It is time to make up our minds on whether we want an “Asian way” on activism

By Chandran Nair

This column appears in the Ethical Corporation February 2007 issue.

If the international media is to be believed, non-governmental organisations in Asia are fighting pitched battles against the threat of choking air, seething rivers and stark, treeless landscapes.

And they suggest incompetent governments, corrupt businesses and an apathetic public make the task tougher. The “ravaged Earth” image is plausible but that of “eco-warriors against the rest” is simplistic. The reality is that civil society throughout Asia is suffering an identity crisis.

Asia’s civil society needs to carve itself an identity distinct from the west’s “brand-name” organisations.

There is no question that western NGOs make a valuable contribution. But they dominate headlines and the fierce competition for funding. This hamstrings home-grown organisations, whose work could well be closer to the pulse of communities’ needs. Many work in providing free or low-cost education, medical services or care for children, the elderly, or those on the fringes of society.

Think local

Asian civil society organisations clearly face challenges, not least competing with international reputations. Unfortunately, what makes western or western-backed NGOs seem more credible is at the heart of the friction. Their leaders, invariably westerners with fine credentials, are often not the most appropriate to be leading work in Asia.

This may be why the region’s governments, policy leaders and corporations view them with suspicion: they represent a subversive movement for change from the west. How many opportunities have been lost through a desire to spite the interfering and preachy foreigner?

Local NGOs have expressed resentment that these “star NGOs” have not so much stolen their thunder as dictated the agenda. Often the issues are seen through western eyes and with western sensibilities – after all, the NGOs’ funds come from donors in the west, as well as western-educated Asian elites, who demand specific actions.

Their campaigns play to these donors, and are not based on local needs; there have been charges levelled of neo-colonialism. In addition, local NGOs cannot attract the talent needed, such is the draw of positions with western NGOs in some of the most needy countries.

Local civil society organisations must pick up their game amid tough competition. They may need to attend to their organisation and operation, especially on measuring and producing results, writing proposals and reports, and accounting for funds. Then exceptional local talent may be attracted to lead these local bodies. Maybe their current lack of interest reflects a need for greater professionalism – and competitive wages.

There are many benefits to this kind of progress. Not least it would address some of the frictions. The presence of top local leadership would add strength to local groups, and the emphasis could shift from an almost exclusive campaigning focus to more Asian and local research. A distinct weakness now leaves the likes of leading international financial institutions looking elsewhere for strong insights into Asia.

Do it our way

Another challenge exists where civil society intersects with government and business. These sectors may not always agree, but governments and businesses must see that encouraging the growth of local civil society is the same as encouraging Asians to understand what they want and question what their own peculiar needs are in the globalised economy. Asians may need to rediscover – or create – Asian ways of engagement and they may decide that the confrontational western approach is not inappropriate in Asia.

The value of agencies’ work on environmental, social, labour, medical and human rights issues, as well as on disaster and famine relief, can only be maintained with the support of corporations, the government, and the media – to bring it to the conscience of society at large. But their backing in Asia is patchy.

The work of both international and home-grown NGOs brings benefits, but there is a fine line to tread. Asians must take their own approach to their own campaigns. They must clear up issues of contention and recognise that having an active local civil society does not suggest society is in difficulty, but that it is in fact engaged in bettering itself.

The book, in Chinese and English, is called “A Child’s View of the UNCRC” and is the first child-friendly version of the convention in Hong Kong. With special insights from children who took part in its production, the book tries to help children learn about their rights and responsibilities in a way that they can enjoy while learning.

The UNCRC was extended to Hong Kong in 1994. It aims to protect 1.3 million Hong Kong children from harm. Yet many children have never heard about it because the official version is too difficult for them to understand, hindering their learning about their rights.

The book is to be launched by the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights at the “A Child’s-Eye View of the UNCRC” Book Launching Ceremony-cum-Child Rights Carnival” at the Plaza of Kwai Tsing Theatre on Sunday, 4 February.

Children's commission

An independent report commissioned by the committee, "Shaping the Future", showed there is unanimous support for a separate and independent children’s commission. The study on which the report is based was carried out by the Global Institute For Tomorrow on behalf of the Committee. The report was released on 17 December 2006.

Dr Kwok Ka Ki, who represents the medical functional constituency in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, is to be guest of honour at the afternoon launch.

The carnival is to mix the serious with the fun, with “experiencing classrooms” in child poverty, inclusion, and right to education; games; a drawing competition; as well as the book launch.