This post was written by Ben Thomas who is pursuing a joint MBA/MPP degree at Duke.
With Shanghai’s dazzling skyline and acres of LED lights, its hum of commerce and activity, and its myriad manifestations of wealth and modernity, it’s easy to forget that there are still many in China that are less fortunate. After traveling through China for a few weeks on a GATE trip, an assumption had crept into my consciousness … with the rising tide, all boats in China had been lifted. However, visiting the Shanghai Social Innovation Park was a good reminder that despite astonishing economic growth, many in Shanghai and throughout China are not benefiting from the growth that has helped so many others.
Not only was the fledgling Shanghai Social Innovation Park a great reminder of the reality of the less privileged in China, it was tremendously satisfying to see innovative grassroots efforts in action.
For example, the Shanghai Social Innovation Park hosts a business that specialized in massages given by the blind. When I saw this, I was struck by what a good idea it was. Since touch is paramount to a good massage, perhaps massages given by the blind are better. When Miao Shiming—the CEO of WABC (a charity there that sells artwork by disabled people)—was asked why he cared to help others, he said it was his duty. How wonderful to see local innovation and passion!
During the visit, it hit me: this must be a new period of growth and experimentation for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in China. The whole concept and model of NGOs providing services must be somewhat foreign in China. After all, under communism the state provided all public services. Even after the decline of communism, family networks in China are renowned for taking care of one another. Therefore, it must be fascinating to be a part of NGOs as they find their way in China.
[Editor’s note: According to NPI staff, the development of the “Third Sector” in China is still in its early stages, with the first batch of grassroots NGOs emerging approximately 15 years ago. Within the past 3 – 4 years, the speed has accelerated as more and more favorable policies have been launched by some government agencies. Social enterprises are an even newer phenomenon in China and are just starting to gain momentum, with only a handful of well-established social enterprises. If you are interested in more information about the potential of social entrepreneurship in China, read Greg Dees’ remarks in Beijing earlier this year.]
One of the organizations that was not homegrown, Heifer International, was interesting for its own reasons. I imagine that Heifer—an organization that helps poor families by giving them livestock—is accustomed to working with recalcitrant governments that may only give lip service to helping the poor in rural areas. In China, the central government has repeatedly come out strongly in support of developing the rural areas, most notably in its recently approved Five-Year Plan. It seems that if Heifer can partner effectively with the Chinese government, it might be in a unique situation in which there would be tremendous opportunity to help the poor.
I left the Shanghai Social Innovation Park pleased to know that in a city renowned for commerce, the nonprofit sector was alive too. The visit also cemented the idea that while much has been made of the numerous commercial opportunities and burgeoning industries in China, growth is not restricted to the private sector. The Chinese nonprofit sector appears to be exciting and has a lot of growth potential too.
About NPI and the Shanghai Social Innovation Park: Since its establishment in Jan 2006, NPI has worked to promote social innovation and cultivate social entrepreneurs in China by granting crucial support to start-up and small to medium sized NGOs and Social Enterprises. Operated by NPI, the Shanghai Social Innovation Park (the Nest) celebrated its grand opening in July 2010. The park, established through a partnership between local government and civil society groups, is the first of its kind in the country and aims to cultivate social enterprises, solve social problems, and promote social progress. Focusing on providing on-site job training and employment opportunities to disabled people, the park now hosts projects that range from graphic design, an art school/ gallery and handicrafts, to a call center, a restaurant and management training.