Can China’s civil society organisations bark like two dogs?

In Beijing, today is the annual deadline every dog owner dreads – registration time. As this handy guide sets out, if owners don’t register their dogs by the end of May, the dogs risk being taken away as strays. Not being a dog owner, I am not aware of whether this is a unique system or whether it exists in other countries too. But what is definitely unique about the dogs in Beijing is that they are almost all very tiny. I call them “companion dogs” – they are cute, cuddly and even when they bark they sound more like monkeys than wolves. I love seeing them being walked by their owners, often dressed up in shoes and hats. Indeed, companion dogs are often now seen as status symbols. China is now the third largest dog-owning country behind the US and Brazil.

I often compare the “companion dogs” to the dogs I grew up with in Nairobi, which had a totally different function: Security. These “protection dogs” were large, toothy and barked very, very loudly. They were in packs, found at the entrances to large homes, sleeping during the day but wide awake at night, with the only dressing up subjected to being safety muzzles! But they were critical – in their own way.

The distinction between how dogs function into different societies is fundamentally driven by economic factors. China has fairly low per capita crime rates in comparison to other countries. “Protection” is less necessary. While in Kenya, crime – especially burglary – is rife, and “companionship” is less needed, not least because Kenya’s middle class is still relatively small, and people tend to spend more of their expenditure on children.

This all struck me when speaking at an event organized last year by the Asia Foundation for civil society organisations (CSOs) from China and other Asian countries to exchange ideas for how to cut poverty and solve development challenges.  

In many ways, the distinction between China’s CSOs and those from other countries such as Kenya are just as huge as the canine distinctions. On the one extreme, China’s CSOs are brilliant and well renowned for their service delivery – by which I mean their ability to disburse funds and other kinds of support to poor people across China, or help the government respond fast to natural disasters. In these circumstances they are true “companions” to people that need it, and in economic terms they enhance the impact of a stable and fairly predictable government.

On the other extreme, Kenya’s CSOs are best known for their advocacy work – providing a voice for marginalized people, pushing governments in place to support them more or change, and tackle key issues that governments might otherwise ignore. They offer real “protection” to people that need it, driven by the fact that the government of the day changes often, and therefore its ability to plan across the economy and into the long-term is limited.

These stark distinctions between Chinese and other CSOs could prevail far into the future, except for one new shift. Right now, the Chinese Government is asking Chinese CSOs to “go out” and take a stronger role in supporting poverty reduction and development in other countries. Indeed, in a place like Kenya, while there are plenty of “protection” CSOs, there are just a few excellent “companion” CSOs, such as Kenya Red Cross, who have played a major role in responding to man-made and natural disasters – such as the Westgate Shopping Mall attack, for example. More “companion” CSOs are needed, and China’s CSOs can share many lessons with them.

But the problem for the Chinese CSOs is that to be truly helpful in a place like Kenya they may also need to be able to deliver “protection” – when it’s needed. Put differently, in a place where there is crime, a “companion” dogs’ bark will not be loud enough to stop the crime from happening. The Chinese CSOs may well need to create an entirely new breed: dogs that can be companions as well as provide security.

This is where the Asia Foundation and other actors can be helpful. For example, a few years ago, UNDP China published a manual in English and Chinese for Chinese CSOs with exactly this “new breed” in mind. International organisations and others can and should encourage more interaction and partnership between Chinese and local CSOs on the ground in poorer countries, so that they exchange ideas and experience. They can also encourage Chinese CSOs to “internationalise”, using secondments, volunteers or other means to bring in senior expertise directly from other poorer countries, to help innovate and shape their new global programs.

People everywhere need both companions and security. Let’s hope we will get both from China in future.

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