Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden are the duo behind the China Africa Project and hosts of the popular China in Africa Podcast. We’re here to answer your most pressing, puzzling, even politically incorrect questions, about all things related to the Chinese in Africa and Africans in China.
The story of the Chinese in Africa is one that has been largely defined by either state or corporate interests. While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Western nongovernmental organizations and other civil society groups that have long been active in Africa, there are a just a handful of similar Chinese organizations dedicated to charity and nonprofit development that are based on the continent.
The dearth of Chinese NGOs in Africa should not come as a surprise given that the rise of the nonprofit sector in China is a relatively new phenomenon. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 registered NGOs in China, most of which focus on domestic issues in areas such as poverty, environment and health. Now, however, a growing number of Chinese NGOs are looking abroad, particularly in Africa.
In much of the West, an NGO is often considered to be an independent entity, thus the name “nongovernmental.” In China, though, it is not that simple. Independent civil society groups, especially foreign groups, are largely viewed with suspicion by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. Over the past 12 to 18 months, the government has enacted a series of harsh new regulations to restrict the activities of both domestic and foreign NGOs operating within the country. The CCP, for its part, is worried about any organization, particularly those that deal with sensitive social issues like the environment, legal reform and human rights, as potential threats to its political supremacy. So facing pressure at home, an increasing number of Chinese nonprofits are turning abroad.
So while the Western definition of an NGO is that it is inherently “nongovernmental,” in the Chinese context that distinction is far more blurry as the lines that divide the state, the party and state-owned companies from one another are often harder to see. Within that matrix is fairly new kind of development organization known as a “GONGO” or Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organization. Typically, these GONGOs operate development projects as an extension of political or diplomatic agendas abroad, as is the case with Chinese GONGOs in certain parts of Africa.
The emergence of these so-called “GONGOs” in Africa is occurring at the same time that a new generation of young, highly-educated professionally-minded Chinese are also developing relatively new hybrid social entrepreneurship organizations focused on corporate social responsibility, education and wildlife conservation, among others. Groups such as Nairobi-based China House Kenya and Care For All Kids are among the best examples of this budding trend.