November 16th, 2010 | Global Times NGO bosses pool online innovative solutions
The girl was confused, asking Wu Zhiping what did she think of the Internet: Is it a bad thing?
The 13-year-old had just tried to kill herself after being raped by a young man she had met online.
Rural Women NGO volunteers offered counseling and the youngster recovered well. Ever since then, she has been kept under tight scrutiny by her father, angry whenever her focus strays off her studies.
A project aided by the United Nations, Wu’s NGO carries out much-needed sex education for underage girls, often the kind who are left at home by absent rural parents gone to work da gong in the cities.
“The Internet in China carries social stigma among parents and educators,” said Wan Tao, founder of NetEasy, an NGO on Internet security.
“In fact, the Internet is neutral and shouldn’t be blamed.”
Also known as the “godfather of Chinese hackers,” Wan is trying to help 500,000 young hackers in second and third-tier cities out of the business.
Rural Women since 2007 has trained 3,000 uneducated women in seven provinces to use the computer and the Internet, setting up book clubs and mutual assistance networks.
It was perhaps inevitable that such a booming volunteer culture, one that revolves around sharing and participation, hit a wall in the Chinese mainland.
There are times when technology can’t solve everything, Lu Fei revealed at the ICT Innovation Workshop sponsored by Intel China last weekend.
After Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8, the NGOCN communication platform for NGO workers was shut down briefly without notice.
“We tried our best to censor the contents until our hands got sore,” said Lu, one of 40 NGO leaders at the meeting.
“However, it happened anyway.”
Fun with firewalls
Established in early 2005 in Kunming, the user-generated website had been attracting more than 30,000 registered users: mostly volunteers, students and people interested in volunteer work.
After organizers moved the server to Hong Kong, the domain name was “immediately blocked.”
Lu worries it will hamper users’ experience.
“They may know how to bypass the Great Firewall, but I’m frightened of being listed as one of the so-called ‘subversive websites,” he said.
His website has next to nothing to do with politics or religion, Lu asserts.
Nowadays he resorts to e-mail subscription and Sina’s microblogging service to try and connect up his community of users.
Contrary to what many might expect, financing actually isn’t the biggest problem facing NGOs, said Chen Jianghua, director of the Institute of Civil Society from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.
“NGO workers have their ways of raising money, but the problem is their work is not recognized by authorities,” he said.
In the field of public services, with the rise of a civil society and development of social governance, the NGO is now known as the third sector alongside the government and companies, according to Catastrophe and NGO: Challenges and Responses in Global Perspectives,a book published by Peking University Press,
“Grass-roots forces are not supported or legitimized by the government,” he said.
“The government wants to incorporate them as functional departments. It’s supervision, not governance.”
The real grass-roots NGOs most in need of Internet communication technology (ICT) were not invited to the workshop, he said.
Such NGOs, mostly rising organically out of communities or among human rights advocates, are short of funds and human resources in using technologies.
In this sense, they stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations (GONGOs) or foundations.
“Information technology is essential to us,” said Han Jierong, secretary-general of Saving Minqin, a website protecting the environment of Minqin, a county in Gansu Province of northwest China that is gradually being swallowed by desert sandstorms.
Resisting pressure from his local government, Han, a Minqin local, initiated an online tree-planting program.
Han is hopeful his Web 2.0 platform under construction will attract users to plant 6,000 mu of trees in 30 villages, benefiting 15,000 residents in three years.
On the Chinese mainland, people have little sense of can-do charity, said Fan Jingwei, co-founder of 1kgbooks.org, an online donation system serving rural libraries.
“They often take for granted that rich people should contribute their wealth.”
The Internet has enabled ordinary net users to regard charity as an everyday part of their life.
Through e-tree, an online tree-planting system funded by China Green Foundation, a public foundation under State Forestry Administration, 1 million trees have been sold since July 1 last year, raising 5 million yuan.
Before that, there was skepticism about a tree-planting program for Gansu Province, Zhou said, as people couldn’t know for sure if their tree was actually planted.
Zhou’s team initiated a popular online tree planting day on March 12: The e-tree website connected urban netizens willing to plant trees with villagers living in poverty-stricken areas affected by Gansu’s climate change.
In collaboration with charity channels from Tencent, Taobao and the Climate Group, the program proved successful, gaining hits and getting more people and enterprises involved.
The website also attempted to offer a virtual experience, involving watering an animated tree on the page.
“Few people think of it only as a virtual game,” Zhou said. “Some of them asked me if their trees were destroyed by drought, sandstorms or mud slides.”
The whole project raised awareness by first visiting the area where not a single tree was visible for miles, so that users could gain a deeper understanding of the real value of five yuan: one tree, she explained.
Money, money, money
How their money is spent is of course a critical issue for donors.
Named after the Kelsang flower of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, Gesanghua Student Aid is an NGO based in Xining that supports education in Tibetan communities.
What makes Gesanghua almost unique is its development of advanced online systems for managing project donations and direct sponsorship of students, both of which are fully open and searchable via the Web.
Such rare transparency – displaying accounts to the general public – has won the organization valuable credibility.
The website received more than 10 million yuan in donations and has supported 20,300 students since 2005.
After the April 14 Yushu earthquake, Zhou Shuguang, an IT engineer mentioned on Twitter he had donated via Gesanghua’s online payment system.
After his tweet was retweeted by Web users, some 200,000 yuan was raised in emergency rescue funds that same day. Three days later, five trucks of relief materials worth 800,000 yuan were sent to the disaster area.
By May 31, Gesanghua had received a total 2.6 million yuan, 860,000 through the Alipay online payment system.
“Event participants that adopted integrated social media tools increased their fundraising by as much as 40 percent compared to their peers who weren’t using the available online tools,” according to Making Event Participants More Successful with Social Media Tools, a white paper issued by Charity Dynamics.
Between 1988 and 2009, the number of social organizations in China has increased 100-fold from 4,446 to 431,000, including annual growth of 10 percent during the last decade.
Lacking government support, legal identity and funds, some NGOs have struggled to survive even while helping the disadvantaged.
“It’s high time grass-roots NGOs teamed up with each other and replicate successful models using information technology,” said Wan of NetEasy.
About the NPO ICT Innovation Workshop 2010
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said.
“Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Organized by Non-Profit Incubator, more than 40 leaders from non-profit organizations (NPOs), mostly grass-roots groups, gathered to learn about Internet communication technology last Thursday in the outskirts of Beijing.
The two-day workshop offered practical lessons including innovative methods, information technology, social media application and cloud computing solutions from professional trainers from Intel China.
Group leaders made presentations of their digital efforts and interacted with each other during the conference, sparking new ideas and partnership within the same fields such as serving senior citizens, disabled people and migrant workers.
Yang Zhongren, director of Intel China’s corporate social responsibility department, hopes the NGOs involved will become brand names in 20 years’ time.
NGOs trying to make an online difference
The Cultural Development Center for Rural Women: www.nongjianv.org
NGO Development & Communication Net: www.ngocn.info
Saving Minqin: www.minqin.cn
1kg Book Donation Web: www.1kgbook.org
Gesanghua Student Aid: www.gesanghua.org
By Zhang Lei