When charity fails poor mainland students

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2007, 12:00am

Higher education, especially for underprivileged children in rural communities, has been recognised as critical for social development in the mainland. As well as the help provided by government grants and scholarships, individuals on the mainland and foundations around the world have been making contributions.

Their assistance ranges from donations to build schools to sponsorship covering tuition fees and textbooks.

But, despite the need for sponsorship, helping underprivileged students is a delicate issue. For example, a group of donors in Hubei province recently stopped giving aid to five of their 22 recipients. The reason: these students had not reported their grades or expressed their appreciation to their sponsors during the past year.

In fact, grumbles from sponsors are becoming louder. The most frequent complaint is that recipients refuse to report their school grades.

Such disputes reveal a core problem in aid for schooling on the mainland. Although money is critical to improving education among the poor, money itself cannot instil confidence. Nor can it help students develop interpersonal skills and build social capital - objectives that are often overlooked in assistance projects.

There are three reasons for this. Traditionally, grants and scholarships come from the state, and there are no strings attached. In 2005, the Ministry of Education put aside 7.2 billion yuan to help children from poor families. Yet, state assistance is based on need, and the beneficiaries develop little in the way of responsibility or accountability to the source.

Second, the idea of charity on the mainland is relatively new, and donors still have to be educated on what they should expect as a result of their deeds. Although asking for grade reports or a thank-you note may not seem excessive, the uneven relationship often puts recipients in an unfavourable position. This can further undermine their confidence.

In fact, a survey by Peking University revealed that 80 per cent of students from rural regions reported feelings of inferiority. So, if donors' support is to yield desirable results, they will have to exercise self-restraint and help to nurture students' growth.

The lack of a well-developed charity network is the third problem in the aid programmes. Principled and proficient foundations not only bridge the divide between donors and the needy, but also work as a buffer between the two.

The process of giving and receiving should include an aspect of mentoring, so that poor children can learn to stand tall on their own and become catalysts for social change.

Assistance for poor mainland students is not about money; it's about what kind of people they can become. Thus, programmes have to be designed and evaluated carefully. This is where local and international non-governmental organisations in Hong Kong can play a big role.

Kitty Poon, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit