Introduction: This article profiles two Chinese volunteers who are in the first batch of volunteers to be sent overseas by China through the international organization, Volunteer Services Overseas (UK). These volunteers will participate in international poverty-relief and development efforts in Africa. Along with an earlier CDB piece on the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation’s international strategy, this article is yet another example of the gradual internationalization of China’s nonprofit sector.
Through the efforts of VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas UK) over the past 30 years, more than 750 international volunteers have served in China. On February 16, VSO held a press conference to announce the first batch of VSO volunteers from China to go abroad to participate in international poverty reduction and development projects. This shows a new role for Chinese civil society as a partner in international cooperation efforts.
In 2010, after approval by the Ministry of Commerce, VSO (www.vsointernational.org), together with the China International Center for Economic and Technical Exchanges (中国国际经济技术交流中心), the Beijing Volunteers Federation (北京市志愿者联合会), and the Volunteers Working Committee of the China Association of Social Workers (中国社会工作协会志愿者工作委员会), recruited for the first time ever volunteers from throughout China to participate in VSO’s global projects.
To better understand the experiences of these volunteers in Africa, China Development Brief profiles two of these volunteers.
Liu Jie will serve as a management consultant for AIDS projects in Nigeria for 12 months, starting in February of 2011. Wan Fang will begin a two-year stint in March as a development consultant in Kenya, supporting capacity building in local non-profits.
We also interviewed the VSO’s chief representative in China, Li Guozhi, who spoke on VSO’s recent strategic transformation, its new domestic and international positioning and other plans, including the unprecedented move to send Chinese volunteers overseas. Chinese volunteers will conduct testing on the water supply in African communities, work that is emblematic of China’s expanding world-view, focusing not only on economic and trade relations between government and business, but also on international development and assuming responsibility for social harmony at the international level. Through the efforts of volunteers like Liu Jie and Wan Fang, China hopes to bring about a more lasting impact on the world.
Readers interested in contacting these two volunteers about their experiences in Africa, can do so through email. Liu Jie: liujie.tracy @ gmail.com; Wan Fang: firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers wishing to learn more about VSO’s international volunteer programs may contact Wang Qinghua: wang.qinghua @ vsoint.org .
Liu Jie: Sharing life, knowledge, and skills in far away Africa
VSO International volunteer Liu Jie has never been to Africa, and her impression of the continent was limited to her own speculation and a host of conflicting facts she gleaned from the media. Initially, she thought of Africa as a land of blue skies and white clouds, where people led simple, happy lives close to nature. At the same time, she heard that Africa, including Nigeria where she would soon travel, was developing rapidly. As a Chinese citizen, Liu Jie knows what [rapid development] can mean. Furthermore, oil-rich Nigeria has encountered a problem common to many developing countries: the resource curse. The exploitation of natural resources has brought with it a large wealth gap and social conflict, as well as instability and violence.
Liu’s notions of Nigeria reflect different aspects of its complex reality. On March 4, Liu left Beijing for Nigeria, to test her impressions through personal experience.
Liu will work in the city of Kaduna, a two hours’ drive north of the capital city of Abuja. There, she will work with a local NGO engaged in AIDS prevention, working primarily with women in the Muslim community. Of Nigeria’s population of 150 million people, some 3 million live with HIV; this large-scale epidemic has become a source of widespread suffering in this country. Liu previously worked at the China HIV/AIDS Information Network (CHAIN, 全国艾滋病信息资源网络) and the Global Fund to promote civil society organizations’ involvement in AIDS prevention and to increase the overall capabilities of NGOs.
Compared with the experience of Wan Fang, who left for Kenya at the same time, Liu Jie’s path to Nigeria was long and bumpy. After her application was accepted, Liu Jie began to prepare for her trip. After leaving her job, she received news in March of 2010 that her trip would be delayed. When she heard that there would be a possible opportunity to volunteer later in November, she turned down a satisfying short-term job opportunity, only to find that at long last, in February of 2011, she would finally be able to leave for Africa.
“At first, I felt excitement. When it was time to prepare to leave, I felt panicked and then when I left work only to have to wait again, that first time, I was frustrated. Then I had to wait again for another opportunity and I was impatient. Then, to finally to be able to start volunteering left me feeling the excitement again. Now, I feel remarkably calm. It seems strange to me and I wonder, how can I feel tranquil?” Liu described the ups and downs of her preparation process as “dramatic.”
Like Liu, Wan faced doubts and confusion leading up to her departure. Liu notes that “the culture and customs [in Africa] are so different from China’s and even Asia’s. I do not know how I will make myself useful.” During the long waiting process, she questioned her own ability to offer real help once in Africa, and wondered whether she was just wasting resources and her own time. However, after two rounds of training in the Philippines, she gained more confidence. Her training included classes on cultural immersion and acceptance, how to adapt to different ideas, and especially how to be tolerant towards different religious beliefs.
Concerns about disease were also ever-present. “Psychologically, I’ve been preparing for a long time, but even so, I’m worried about malaria, and other contagious diseases. It’s virtually impossible for Chinese people to avoid mosquitos and infection over there.” Wan completed her required vaccinations last year, after which she went about purchasing preventative medications, though she wasn’t able to purchase medicines to treat the actual diseases. Wan found some consolation in reports that her post is in an area with decent medical care.
Traditional family values in China are such that a personal choice is rarely personal—rather it involves the whole family. This is especially true for Liu, an only child. Liu’s family have questioned, even opposed, many of her life choices, but ultimately they have respected her right to choose her own path. Liu is grateful for and proud of the open-minded support from her parents. Soon before her departure, Liu’s grandmother suddenly fell ill with an advanced cancer, adding yet another complication to her departure. With her departure date fixed, Liu spent as much time as possible with her grandmother, but ultimately left as planned.
Any given choice has its own logic. Previously, Liu left the China HIV/AIDS Information Network and joined Ark of Love (爱之方舟), an organization serving AIDS patients, where she volunteered for nine months. Working with this demographic that has no choice but to persevere in the face death influenced Liu’s eventual decision to go to Africa. “As a volunteer there, I felt like I wasn’t being useful, but they were in my life and I was in theirs. It was such a meaningful experience.” Now, after more than five years of experience working with AIDS organizations, Liu finally feels that she has something to bring to the table, and using VSO as a platform, Liu can share her knowledge and skills with needy communities in distant Africa.
As “a representative of a handful of passionate idealists,” Liu is looking forward to going to work in the communities and sharing life, learning experiences, and skills with locals. If time allows, she further hopes to apply her experience working on capacity building in grassroots organizations in China for the benefit of local, African organizations.
Speaking of the future, Liu declared herself to be unambitious, and without specific plans: “When the year is up, if they still want me, and if I’m being useful to them, I’ll plan to stay on for another year. From the perspective of project management, you need two years before you can look back and really evaluate what you’ve accomplished.”
Wan Fang: Looking forward to an exotic trip
While one’s thirties are a period of newfound maturity, there is still time to try new things. And for the unfettered heart, there is a chance to start another life. Wan Fang, at 30 years old, and as a member of the first batch of Chinese volunteers sent abroad by VSO, left for Kenya on March 3rd for a 24-month period of voluntary service to provide capacity building support at a community school.
After six years of working in sales and market research, and after many years volunteering and participating in public service projects, Wan Fang ultimately found success in her application to volunteer through VSO. She will work at a school located three hours from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital; her main task will be to develop academic curricula, provide capacity building support, and vocational skills training for marginalized youth.
“I wanted to try this while I’m still young; as I age, I’m not sure whether I will have the same enthusiasm and abilities, or the desire to travel to far off places.” In Wan’s eyes, life is a series of journeys, and while some people are content to stay on a fixed, steady course, she wants to experience the joys of discovery, learning, and sharing with others. The chance to use her marketing expertise and skills to do something for Africa, while experiencing a different culture and ways of working, proved irresistable to Wan.
“Helping real communities through an NGO is so much more attractive to me than chasing profits in some corporation.” Although Wan previously worked in the for-profit sector, she also pursued public interest work . In 2007, she participated in Green River’s (绿色江河) immigrant-village project in Ge’ermu, Qinghai, where her work focused on training, developing goods for sale in tourism, and a waste census. Her choice was carefully considered, and not simply a leap into the unknown.
Having passed the VSO international volunteer preliminary application, Wan attended two rounds of intensive volunteer training in the Philippines. There, she met prospective volunteers from many different countries and received cultural adaptation training in this international environment. This was also a period of psychological adjustment as volunteers reached the stage of final selection. This gradual process allows hesitant volunteers the opportunity to opt out, and it galvanizes those who are more committed. During her training, Wan met nearly 40 other individuals (her “sworn brothers and sisters”) from Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and other countries, all with different backgrounds in international volunteerism. Meeting them broadened her understanding of internationalism.
And yet, Wan’s vision of the future is tinged with uncertainty and a trace of apprehension.
“Will I be able to adapt to life there?” Wan asked friends, half-jokingly, at the bustling VSO exchange conference. Many VSO international volunteers experience feelings of excitement and exhiliration on arriving at their post, but that usually fades within the first three months, often leaving them depressed. In fact, Wan admits to not feeling completely prepared. Water and sanitation are both concerns. Wan, who is used to the amenities of life in a large city will certainly need to adjust to life without them. There is also the question of cultural immersion and getting to know the local community there, which presents a more exciting challenge.
Of course, with China’s growing influence, some elements of Chinese culture are no longer strange for Kenyans. At the exchange conference, Wan Fang remarked to a Kenyan consulate official that she wanted to learn the local language, Swahili, as soon as possible. The official replied, half-jokingly, that there was no need since many locals have already begun to learn simple Mandarin.
“This is neither the first paragraph of my own life story, nor the last.” As for the challenges she will face, Wan says she’s not trying to be a martyr, nor is she trying to bring sweeping change to the world. And while her initial motivation sprung from idealism and a yearning for new experiences, Wan says her focus now is on setting realistic goals and working steadily toward them. She hopes to share her experiences in a book, and maybe, in the process, learn something about herself.
Wan is caught up in this era of globalization and caught up in the transformation of China. China’s vision of the future, meanwhile is expanding beyond political and economic affairs, and increasingly includes international development and social equity. Through volunteers like Wan Fang, China may indeed achieve a more lasting impact on the world.