Govt should set an example in charity

Updated: 2011-08-25 07:39

By Michele Geraci (China Daily)

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Despite the successes that the Chinese economic development model has achieved over the last 30 years, one area - among others - seems to lag behind: that is, the charity sector. I believe that some of the reasons for this are to be attributed to a slow development of civil society in China, general public mistrust in certain organizations and certain individuals, and the lack of a clear government policy and legislation on the matter.

On the latter point, it is true that outsourcing private "charitable" initiatives to private citizens deprives the government of the required control and monitoring functions on the sector and may create social and geographical imbalances, whereby some areas are the target of certain charitable initiatives while some others are not, and some charitable initiatives are pursued while others are not.

In the West, at least, historically, countries had largely outsourced charity activities to religious organizations, mostly the Catholic Church, which over the centuries has helped channel donations from the rich to the needy, both in their home countries and abroad. No matter how many cases of corruption, fund misuse and other inefficiencies, the net effect has been positive.

In recent years, Western governments, in cooperation with private organizations, have been significant donors to poverty alleviation programs in depressed areas of the world, from Latin America to Africa and Asia. Results have been mixed, and in many instances funds have been dissipated. But the key concept that has kept money flowing for decades and centuries is that no matter how much money is wasted, something ends up where it should go.

In China, recent high-profile cases have caused public mistrust in Chinese charity organizations. News reports on the Red Cross Society of China because of Guo Meimei or the young Lu Xingyu have not helped. Even actress Zhang Ziyi has been criticized for donating less that she had originally promised.

While I understand the ideas behind such discontent, I also believe some of the criticism is slightly unfair and mis-targeted. First, I am sure most readers are familiar with the examples cited above, but I also bet that only a few are aware of the benefits achieved through those donations; perhaps public opinion and the media should have focused more on the actual results that those initiatives have achieved, instead of counting pennies wasted or if Miss Lu deserves such high "management fee". Showing more about how those donations have helped poor people would have helped the public understand that, yes, money does end up where it should, eventually, and would have won back people's trust.

Second, charity organizations, like all enterprises are not perfect: they are run by people, people make mistakes, external situations may influence the outcome and sometimes funds are not put to the best use. Therefore, we have to accept that inefficiencies are inevitable.

Third, if we accept that some charity organizations are not run effectively and management practices need improvements, then professional managers need to be recruited. Such figures do require adequate compensation: they are professional people who would otherwise work in the private sector.

If charity in China is to develop, there is nothing wrong by paying competitive salaries to key individuals. That is what happens in the United Kingdom, for example. And the UK is one of the countries with a high number of registered charities that - although non-profit - are run and operated like commercial business, with key people in key positions, from fund-raising to procurement and finance management.

There can be many ways through which the charity sector can develop in China. Here, I emphasize only two: the government should set clear operating rules on what programs are allowed, what are not; how should management be compensated and how fund can be raised, and the scope of operation, among others.

This is the key building block, without which all discussions are pure academic. I encourage celebrities and famous entrepreneurs, too, to continue being "road-openers": give money and give it publicly, not to show off, or gain marketing or social advantages - rather to be inspirational examples for the common people.

And last, the Chinese government can take an important lead in this process. If we accept the principle that charity has no national boundaries and all humans deserve a fair shot at life, then an African and a Chinese have the same right to be helped. In this context, part of China's foreign reserves can be used for international charity programs, not to gain recognition as a responsible rising economic power, but rather to set an example which Chinese citizens may follow.

The author is head of China Programme, Metropolitan University of London.

(China Daily 08/25/2011 page9)