As China’s targeted poverty alleviation drive enters the home stretch — officials have promised to build a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021 — education remains a key, shared focus, not just in government, but also among business and philanthropic leaders. In addition to public funding sources, schools and students across China receive billions in private donations each year, most of which are directed toward improving educational resources in impoverished areas. These fund a litany of priorities, from scholarships and school facilities, to e-learning tools, free meals, volunteers, and rural teacher trainings.
But are they getting results? It’s one thing to donate new projectors to rural schools; it’s another to realize the schools also need new curtains so students can actually see what’s on the screen. Public attention tends to fixate on dramatic events, like when a charitable fund for girls diverts donations to boys, or when a student must climb a cliff to find an internet signal for an online class. These incidents spotlight educational inequality, but they also foster a mentality geared toward quick, high-profile action, rather than sustainable development.
As a senior expert in educational charity once put it at a training session I attended, “90% of social welfare programs fall short of their expected results.” In his view, welfare organizations often “regard the recipients of poverty alleviation assistance in the abstract, only considering ‘what we can give’ without really understanding the needs of the target group.”
Indeed, a dearth of accurate information about local conditions hampers the effectiveness of many of the country’s social welfare programs. This is especially true with nongovernmental organizations. In theory, welfare programs should be based on field research and pilot projects, after which organizations draft mature project proposals that are then assessed by prospective funders. In practice, the consultations between the two parties are often lacking. NGOs don’t have the resources to conduct robust feasibility assessments, and funders are more concerned with their own pet projects or implementing cutting-edge, fashionable solutions than the actual needs of communities.
A teacher and his sole student at a rural primary school in Wanjia Village, Hunan province, April 27, 2016. Li Ga/Xinhua
And because many social welfare organizations lack a rigorous approach to project design, they may inject their own biases into poverty alleviation work. For example, scholarships have gained popularity among charities as a solution to the problem of high dropout rates. But the causes and types of dropouts vary by region: Students in western China tend to drop out as early as elementary school, so a scholarship aimed at middle school students would do little to address the region’s problems, even if it might work elsewhere.
Another common problem with social welfare programs is an overemphasis on “standardization.” A classic example of this are free meals programs that serve the same food every day, much to the displeasure of students. Other programs fail to take into account the different nutritional needs of children in different age brackets, underfeeding older students while over-serving younger ones.
The problem has been compounded in recent years by a government drive to professionalize school cafeterias. Although requiring schools to sign contracts with qualified catering companies can improve food safety, it tends to reinforce the trend toward standardization. As one researcher told me, “simpler is safer.”
Meanwhile, the costs of transportation, produce, and labor vary by region, while meal subsidies remain uniform. As a result, schools in some far-flung areas with high food costs have no way to provide free meals or can only offer a basic breakfast. Standardization represents an equality of investments, not outcomes, and ultimately leads to resource scarcity and waste.
This is worsened by the philanthropic sector’s fixation on the logic of investment and returns. Too many donors view themselves as investors and, as such, want to see their funds transformed into quantifiable results. This has a way of magnifying existing inequalities, as funds are channeled to sure bets at the expense of riskier, but much needed projects elsewhere.
A girl attends an the online class under the table of her mother’s stand at a wet market in Yuyangguan Town, Hubei province, April 29, 2020. People Visual
For instance, recent government policies have concentrated educational resources in township schools, while elementary schools in villages have slowly withered away. Private capital used to help sustain these vulnerable institutions, but now, most social welfare programs opt for the stability and security of working with larger-scale township schools. This ends up worsening the inequitable distribution of resources between schools, though it should be noted that some social welfare organizations are pushing back by establishing an alliance for small schools to ensure children at the lowest rung of society can enjoy the right to an education.
The pursuit of quantitative results also impedes the long-term development of social welfare programs. Helping a single small school build a library and implement effective management practices looks less impressive than donating hundreds more books to schools across dozens of townships. But large-scale donations often fail to sustain momentum over the long term, especially when donors don’t work closely with recipients to ensure implementation.
Just to give one example, many Chinese schools tend to regard donated books as fixed assets, and as such want to keep them in good condition — even if that means not lending them out. It’s a common dilemma in philanthropy, and the answer lies in sustained cooperation with local officials and teachers, not larger donations.
Poverty is a complex, structural social problem with no easy solution. It arises from a tangle of customs, individual behaviors, and institutions — including social welfare organizations. If we want a better future for every child, then welfare organizations need to stop seeing recipients as mere abstractions that should be satisfied with whatever they get, and start truly trying to understand the places and people they want to help.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A girl attends an the online class under the table of her mother’s stand at a wet market in Yuyangguan Town, Hubei province, May 2020. Wen Zhenxiao/People Visual)