Your search keywords:

Zou Zhiqiang: There shouldn’t be a gap between policy and local level needs

Zou Zhiqiang: There shouldn’t be a gap between policy and local level needs

China Foundation for Rural Development (CFRD), earlier known as China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) is the only active Chinese NGO working in Nepal. The NGO started its work in Nepal right after the earthquake of 2015 through an emergency response program. Shristi Kafle spoke with Zou Zhiqiang, director of the Nepal office of CFRD, on various aspects of poverty alleviation measures in Nepal.

Last month marked the ninth year of your organization working in Nepal. How is the experience so far?

When I first arrived in Nepal in 2015, I almost felt like it was my hometown. It was similar to any other Chinese provinces like Yunnan and Sichuan, just across the Himalayas. Before coming here, I worked in mainland China for 15 years and then in Ethiopia and Sudan. All those experiences helped me and my organization to start our journey. CFPA came to Nepal immediately after the devastating earthquake of April 2015. At least 28 people worked here in the beginning for relief and rehabilitation programs, while the international department worked together with the Nepali volunteers. Coincidentally, it was also the 60th year of establishment of diplomatic relations between Nepal and China. Besides immediate support, my job was to do research, planning and share proposals for long run support programs, as we realized that people needed us after the disaster. We didn’t work alone, but coordinated with the Chinese Embassy, over a dozen Chinese NGOs, the United Nations Nepal team, and other international donors. When the disaster emergency response team returned in June, it was only me who stayed back because there were many unfulfilled jobs. Gradually, we focused on other areas of work. There were rough roads too, but overall, with the support of our local partners and love of the general public, it has been a fulfilling experience so far. 

What are the major working areas of CFRD at the moment?

 After 2020, our major focus is on rural development. We changed from CFPA to CFRD. We work on health, education, drinking water and WASH, skill development of youth, women and microfinance, school meal and warm kits distribution, among others. We completed reconstruction of three school buildings destroyed by the earthquake in the Kathmandu valley. Last year, we focused our support to earthquake-affected communities in Jajarkot and Rukum West. Recently, we kicked off the first tea project in Nuwakot for value chain enhancement through Chinese machineries and equipment. We have continued serving nutritious meals to around 10,000 students in 52 schools of Dang, Kathmandu and Lalitpur. These are just a few activities. 

From 2015 to 2023, we have spent $10,350,000 in Nepal, and almost 650,000 people have benefited. As the biggest foundation of its type in China, we focus on agricultural industry development, creation of an internet platform to sell agro products and items to cities, tourist villages, and training the local farmers. All these programs were  successful in China. So we are blending these experiences in Nepal as well. 

How is the Chinese NGO different from other NGOs working in Nepal? 

As an NGO, we do not want people to be dependent upon us. Instead, we believe in providing skills and techniques to locals after which they can support themselves. I see that so many I/NGOs talk about rights, but care less about ground reality and livelihood. For instance, when we talk about women’s rights, it means women should be economically independent. We provide them with practical training, we want women to learn, and make money and live a confident and comfortable life. If they are engaged in any agricultural or skill related product, we provide them training on research, marketing, and how to brand their goods and sell at a higher price. For those who do not have any access to financial institutions, we have supported them with basic things like how to use and save money, and open bank accounts. We work closely with the community. I myself spend more than 120 days a year in the field. This is the major difference. We have partnered with over 20 Chinese donor institutions so far. Besides, we have come up with two books as guidelines for other Chinese NGOs who want to work in Nepal. CFRD doesn’t just work alone, we all want to work together to help more Nepali people.

How is the coordination with the local governments and agencies? What are the challenges?

I would say the major challenge here is geography, which is very uneven and even dangerous in some places. It’s easy to work around Kathmandu and other major cities, but to reach far flung areas, the transportation cost is high. And half a year, works are halted by monsoon and monsoon induced disasters. Besides geography and weather, the bureaucratic process is also difficult. Whenever we submit a proposal, it has to go through many channels, and most of our time is wasted just in waiting. The government keeps changing in Nepal, as do the officials in many departments. 

Sometimes, even a single permit could take three years. It’s comparatively getting better in recent times, as I feel the Social Welfare Council is working efficiently. In terms of working with the local governments, it’s quite easy as they are quick in response and management. Local government is more active than the center. Local representatives are from communities, so they come up with important proposals, which are related to the real needs of people, and the implementation part is satisfactory. But the central system is often changing. In terms of other partners, we worked with some 20 NGOS across the country, and we believe their capacity building is also important. So, we are also assisting in capacity building of local NGOs and staff.

You have visited many districts of Nepal. How do you find the living situation and poverty status of people outside Kathmandu? Is it similar to Chinese society?

I have visited at least 66 districts of Nepal, covering mountain, hill and Tarai region. Based on my experience of working in Nepal for nine years, I find that Nepal’s poverty status is better than China's. Decades ago, when I started work in this program, Chinese people were really poor. There was a lack of arable land and the weather was not favorable. There was a problem with the drinking water facility too. Resettlement was a huge challenge. In Nepal, I find comparatively a better situation. When someone has fertile land, and is provided with seeds, at least he will not sleep hungry. The problem in China was more serious. It’s a different kind of opportunity here. There are new concepts and ideas in agriculture and production, and immediately you can reap benefits out of something. This gives me hope. Last time, under the agro support project, we invited an expert team to conduct soil tests and water tests in some places, and found that everything was organic. In China, it would have been filled with chemicals. Thus, organic products in Nepal have a huge market, and they can be sold at higher rates. In Nepal, everyone has at least something to eat. People do not get nutritious food, enough meat or protein, but they do not sleep hungry. It should be counted as a blessing. 

What are the similarities between the Chinese and Nepali way of working for poverty alleviation and rural development?

Poverty is not just about food and housing, but it also incorporates many other components like safe drinking water, education, and basic health care. Thus, the poverty alleviation measure should be multi-dimensional. There should be a solid long-term strategy. Since 1989 till now, we have worked under the robust guidelines. In terms of the Chinese way of working, there is a strong collaboration from the top to the bottom. For instance, the east team of the country works together with the west team and share their experiences and expertise. There was also a provision that the officers needed to work in another province for three years in order to get their promotion. This is how the teams were mobilized to work in backward regions and at the grassroots level. Each country has its own distinctive national conditions, and the policies should be made accordingly. Nepal might have its own strategy, but it can definitely learn from Chinese anti-poverty experiences.