Why Chinese education charities’ big giveaways rarely pay off

As China’s targeted poverty reduction campaign enters the home stretch – officials have pledged to build a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021 – education remains a key and shared goal, not only within government, but also among business and philanthropic leaders. In addition to public funding sources, schools and students across China receive billions of private donations each year, most of which aim to improve educational resources in disadvantaged areas. These fund a litany of priorities, from scholarships and school facilities to e-learning tools, free meals, volunteers and rural teacher training.

But are they getting results? It is one thing to donate new projectors to rural schools; It is quite another to realize that schools also need new curtains so that students can actually see what is on the screen. Audience attention tends to focus on dramatic events, such as when a girls’ charity fund diverts donations from boys, or when a student must climb a cliff to find an Internet signal for an online course. These incidents highlight inequalities in education, but they also foster a mindset geared towards quick and visible action, rather than sustainable development.

As a senior charitable education expert said in a training session I attended, “90% of social protection programs are not achieving the expected results. According to him, social organizations “often consider the beneficiaries of poverty reduction aid in the abstract, considering only” what we can give “without really understanding the needs of the target group”.

Indeed, the lack of precise information on local conditions hinders the effectiveness of many social protection programs in the country. This is especially true with non-governmental organizations. In theory, welfare programs should be based on field research and pilot projects, after which organizations write mature project proposals which are then evaluated by potential funders. In practice, consultations between the two parties are often lacking. NGOs lack the resources to conduct robust feasibility assessments, and donors are more concerned with their own favorite projects or the implementation of cutting-edge and fashionable solutions than the actual needs of communities.

A teacher and his only student at a rural primary school in Wanjia Village, Hunan Province, April 27, 2016. Li Ga / Xinhua

And because many social protection organizations lack a rigorous approach to project design, they can inject their own biases into poverty reduction work. For example, scholarships have grown in popularity among charities as a solution to the problem of high dropout rates. But the causes and types of dropout vary by region: Students in western China tend to drop out as early as elementary school, so a college scholarship wouldn’t do much to solve the problems of region, although it might work elsewhere.

Too many donors see themselves as investors and, as such, want to see their funds transformed into quantifiable results.

Another common problem with social protection programs is the excessive emphasis placed on “standardization”. A classic example is free meal programs that serve the same food every day, much to the chagrin of students. Other programs do not take into account the different nutritional needs of children of different age groups, undernourishing older students while over-serving younger ones.

The problem has been compounded in recent years by a government campaign to professionalize school canteens. Although forcing schools to sign contracts with qualified catering companies can improve food security, it tends to reinforce the trend towards standardization. As one researcher told me, “simpler is safer”.

Meanwhile, transportation, production and labor costs vary by region, while meal subsidies remain uniform. As a result, schools in some remote areas with high food costs have no way of providing free meals or can only provide a basic breakfast. Standardization represents equality of investments, not results, and ultimately leads to the scarcity and waste of resources.

This is compounded by the focus of the philanthropic sector on the logic of investment and return. Too many donors see themselves as investors and, as such, want to see their funds transformed into quantifiable results. This has a way of amplifying existing inequalities, as funds are funneled into safe bets at the expense of riskier projects, but indispensable elsewhere.

A daughter attends an online class under the table at her mother's booth at a wet market in Yuyangguan City, Hubei Province, April 29, 2020. People Visual

A daughter attends an online class under the table at her mother’s booth at a wet market in Yuyangguan City, Hubei Province, April 29, 2020. People Visual

For example, recent government policies have concentrated educational resources in township schools, while village elementary schools have slowly withered. Private capital was used to help support these vulnerable institutions, but now most social protection programs opt for the stability and security of working with larger-scale communal schools. This ends up worsening the inequitable distribution of resources among schools, although it should be noted that some welfare organizations are backing down by establishing a Alliance for small schools to ensure that children from the lower strata of society can enjoy the right to education.

The pursuit of quantitative results also hinders the long-term development of social protection programs. Helping a single small school build a library and implement effective management practices seems less impressive than donating hundreds of extra books to schools in dozens of townships. But large-scale giving often fails to maintain momentum over the long term, especially when donors do not work closely with recipients to ensure implementation.

To give just one example, many Chinese schools tend to view donated books as fixed assets and as such want to keep them in good condition, even if that means not lending them. This is a common dilemma in philanthropy, and the answer lies in sustained cooperation with local leaders and teachers, not larger donations.

Poverty is a complex structural social problem with no easy solution. It results from a tangle of customs, individual behavior and institutions, including social protection organizations. If we want a better future for every child, then social organizations need to stop seeing beneficiaries as mere abstractions who should be content with whatever they get, and start really trying to understand the places and people they get. they want to help.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait painter: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: A girl attends an online class under the table at her mother’s booth at a wet market in Yuyangguan City, Hubei Province, May 2020. Wen Zhenxiao / People Visual)

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