Thursday, October 10, 2013

NGO Work in China: An Interview with HNC Alumna Amanda Hsiung

Amanda Hsiung
Amanda Hsiung is an HNC Certificate ‘09 alumna and currently manages the East and Southeast Asia portfolio (including China) as an Associate Program Officer at The Global Fund for Children (GFC). Amanda sat down with admissions representative Katie Brooks to discuss her work with Chinese civil society, her recent travel to China, and of course her time at HNC. Click here for more on Amanda’s work and travels at GFC.

Katie: Thanks for speaking with me today! It’s always great to get a picture of what our alums are doing post-HNC. Can you tell me a little more about your job?

Amanda: Thank you, Katie. I’d be happy to! The Global Fund for Children (GFC) is a nonprofit organization that works to advance the dignity of children worldwide by making small grants to innovative community-based organizations working with many of the world’s most vulnerable children. As the Associate Program Officer for East and Southeast Asia at GFC, I manage over 40 grantees in eight countries in the region, including China.

Katie: And you get to travel a lot with your job, right?

Amanda: Yep, that’s one of the best parts of the job! I get to travel to the region 3-4 times a year, including at least once to China. While I’m traveling, I visit our current grantee partners to monitor our grant implementation, scout for great new potential partners that fit our model, and sometimes convene our partners for networking, knowledge sharing, and capacity building.

Katie: Are there any challenges associated with doing this kind of work in China considering how sensitive NGO-work can be?

Amanda: Small community-based organizations face difficulties everywhere and China of course has its own particular challenges. One of the biggest obstacles for the types of small, nascent, and innovative organizations that we look to support is the difficulty just of registering as an NGO. While there were almost 500,000 registered NGOs at the end of 2012, according to some estimates the number of unregistered groups might be twice that number, with about 1 million civil society organizations either operating without a proper legal identity or registered as companies. Working without an NGO registration leaves organizations vulnerable to legal difficulties, and makes it difficult to find funding as donors like GFC often can’t provide funding to unregistered groups due to the financial risk involved.

Katie: Has this situation changed at all since the leadership transition in 2012?

Amanda: Definitely. We’ve seen several promising developments for Chinese NGOs this past year. The new government has focused on what it has coined the “small government, big society” agenda, which includes a focus on outsourcing social services to NGOs. The government also seems to recognize the need for policy reform to accomplish this agenda, and the announcement at the 18th National Congress of easier registration requirements for NGOs to debut by the end of 2013 was definitely a promising sign. Some analysts have heralded this as proof of the start of a new reform era for Chinese civil society. I am still not ready to go that far, but am cautiously optimistic.

Katie: What kinds of effects of these higher level developments have you seen on the ground?

Amanda: Great question. I was actually just in Xining to hold a capacity building and knowledge sharing workshop on the topic of “Building Sustainable Charity Organizations”.  One thing that stood out from that workshop was a definite shift in the funding landscape for Chinese NGOs. We had participants create a collective map of their funding sources over the last ten years which showed very clearly that most participants began to receive some kind of government funding within the last two years, demonstrating the government’s increased investment in NGOs. In addition to government support, participants also began to receive funding from domestic foundations after 2008 (the year of the Sichuan earthquake) and are increasingly receiving corporate funding. So, while ten years ago, international foundations clearly dominated the NGO funding landscape in China, now there are a lot more actors in this space.

Katie: What does this mean for small, grassroots Chinese NGOs?

Amanda: Well, first of all, I think it definitely brings opportunities. Last year, the Ministry of Civil Affairs awarded 200 million RMB (over $30 million USD) to social service organizations, including several of our partners. And, as we have seen with partners who have received MCA funding, this investment has a trickle-down effect as domestic foundations as well as provincial and city-level also invest in organizations with the MCA’s stamp of approval.

Katie: But are there any challenges to working with the government for NGOs?

Amanda: There are definitely challenges for NGOs who are learning to work with government agencies or other new funders for the first time. As an example, implementing MCA funded-programming has been difficult for our smaller partners, as the funding is extremely restrictive and comes with intensive reporting requirements that are very taxing for a small NGO to fulfill. At the workshop, partners also identified maintaining their organization’s core mission and vision while working with new types of funders as another key challenge. And there is definitely a learning curve for working with new types of funders, as everything from the language you use in proposals, what kind of items you can include in the budget, to what kind of reporting is required is different based on the type of donor. So this is definitely an area we’ve identified where we can hopefully provide capacity building support in the future.

Katie: Your work sounds really interesting! Do you feel that your time at HNC helped prepare you for your job?

Amanda: Absolutely! First of all, HNC was just such a game changer in terms of language skills for me. I took four years of Chinese in undergrad, including one semester of study abroad at BeiDa, but actually doing substantive coursework in Chinese at HNC versus traditional language study increased my language ability more than all my previous study put together. This has been really helpful, since a lot of our Chinese partners don’t speak English so all of their proposals, reports, and emails are in Chinese. Beyond the language skills, I think my time at HNC, from the courses taught by the Chinese professors to spending a whole year living with my Chinese classmates, also helped develop an understanding of Chinese culture and society that has been critical to me ability to work successfully with our Chinese partners and to manage our China portfolio.

Katie: Thanks so much for stopping by!

Amanda: Any time.