In the 1990s, there was a great increase in the number of international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working in China, on everything from rural education and environmental protection to civil legal reform and socially-responsible small business development. My first experience with Chinese NGOs was interning with Handicap International in Beijing in 2003, teaching basic English to patients at a psychiatric hospital and editing English-language correspondences for the Chinese office staff. At the time, they were also working on sign language for deaf Tibetans.
Handicap International was typical of international NGOs and non-profit groups in China at the time, in that the office was staffed by Chinese people but, as one of many national branches, the organization and methods of the group were distinctly Western. In some groups like this, projects are chosen by an international committee or a group of “founding members” in the Western donor countries. This kind of arrangement can work on a host of issues, such as landmine removal, but the types of solutions that are needed to Save Tibet require a depth and sustainability that only local participant stakeholders can offer.
It was definitely a step up from initial efforts of early international nonprofit groups in China (and in other Third World nations), which focused primarily on the delivery of goods and services. In that arrangement, some key locals serve as upper-level contacts, but all decision-making takes place elsewhere by those footing the bill. The nonprofit that I worked for in Greater Tibet was quite a bit different than that. They had a single foreign director in the Beijing office to act as an international liaison for the group, but every other district office or program manager was Tibetan (except for those native-speakers like me teaching English classes).
A newer model is emerging for international development strategies, and it is the child of the kind of nonprofit that I taught for last year.
I had been told of a young Tibetan man that had set up a factory to build solar cookers. A solar cooker is a large mirrored dish that focus rays of the close Tibetan sun against a pot of water, which boils in about twenty minutes or so. The employees of the factory were Tibetan, and it was located near a common crossroads to be a model for other local entrepreneurs. I soon found out that the young Tibetan organizer had been taught grant writing by an organization similar to the on that I was teaching for.
He was exactly my age, and while he a student in an English language program in another province (at the time there were none in Sichuan) he was taught basic NGO skills. Even before graduation he and a couple of friends decided to create their own group. They started with a project to collect and redistribute used clothing. By the time I met them a few years later, they were finishing the installation of clean running water in a remote Tibetan farming village.
Fetching water each day is a time-consuming and laborious task that typically falls to girls and women. Streams and rivers are becoming more and more polluted in China and Tibet, and during the summer rains the water in the stream will often turn brown. Dehydration-related illness results, but the toll of people affected by carcinogens in the drinking supply is likely much larger.
Being from a similar area as the village, the young Tibetans were not only familiar with the basic problem of bad water, but the greater social system that reinforced it. In order to use the project as an opportunity for social empowerment, they required not only that a local project steering committee guide decision making, but that a certain number of them must be women. Moreover, the village had to contribute the labor to build the system. Their aim was to not only improve water quality in the village, but balance the number of boys and girls that had time to attend school.
We can see that Saving Tibet in present times means developing non-political methods that can address multiple problems at once. His group and others were also involved in providing libraries to Tibetan schools and preservation of traditional arts. They also held a workshop for area school principals to inform them that it was indeed legal in Sichuan to teach primary school subjects (other than Chinese class) using Tibetan instead of Chinese, a fact that many of them were skeptical to believe.
The purpose of my teaching English to those Tibetan students was so that they could gain enough points in the English sections of their exams to become English instructors and return to their hometowns, along with other newly educated Math, Chinese, Tibetan, and (much less commonly) Science teachers as a long-term strategy to improve the quality of life in Tibetan areas. Some of those teachers were hoped to break out to found nonprofits, lead schools (if they chose to join the Party—yes, there are a number of Tibetan members of the Chinese Communist Party), or become businessmen to raise the money necessary to uplift their communities.
The goal is for there to be less and less need for foreigners to run and manage development groups. That’s why when I get emails from adventurous young Americans asking me how to volunteer or get a job helping out in Tibet, I have been uncertain as how to respond. Most international groups can’t afford the time or resources to train unskilled (though unpaid) volunteers that are only interested in sticking around for the short-term.
[In fact, I completely lucked-out with my job. The original instructor that was to teach the class dropped out a few weeks before the term began, and I had happened to contact the organization when they had a real need. I had a decent handle on my Mandarin, had some experience tutoring, and most importantly had a college degree (so that I’d be eligible for a residence permit as a “foreign expert”). I squeaked in, and honestly it was pretty difficult at first. Like most Americans, I had never really thought about how to explain when you would use the Present Perfect instead of the Past Progressive tense, or teaching the difference in usage between the words “other” and “another.”]
All of this underscores the fact that the generation of educated, empowered Tibetans who know the effective and global methods that are necessary for sustainable development is just now emerging. But their independence and intimacy comes with a cost: organizations of this kind suffer the greatest risk of falling under suspicion by the government. To some of us on the ground, the Western students that unfurled a Free Tibet banner near Mt. Everest made our jobs that much more difficult. On the other hand, the international community should not turn their heads when local protests break out across an area and are met with a violent and shrouded crackdown.
I also appreciate the importance of what Tibetans in exile have done to preserve traditional Tibetan institutions, art, music, dancing and more. Their passionate advocacy for the cause of saving Tibet is pressing the entire world to acknowledge the political side of this struggle, and I believe that in the end Tibetan Buddhism and language will survive this trying historical period on both sides of the Himalayas. But in a land where many stable Tibetans keep a picture of Chairman Mao in the living room and His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the shrine room, it will take more than that alone to Save Tibet.