International NGO Projects and Women’s Development in Yunnan by Shen Haimei, Yunnan University, China

2. Jun 2009


Shen Haimei, PhD, Professor, Ethnology/Anthropology Research Institute, Yunnan University, China. Secretary-general of the Feminist Anthropology Board, the Ethnology/Anthropology Committee of China. Author of two books: Research on the Life of Yunnan Women in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (Kunming: Yunnan Education Press, 2001). Middle Ground?Gender, Ethnicity and Identity in Southwest China. (Beijing: Advanced Education Press, Forthcoming 2009).

Since the UN Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995, the Chinese government has been endeavoring to carry out the commitments agreed upon by the international community and stipulated in the Platform for Action and the Beijing Declaration. Many Western Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) have become involved in supporting this work in China. Yunnan Province, which is located in the border area of southwest China, and where many ethnic groups live, was one of the first places where NGOs from Europe and North America initiated development projects in the 1980s. These NGOs have played an important role in developing civil society and mainstreaming gender in development, but have also encountered a range of problems in working with Chinese institutions.    

The international NGOs that work in Yunnan Province include organizations such as Save the Children, WINROCK International, Oxfam, International AIDS Alliance, the Ford Foundation and many others. They have played a major role in introducing new understandings and practices of civil society to China by supporting the establishment of Chinese NGOs to engage in their development projects. Mainstreaming gender into development projects has been a main aim of international NGOs. In general, the projects executed by international NGOs are abundant in content, and include such areas as rural women’s micro-credit loan schemes, women’s reproductive health, medical relief and AIDS/HIV control and rural development among others. They have thus covered several of the main aspects of the government Program for Work Concerning Women and Children in China for the years 2001-2010.

Advocating gender equality and promoting the mainstreaming of gender

The era of western NGOs stepping into China has seen a new wave of Chinese feminism influenced by the ideas introduced by these organizations. International NGOs have introduced methods of gender analysis through their assistance and cooperative projects, and they have required a gender perspective in the practice of internationally funded projects. In fact, gender analysis methods have been adopted from other parts of the world in response to satisfying the requirements of donors, rather than having been developed locally. However, this is a good beginning, and the significance is far-reaching (Zhao 2003).

As part of international NGO projects, the requirement to learn about feminism has been promoted as an element of gender mainstreaming. Books on feminism have been introduced to China by Li Xiaojiang, Wang Zheng and others. One of the earlier published books was The Feminine Mystique translated by Cheng Xiling into Chinese. Since then many books on feminist theory have been translated and many books on gender and development issues have been published by Chinese scholars and practitioners. In Yunnan, as well as elsewhere, local institutions and organizations of women/gender studies have been established. Some local NGOs already appeared in Yunnan before the United Nations World Conference on Women in 1995. These included organizations such as the Yunnan Reproductive Health Research Association, the Yunnan PRA Network (Participatory Rural Appraisal Network), Yunnan Reproductive Health Research Association and so on. Following the Women’s Conference other new organizations, such as CBIK (Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge) and the Yunnan Gender and Development Group were set up. These organizations have become main collaborative partners for international NGOs. Moreover, the knowledge and perspectives introduced by foreign NGOs has been further disseminated as scholars began to offer courses on feminist anthropology and gender and culture at universities in order to strive to transform understandings of gender analysis into public knowledge. Yunnan has become a foreland district in promoting the mainstreaming of gender in China as local NGOs and scholars interested in gender issues have worked together with various levels of government, research institutions, colleges, and social groups. The Yunnan Women’s Federation has been actively involved and has played the role of advocator of gender mainstreaming and organizer of projects to strengthen self-motivated activity of various target groups.

Challenges and Difficulties

Nevertheless, when international NGO projects entered China and Yunnan in the globalization era, the theories and working methods they applied were confronted with many challenges and difficulties. International NGOs entered China about twenty years ago. However, an efficient system to manage their activities has not yet been constructed. The Chinese government has never provided a precise definition of their legal status, function and relationship with government. This situation is obviously problematic for NGOs that have entered China, and as pointed out in a report on the activities of Save the Children by Zhou Hao (2001), it potentially opens up for corruption by institutions and individuals. Moreover, some international employees have limited knowledge of how Chinese society works, and have communication problems when they work with local employees and local cooperative partners. These problems make it relatively difficult for international NGOs to function in Chinese society., It especially makes some international NGOs unsure of how to adapt to and collaborate with Chinese governmental institutions. For example, based on a field study of a micro-loan project site in Tiechang village, Malipo prefecture of Wenshan district, American scholar Sarah Tsien (2003) concluded that a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project had operated well until the local government became involved in a similar project in the same community. Then, all project related regulations were adjusted in terms of loan amount, return terms and women’s privilege. As a result, the scope of the INGO (International NGO) project shrank, and loan and repay rates decreased. According to Tsien, the micro-loan system builds on the practice of the Bangladesh Grameen Bank. However, the micro-loan project at Tiechang village changed the meaning and its regulations of practice of the Grameen Bank system. Al
though the two projects have similar philosophical foundations, the contexts were significantly different, and the Grameen Bank practice in Bangladesh may not be suitable for Chinese society, as China has a more powerful government and more complicated social conditions than that of the Bangladesh.

Another problem faced by the International NGOs is the Chinese traditional gender institution and its impact on women’s development issues. Historically, Chinese society has had a social structure based on a patriarchal family, clan and state system and has maintained unequal gender relationships. This gender institution is firmly rooted in rural China and has implications for contemporary land rights. Land is the main economic resource in rural China, and women seem to have equal rights of land ownership following the 1978 economic reform and land contract policy in rural areas. However, since it has ignored the characteristics of the patriarchal system, the land contract is based on the unit of the household. This means that some women have had to abandon their land ownership after having married out of their villages. Thus, in practice rural women’s land rights are not ensured by national legislation. Women’s status of dependence and affiliation will not change as long as land distribution is manipulated by a patriarchal system in rural China. International NGOs have to face the challenges of this system in connection with implementing development projects. For example, in the Lesha poverty alleviation project in Dali, micro-loan projects targeted at women were shifted to men by the village head and male villagers as men manage all productive matters and loans are therefore assumed to be ‘naturally’ relevant for men rather than for women (Deng 2005). In sum, the gender system is a huge issue. It is extremely difficult to remove obstacles to gender equality and maintain the achievements gained by previous projects if there are only relatively few projects and there are not continuous follow-up projects.

Furthermore, although gender mainstreaming has always been the a prominent  theme for international NGOs, this aspect of development work seems to be weak within new topics such as environmental protection and the conservancy of ecological diversity, that have become the main focus of international NGO projects within recent years. We need to pay close attention to this unfortunate tendency. The issues confronting international NGOs which I have mentioned in this article threaten to reduce the validity of international NGO projects in China, and weaken the attention to the initial target of gender empowerment and gender equality. The international NGOs that have entered China within the past twenty years have many lessons to learn and long roads to walk in future.

Deng Jin, Microlending: Breakthrough under Rural Financial Inanition – Experiment on Shale town. China Financial Net Issued on?March 3rd, 2005.

Sarah Tsien, Money for the Villages: Yunnan Poverty and Microlending. Sam Mitchell edit: Tourism and Development in Yunnan. Yunnan Fine Arts Publish House 2003. p79.

Zhao Linxue, M. Bringing the Consciousness of Gender into the Project of Social Development  November 26th, 2003.

Zhou Hao: Help-poverty Projects (China Projects Department) of Saving Children, China help-poverty net. Issued around September, 2001.