Plan to pass welfare burden to NGOs may hit hurdles

Plan to outsource to civil organisations may stumble over restrictions on their operations, limits on their funding and official bias

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 4:01am

The central government has embarked on an effort to decentralise power and reduce the role of state agencies by making civil organisations responsible for providing social services.

The campaign, stressed in a State Council meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday, may struggle unless measures are taken to empower the nation's non-governmental organisations, which are subject to stringent regulations, according to analysts.

People at the State Council meeting said the central government would explore delegating public services to community groups or private enterprises through tenders, with mechanisms in place to ensure their performance was fairly evaluated, a Xinhua report said.

The step is intended to address a variety of social problems facing the mainland as its economy booms, observers said. Several key problems, such as the welfare of children left behind by parents working far from home, are affecting social stability.

The changing population structure, with more than 400 million elderly expected in 2050, is also leading the government to revamp welfare services. Several old people's homes already have a waiting list of about 5,000 people.

"When the government allocates more resources to community groups, the market for social services will open up," said Wang Zhenyao , director of the China Philanthropy Research Institute, a part of Beijing Normal University.

Yan Shuai , who has operated an old people's home for less well-off people in Beijing for seven years, welcomed the State Council initiative, but warned that it would face numerous hurdles. Local authorities will prefer to allocate land to property developers rather than community groups, given the higher tax revenues generated by business, Yan said.

Another difficulty is the extensive criteria the elderly face to be eligible for social welfare, he said. Most of the 160 people at Yan's home come from poor families, who can barely pay accommodation fees, which come to just under 2,000 yuan (HK$2,500) a month.

"Some of them cannot get medical benefits because they do not have a Beijing hukou," Yan said, referring to the controversial household registration system that allows citizens to get social services only in provinces where they are registered.

"One of them cannot get medical benefits because he has five children, even though the children are all poor."

The central government's national experiment has been tried before but at a local level. In recent years, some cities have launched pilot schemes to hand over public services to community groups. In Beijing, civil-affairs authorities delegated about 600 social services projects to civil groups in 2011.

Deng Guosheng , director of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Centre, said many mainland groups were not well equipped to bid for projects.

"The government invited tender for some projects, but no NGO bid for them," said Deng, who participated in the vetting process of the tenders. "Many NGOs are just small groups without much capital and only a few staff members, and are not qualified to launch large services."

NGOs are subject to stringent rules. For example, some can only operate in the provinces in which they are registered. Deng said officials should promote the expansion of NGOs, and ensure a transparent and fair tendering mechanism.

"Some government agencies only grant the project to the NGOs affiliated with them. These NGOs somehow enjoy a monopoly status and lack the impetus to improve the quality of their service," Deng said.

Li Tao , who runs a Beijing-based organisation that was granted government contracts to provide health care to the children of migrant workers and train other NGOs, said some government departments were reluctant to commission NGOs.

Even NGOs that won a tender often received only about 50,000 yuan from the government, although for very large projects the amount might go up to 200,000 yuan, he said. This meant any remaining expenses fell to the NGO to cover, he said.

"Some NGOs are exhausted after completing a project and there is no mechanism for them to review their performance or get feedback," Li said.

"When we commission NGOs to launch social services, we should also aim that the NGOs grow and develop as a result."