China learning to accept philanthropy

Officials in China's devastated Sichuan province are getting a crash course in a novel concept: accepting philanthropy. Since the May 12 earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people and destroyed homes across the region, millions may have been lost because officials were leery of taking money from nongovernmental organizations and private donors.

The problem isn't corruption or even plain incompetence. All public life in China was state-controlled until recently (anything sensitive still is), and many not-for-profit groups are barely legal even now. Local officials can't help being nervous about working with them; in other parts of the world NGOs have been criticized as Trojan horses for the West because of their efforts to open up societies and demand individual rights.

Qiu Tian, NGO project manager, says the head of one town where seven schools collapsed turned away an NGO offering psychological counseling to pupils; he worried about "involving strangers working in his area" and lacked the expertise to conduct background checks, she says. Such caution tends to be strongest among lower-level officials in outlying townships.

[Excerpt of an article by Mary Hennock, Newsweek]

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