The village of Mendai is located in an impoverished part of western Hunan, a province in central China. Difficult to reach and suffering from a shortage of farmland and labor, it is also where I’ve spent the past year working on poverty alleviation programs.
Early this year, a group of university students visited the village as part of their research work. One of them remarked that the villagers were not poor at all. After all, this student said, they had televisions, telephones, rice cookers, and cooking oil — what else could they need?
At first, I didn’t know how to respond, since I had once felt the same way. I used to believe poverty was a matter of material limitations, and that lifting people out of poverty simply meant giving them enough money to buy the things they lacked.
Only after arriving in the countryside did I realize that poverty is a lifestyle. It is a way of thinking, one that permeates every aspect of people’s lives.
Sometimes, when villagers invite me over for a meal, I’ll lend a hand in the kitchen. Once, after plating a dish, I noticed some oil left over in the pan. As I went to wash it out, my host grabbed me by the hand. She showed me a nearby rice bowl, the inside of which was filled with blackened oil, old fried vegetables, and leftover gunk from the pan. “We can reuse it next time,” she said.
I wanted to tell her reusing oil like this was unhealthy, but I worried this would come off as elitist. I was reminded of all the times I had seen older residents walking around with holes in their shoes, or middle-aged women waking up at five in the morning to trek 10 kilometers on market day. It can be hard to watch, but even though you want to help, you feel powerless to do so. Buying someone a pair of shoes or a bus ticket to town doesn’t solve anything; all it does is draw attention to your status as an outsider.
The best way to help people is to get them to the point where they no longer feel the need to agonize over a bit of oil left in a pot, or to where they can buy shoes or a bus ticket on their own. Underlying current efforts to alleviate poverty and increase incomes in China is the desire to offer locals better development opportunities so that they feel safe and secure.
During a visit to impoverished Houlong Village in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in July, I learned that local residents had no land to cultivate and were utterly dependent on monthly welfare payments of 250 yuan ($38). The sum was just enough to survive, provided it was used thriftily. The villagers I interviewed all expressed a desire for more money and better lives, but when I asked them why they didn’t move to one of China’s large cities in search of work, they all shook their heads and said it was too far.
Some observers will say they were just making excuses for their own laziness. However, in my view, their reluctance stemmed from a fear of the unknown, and of taking risks. They would rather make do with 250 yuan than try something new.
Yet opportunities always involve uncertainty and risk. When we work with villagers, we must make every effort to assuage their fears of the unknown and convince them to put their faith in us. At the same time, we should push residents to share the risks involved among themselves. Poverty alleviation isn’t a matter of wishful thinking; it requires sustained and coordinated efforts.
Late last year, the NGO I work with, Serve for China, organized a New Year’s product fair across all of our various programs. Villagers would produce goods unique to their region or town, and we would take care of the packaging and marketing. Proceeds from the sale would be divided among the villagers. The local specialties in Mendai include larou, a kind of cured meat, and baogushao, a spirit derived from corn. Having managed to set up some sales channels in advance, we were relatively confident before production had even begun that we wouldn’t lose any money on the venture.
However, we didn’t want to tell the villagers that it was a surefire way to make a buck, as we worried it would turn the whole activity into just another handout. We decided to give residents two ways to participate in the project. The first was a direct goods-for-cash exchange with the cooperative we set up; the second was to trade their finished goods for shares in the venture, which would pay a dividend based on the project’s outcome.
Every time I visited a home to collect a family’s goods, I always stressed the same point: “There’s a chance we’ll make money and a chance we won’t. If you choose to take shares in the project, then you’ll receive a portion of any profits. But if the venture loses money, then you’ll share in the losses. Ultimately, about two-thirds of the villagers chose to take shares.
Goods produced in Mendai eventually brought in more than 100,000 yuan, and those villagers who chose the stock-based option received an average dividend of 1,000 yuan apiece. After Chinese New Year, those who had no shares in the project contacted me and asked whether we would run the same program again this year.
Although villagers were willing to put their faith in us and share in the risks involved in our project, if we were to leave, this willingness would disappear with us. The most important aspect of our work is helping villagers reach the point where they no longer need outside involvement to motivate them to improve their station. With this in mind, we decided to set our sights on the local youth, whom we hoped we could help start their own businesses.
This March we launched the Hiker Project, an initiative designed to help more poor families by providing exceptional young locals with the resources and training they need to start their own businesses.
As part of the project, we organized a series of educational workshops, inviting entrepreneurs from industries like farming and manufacturing to come and engage with local youngsters. These businesspeople shared their own stories and tried to ignite their audience’s passion for entrepreneurship.
Yayou, the township to which Mendai belongs, is also the source of the area’s water. The flavor of baogushao is in large part derived from the pure water used in its production, and my colleagues and I decided to make this drink the emphasis of our industry development efforts. Bringing together seven youth-operated liquor retailers from across Yayou’s six villages, we established the Baogushao Cooperative.
Unlike our previous venture, this time we decided to place a villager in charge of the cooperative: Ma Liping, who was just 27 years old. This transfer of power had a marked effect on members, who seemed encouraged by the shift.
Media organizations sometimes visit the village to conduct interviews, and we typically take them to one of the cooperative’s member establishments so they can snap photos or record video. One member, Long Jiujin, updates something every time he visits, whether it be laying concrete floors or exchanging wooden containers for ceramic ones. Most recently, he set up a new distillery. Long once told me, “I can’t just make them film the same thing every time they come here.”
When I first got here, I thought my job was to help people in the countryside. A year later, my views have changed. My work here isn’t just about helping to compensate for a lack of resources; rather, it is to open up new possibilities — which is far more important. It’s like a line of dominoes, where we act as the first tile. By pushing local residents to work their way out of poverty, we can create chain reactions that help whole communities reach better standards of living.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A villager walks past a local primary school campus in western Hunan province, July 12, 2015. Fu Zhiyong/VCG)