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Chinese NGO sends SOS on funding

Publication Date : 02-01-2014


As the clock on her kitchen wall struck 6 pm, Li Jiao was busy making pumpkin pancakes, the last of four dishes for her six "children".

"I love being with children, especially the very young, who depend on me as if I were the whole world to them," said Li, a slender woman in her 30s.

Worried about food safety, she grows corn and vegetables at the SOS Children's Village in Tianjin.

The former kindergarten teacher left her hometown in Hubei province to become a "mother assistant" about three years ago.

She was a perfect candidate for the job - single (she is divorced) with no children.

China introduced the family-based care model from SOS Children's Village International, a non-governmental organisation originating in Austria, in 1984. It is based on single women taking care of healthy orphaned or abandoned children.

There are 10 SOS Children's Villages on the Chinese mainland, employing more than 140 SOS mothers and about 50 mother assistants.

However, it is uncertain whether Li and other caregivers will be able to continue their work, as SOS Children's Village International plans to end its funding to China in 2016.

Matthias Scholz, a spokesman for the NGO, blames difficulties in fundraising in major Western donor countries due to the lingering global economic crisis as a major reason for its withdrawal.

He also points to the strengthened finances of the Chinese government amid the nation's rapid economic development.

"During the past few years, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has been progressively more involved in the implementation of policies, and taken on greater responsibilities in the framework of our partnership," Scholz wrote in an e-mail to China Daily. "This has led us to the conclusion that the Chinese authorities will shoulder virtually all the financing for our current programmes."

Li Jinguo, director of SOS Children's Villages China, said restrictions on public fundraising activities for overseas charitable organisations on the Chinese mainland were the final factor in international organisations' decision to stop treating China as a recipient.

The international organisation signed a contract with the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 1984.

Under this, it pays all caregivers' salaries and benefits, maintenance, living expenses of caregivers and children and other daily operating expenses in the villages. Local governments offer land and pay for executive staff in each village.

Li Jinguo said SOS has reduced its spending on Chinese projects since 2008.

SOS Children's Villages International has allocated about 591 million yuan (US$97.3 million) for the 10 villages on the mainland since cooperation started in 1984, the Ministry of Civil Affairs says.

The ministry recently held a meeting to discuss funding and other possible changes to SOS Children's Villages in China. The meeting was presided over by two deputy ministers.

It ended with consensus to "strive to solve the current problem and make the operating and nursing model more localised", according to a written reply China Daily received on Wednesday.

The ministry is considering the provision of cost of living subsidies for orphans in the 10 villages and earmarking funds from annual welfare lottery revenue and other possible channels to sponsor the villages if needed, the reply states.

Li Jinguo said, "I don't want to see the government taking over all SOS Children's Villages in China, as it means we risk losing our unique identity and will turn into a State-run welfare institution."

He said civil affairs authorities closed hundreds of privately run organisations dedicated to helping vulnerable children after a fire in January last year killed seven at an unregistered orphanage in Lankao, Henan province.

Tong Xiaojun, a professor specialising in child rights at China Youth University for Political Sciences, said the SOS Children's Village model has clear advantages for children's development when compared with most orphanages.

"The interaction with family members and the local community is vital for a child's growth, and SOS Children's Villages allow vulnerable children to regain the opportunity to live in a family environment," she said.

SOS Children's Villages China said about 40 percent of children who grew up in these villages went to universities, including 19 who went abroad for further education.

"Most of our children found work and got married after they left our villages," Li Jinguo said.

Funding channels

Deng Guosheng, director of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Centre, said it is inevitable that some international foundations will cut or stop their financial aid to China.

"Hundreds of thousands of chain organisations or grassroots organisations should think about localisation, and diversify their funding channels," he said.

Li Jinguo said he and his colleagues felt stunned when they heard of the international organisation's decision.

He sees the next three years as a key period for reforming the villages in China and says it has become harder for villages to find suitable children if they only foster healthy orphans.

"Every village was built to accommodate 120 to 140 children, but now about half are not fully occupied," he said.

Since the government started to provide cost of living subsidies in 2010 for orphaned and HIV-affected children not living in child welfare institutions, relatives of orphaned children have become more willing to raise them, he said.

"Chinese society has undergone dramatic changes in past decades. The plight of some children has become serious for reasons other than poverty, so our services should be expanded to reach vulnerable children in different situations, such as street children," he said.

However, such reforms can only be pushed forward if the government covers vulnerable children's living expenses or if the organisation can raise funds from the public.

"Children in plight" in China usually refers to those where one parent has died and the other wants to relinquish custody, or children whose parents have divorced after one was imprisoned and the other wants to give up custody.

"We had a meeting with our SOS mothers and most of them agreed to collect funds from the public," Li Jinguo said.

However, the organisation's first attempt at a charity auction of handicrafts - paintings by SOS children at a golf club in Beijing in November - did not go well as expected, he said.

"We lacked experience, so we only raised about 8,000 yuan," he said.

He added that his organisation is improving information disclosure on its website and training its staff members in fundraising skills.



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