaluate your own projects? I am sure every implementing organisation is convinced that its own work has great value and is successful to a certain degree. But how do you write your reports? If they sound too good to be true neither donors nor ordinary people are likely to believe you.

HHM: We usually have three standards of evaluation. The first is customer feedback, which is the feedback from our beneficiaries. The say things like “our income levels have improved” or “thank you”, etc. The second one is an evaluation of the project once it has come to an end. We invite experts to come and visit us and to go to the project sites. We also invite journalists to do research. This is a good way to spread information; it is a way to combine both evaluation and dissemination. The third standard of evaluation is that we engage in interactions with our partners. In these interactions we explore what kind of problems exist and see how we can help them. This is also related to the issue of sustainability. Our funder may not come with us, but we can provide some methods. This way our support shifts from financial support to providing methods, helping our partners to become more self-reliant. This kind of support allows them to continue to develop in a sustainable way. Recently we have started to provide individual coaching for our member organisations. In the past we provided training for a lot of people at once. Not any longer. These days we organise a group of experts to approve and evaluate. This is comparable to a doctor who is providing them with a diagnosis and who checks whether there are any problems.

AF: What do you think can be learned from successful and unsuccessful projects?

HHM: In the case of successful projects we need to look at factors such as feasibility studies and feasible project design. The second success factor is related to implementing capabilities. The third factor relates to the partners. The fourth is about sustainability. These four standards are key. It is the same with unsuccessful projects. If they are not feasible, something went wrong during the feasibility study. Or the implementing capabilities were lacking and the cooperation partners not well chosen. Such projects are unsustainable and can not be exemplary. All these factors are related. When we look at the interrelatedness of these factors we realise that we need leadership. All four factors in the end depend on leadership. Of course this also relates to professionalism, something I have written about, and professionalism is part of the implementing capability, the use of methods. But the real problem is leadership.

AF: I remember you once said a sentence which left a deep impression on me. You said that failure is the beginning of success.

HHM: It is like that. It is a trial and error process. Even if we know that something is very likely to be unsuccessful, we still engage in experimentation. For example when we did bid for the poverty alleviation project in rural Jiangxi tendered by the ADB and the Chinese Ministry of Finance this project ultimately was a failure. But this project had a big impact on the national level. In fact CANGO made a loss, quite a significant loss with this project. We call this trial and error. In Chinese we have this saying that failure is the mother of success. What it means is that we need failures. Quite a lot of our projects have failed; I will be very open about this.

AF: If that is the case donors also need to accept failure.

HHM: Donors have a different understanding of failure. Donors look at objectives, tasks and evaluation. We look at more angles, for example we look at financial support, whether or not there have been personnel changes, and whether staff have been able to improve their capabilities. The two standards are not the same. Donors care whether or not the objective has been reached, tasks have been completed, and they look at results from the evaluation. These are the three core issues. As organisers or implementers, we concern ourselves with income; see whether there is a balance in payments and whether or not staff members have increased their capabilities. The third issue is project sustainability. Of course evaluators also talk about sustainability, but sustainability in our context is whether or not the project has generated new revenue for CANGO. This is a different perspective.This has different effects on the sector. The two perspectives of donors and implementers are not the same.

AF: This reminds me of our EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme (2011-14). In my opinion these dialogue forums were our outputs, but for the European Union, they were outcomes and impacts. They were quite content with the dialogues themselves. I always thought that dialogues are only the beginning and that the key question is whether or not they can generate follow-up projects. This could be an example of differing perspectives.

HHM: That is right. You make a very good point here.

AF: Finally, I would like to ask you about sustainability. CANGO has done a lot of projects. When you finish them, what stays? Sometimes people working in this sector have a sense that projects may not make a real difference. At times it can be hard to see any outcome or impact. At the same time I know that there are outcomes and impacts. Sometimes the implementer simply does not know about them, or they occur at a later stage. How do you view this?

HHM: I think that there are two outcomes. One is an intangible asset, the other one is a tangible asset. In terms of the intangible assets, first of all they show that your organisation is able to accept new challenges. It shows that you are not afraid of difficulties or new things. The second intangible asset is credibility. We also commonly refer to this as social integrity. The third one is trust. You create trust through innovation, and through your credibility you also create trust. This in turn allows you to have more cooperation partners. All these are intangible assets. But of course there are also tangible assets. There are many tangible assets such as your project income, which is real money. The second one is the enhanced capabilities of your staff. All these things can be seen. The third is that through successful projects you can get new projects.

  • Dr Andreas Fulda is an academic practitioner with an interest in social change, organisational development and documentary filmmaking. During the past ten years Dr Fulda has helped design and implement three major capacity building initiatives for Chinese CSOs: the Participatory Urban Governance Programme for Migrant Integration (2006-07), the Social Policy Advocacy Coalition for Healthy and Sustainable Communities (2009-11) and the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme on Participatory Public Policy (2011-14). Dr Fulda is also the editor of the book Civil Society Contributions to Policy Innovation in the PR China (Palgrave Macmillan,April2015).