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Challenges for young people at China’s NGOs

Dan Murphy

Readinch

Civil society groups not only play an important role in tackling China’s environmental crisis, they also employ the environmental leaders of tomorrow. Considering these young people will benefit the green groups of the future, says Dan Murphy.
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Zhang Tianming is a 23-year-old college graduate from Kunming, southwest China, with spiky, prematurely greying hair and great sense of humour. Zhang studied environmental science at a good university, and interned at a well-known Chinese environmental NGO. He helped to lead his campus green group and is passionate about environmental issues: it is his dream to work for a green NGO. His next job, however, is likely to be with a private company.

After graduation, Zhang worked for a short time with a “government-organised non-governmental organisation”, or GONGO. But he left after several months. It was poorly managed, he says, and career advancement was very difficult unless you had already worked in government.

Civil society plays an expanding role in China’s environmental issues. NGO directors are often public figures, well-connected in politics, academia or the media. But few observers spare a thought for the young workers at China’s green NGOs, who often lack the same social recognition, international connections, job security or prospects.

Pressures

“My family has worked long, hard hours selling fruit in the market in order to support me and send me through school,” says Zhang. “Now I need to find a job to help support my family.” Zhang’s family says that the security, higher pay and enhanced social status that come from working with a private company or in government will provide him with a better future.

As China’s single-child generation think about caring for their ageing parents, Zhang is not alone in feeling family pressure on account of his work with an environmental group. Another young NGO worker I spoke to has hidden his true profession from his family, telling them for years that he works for a private company.

People are often unfamiliar with the NGO sector, and young staffers are often seen as having a low social status. At a recent meeting with the director of a local NGO and a group of Chinese and American students in the south China city of Nanjing, the questions from the US students centred on pollution and public policy. Many Chinese students, however, were more guarded. They questioned the role NGOs could play in Chinese society, and asked why anyone would work at an NGO, rather than a private company.

The rising cost of living and the threat of inflation have made this caution more acute. Many NGOs are supported by fixed-termed funding and are not financially self-sufficient. When it comes to cutting staff, young people are often the first to go, and finding a job in a different sector can be difficult. Prospective employers do not always value NGO sector experience.

Internships are financially challenging too. Interning for a green NGO during university, Zhang slept on the floor of the office to save money. Nonetheless, competition for jobs at Chinese NGOs is stiff, and there are relatively few outside Kunming and Beijing, which are known as China’s “NGO capitals”.

Another stumbling block is the education system. When Zhang was at university, his newly established environmental science programme lacked structure and proper organisation. Consequently, he and other students were forced to study independently.

Camaraderie

There is some good news, however, for young people wanting to help the environment. Zhang first learned about green issues and NGO management while helping out with his university environmental group. For him, the organisation was a fantastic way to learn about the issues and gain leadership skills.

Last year I attended a meeting in Nanjing, largely organised by college students, which drew over 30 local green groups as well as reporters and a representative from the local environmental protection bureau. The event was a great success, and gave many students valuable experience organising and advertising for the event.

In the end, some of the same social pressures that make working at an NGO difficult can make it rewarding. Perhaps because many people misunderstand the work of green groups, there is a strong sense of camaraderie within the NGO community. Like many young people in China, Zhang’s interest means he still works as a volunteer for an environmental group during his spare time.

But what does the future hold for Zhang? If he was presented with an average-salaried, stable position at a green group, he says he would take it. But at least for now, Zhang will be putting his scientific knowledge and leadership skills to use at a company.

Lowering the hurdles that Zhang and young people like him face will be a difficult task, but it may be essential to train a new generation of NGO leaders in China.

Are you a young person working for an NGO in China? Or are you campaigning on green issues in the west? Did you find this article accurate, or do you have another story to tell? Leave a comment – and tell us about your experience.


Dan Murphy graduated from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Homepage photo by Joshua Wickerham via Flickr

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来自英国的观点

我是一个为英国的绿色NGO工作的年轻人,我觉得对中国的NGO来说,情况并没有什么的不同。比如说,很多人不理解我的工作性质,以及相关的一些内容。年纪大一些的人会因为做环保方面的工作而得到许多尊重,但是很多的年轻人不理解为什么我要接受这样的低工资,以及我为什么花那么长的时间去做那些他们认为毫无价值的事情。这是事情的关键:那些事情根本不是毫无价值,但是年轻人通常不理解这些事情的重要性。难怪很少有朋友愿意在这个领域工作。。。LL

View from the UK

I'm a young person working for a green NGO in the UK, and I think the situation isn't that dissimilar to the one in China. For instance, many people do not understand the kind of work I do, or its relevance. While older people can gain a lot of respect for their work on environmental issues, a lot of young people don't understand why I would accept lower pay and work longer hours for something that seems rather obscure to them. And that's the key point: these issues aren't obscure at all, but young people still often don't understand why they are of such importance. No wonder so few of my friends tried to work in this sector... LL


中国年轻NGO人

自己怀揣相同的梦想,却迫于现实,钦佩张的勇敢。环境污染很大一块在于企业生产活动,而14001体系执行的有效性,在中国躁动不安的社会氛围下,它究竟能发挥多少效用,这都是很大的问题,呵呵...

Green NGOs

One world, one dream for green planet, however, my dream is defeated due to the pressure of the real world. I do cherish Mr.Zhang's courage, when it comes to the question of environment pollution, most of time, it can be attributed to economics and manufacturing. The feasibility of implementing a new system will be challenged by Chinese social anxiety, if it can fulfill its function is still open to question. Well, just keep watching...


立意新颖,富含启示。

这篇文章立意新颖,我很乐于承认在现有条件下,我们拥有比以往更多的备选方案,然而对于非政府组织,未来将面临的真正问题是如果没有资本融合能力,他们将无法继续发展并保持元气。当然,我也看到一些积极的变化,比如越来越多的公司有意于为那些所谓“草根阶层”提供资金上的帮助,但是令人遗憾的是,这些有意于投资民间公益组织的公司却苦于难以寻找并发现那些拥有专业管理团队,具备规范管理运营的组织。这也使我们常常徘徊在“十字路口”的原因, 但是我们将继续协助民间公益组织开发那些有商业投资前景的项目。

Interesting Article. There are Options

Interesting article, and I am happy to say that there are more options now than ever.

Where the real problem lies for NGOs in the future is that without the ability to fundraise, they cannot afford to develop and keep talent.

However, I see that changing very rapidly. more and more, companies are interested in funding grassroots groups, but they really struggle to find a group that has a strong management team, with strong program management skills, and will be able to scale out.

this is something we are addressing at Crossroads, and we will begin working with NGOs to help develop business plans that firms are interested in funding.

r
www.china-crossroads.com


一点行业的认同

确实,在全世界,凡是从事志愿工作的年轻人面临的情况都是差不多的,超长时间、超大负荷的工作,社会的认同性小,很难有直接作为的或者说是理想的做公益事业,收入也是超级的低。但是作为发展中国家的中国而言,这些从事公益事业的年轻人,除了上诉的普遍问题,他们还面临着更多更大的问题:
1、他们的组织的所有人都是自发自愿在一起而组建起来的完全是年轻人的公益组织,很多还是大学生或者刚刚毕业的大学生。
2、他们都是理想的人,想做理想的事情,然后在这个经济社会里,公益事业还非常不足严重不成熟的中,他们很难募集到那么一点点地项目开展的经费,更不用说是工资了,很多组织都是靠国外的基金会给与的一点点可怜的资助而生存,往往除了社会的不认同,更多的是自己的家人、亲人的不理解和反对。
3、与上面两点有一个结合点:英语对当前的中国青年的公益事业造成了严重的压抑。这是一个非常普遍和严重的问题。
4、全中国的年轻的公益志愿者,还面临着一个超级严重的问题:中国现在经济飞速发展,物价、房价等等一切与吃、住有关的都在飞速的高涨;这些年轻人大部分都是家庭条件不好的,不仅要赡养父母,还要自己养活自己、购置安身之所、娶妻生子,他们都是面临着严重超出发达国家的所有年轻人所面对的责任和压力的。当他们再想从公益中走出来,那又是非常困难的,中国人有很强的“情结”——尤其是这些从第一份工作就是公益的年轻人,很难再融入到其他的行业中去,而且他们也很难在其他行业中找到认可,很难有非公益的单位认可他们社会工作经历、经验、能力,这些在我周围都是有非常多的例子的。
4、那些有幸到非青年人的公益组织中工作的青年人,除了社会得不认可和亲人的反对,还面临英语这个语言的巨大压力,无论交流、学习、工作、培训等等都需要一个人做几个人的活,既是职员、志愿者、也是项目官员、还是翻译等等,还要面临很多包括政治等等的影响和约束,还有很多难以想象的组织的问题,这些都是现实的存在的,有很多都是不方便对外说的。

my personal experience echoes the author's sentiment

Young volunteer workers from around the world have to face the same dilemma – working overtime and overload, scarce social recognition, lack of a sense of self-fulfillment, plus meager incomes. Young volunteer workers from around the world have to face the same dilemma – working overtime and overload, scarce social recognition, lack of a sense of self-fulfillment, plus meager incomes. Thirdly, English has a depressing effect on China’s public welfare undertaking. It is a widespread and serious problem. Fourthly, young volunteers in China are currently facing another grave problem – soaring inflation. These young workers are mostly from less well-off families. They have to support their parents and themselves as well as their own family. Consequently they are burdened with much heavier duties than their counterparts in developed countries. Furthermore, it is usually difficult for them to change job. For these people whose first job is related to public welfare, they find it hard to take up a job in other occupational area. Employers in other sectors seldom recognize their work experience, talent and ability in their previous job. There are ample relevant examples in my social circle. Fifthly, for those who are lucky enough to work in a general public welfare organization, they have to overcome language barrier. During exchange visits, training, and work, any of them have to work as staff, volunteer, project manager, and interpreter, all roll into one. Besides, they also have to take political influence into count and work under political restraints. Unexpected organizational problems may occur as well.


孤独的牧羊人

我同意英国同仁的观点,一直以来民间公益组织似乎总是游离于主流社会之外,并且民间公益组织的工作似乎很难与商业或政治融合互动,但是我希望在未来,民间公益组织可以如文章《中国-十字路口的思索》所指出的一样,能与商业政策互动交融。同时我认为,中国严峻的就业形势也从两方面加剧了民间公益组织的边缘化处境,一方面尽管一部分人群热切关注环保问题,但是当今高校毕业生就业难的问题如此突出,生存问题使得人们更趋向于寻找更大回报的的就业途径,另一方面,一部分对于环保问题知之甚少的”门外汉“因为求职心切,也盲目加入了民间公益组织,这也就造成了社会对于民间公益组织的关注度有所下降。

a separate entity

I agree with UK person. I feel NGO work is often boxed out from the rest of society. It seems as if our work is not that well integrated with business and government work. I hope NGO work can be integrated with business strategy in the future as "china-crossroads" has pointed out. Also I think the employment issue works both ways in China. You have people who are passionate about environment but need to take a job that will bring in more money, but also there are people who are so desperate for a job (because unemployment after college is so high) that they will take a job with NGO, even if they don't know anything about environmental issues. This can lead to a lack of passion.


不要神化NGO

我同意“孤独的牧羊人”的观点,正是因为NGO的边缘化,才需要真正的有能人、有心人去将其融合到社会主流中,而那些刚刚毕业或者缺乏社会经验的年轻人正恰恰缺少这种能力、经验和社会关系,导致NGO这个领域代表的是低效率、低素质、低成效(相对于社会主流行业而言)。产生了恶性循环——越缺少管理越不被认可,越不被认可越没有效益,越没有效益越没人干,越没人干越找不到人才进行管理。
其实不要把NGO神化了,它也是一个事业,也需要有能之士去经营。不要自以为所干的事情有多神圣,其实不过是人类发展和生存延续的需要。所以首先要自己摆正自己的角色。如果真的想这个事业好,请去社会的大熔炉里锻炼一下,练就一身本领,打造更强大的关系网,这样再回归,才能把NGO这个事业干好!(一文)

No mystification of NGOs

I agree with lonely shepherd’s opinion. Simply because of the marginalization of NGOs, those talented and concerned people should take the responsibility of bringing NGOs back to the mainstream of society.

However, newly graduated and inexperienced young people lack the very ability, experience, and social network needed for the mission, which makes NGOs the epitome of low efficiency, low quality, and low achievement (compared with mainstream sectors). This ends up a vicious cycle, in which lack of regulation, absence of social recognition, low revenue, and lack of attraction to the managerial talents form the chains of the cycle.

Actually there is no need to mystify NGOs. They need to be managed. The volunteers taking part in NGOs should come down to earth and adjust their roles to the need of the situation. They should blend themselves into society and create a strong social network so as to make NGOs thrive and prosper.


现身说法

我也是从事NGO工作的年轻人~而且大学一毕业也就开始了现在的工作~个人认为能在NGO工作的年轻人都是精英~并不仅仅为了一份工作一份收入~而更多的确实对事业的热爱~对社会的责任~同时怀揣创业的梦想期望能在NGO道路上闯出自己的一片天地~

My personal experience

I am also a young person working for NGO.I started doing my current job since I graduated from the university. I think those young people who are working in NGO are elites. They work for NGOs not for money, but because of their passion, their social responsibilities, and also with the hope that they can realise their career dreams through NGO.


ME

我是在校的研究生,没有从事过NGO工作,毕业后也不会去从事。大学时代一直梦想做公益事业,但现实环境和家庭的压力让这成为不可能。至少最近几年之内是不可能的。但我会一直关注环保和公益事业。或许能做点业余的贡献。

me

Currently doing my master degree, I have never been involved in any NGO job and I don't think I'd join any NGO after graduation. The financial pressure from life and family has made my dream to be Public Utility activist impossible to realize, at least in the recent years. I will still pay attention to the cause of environment protection and public beneift activites and even make some some contribution in my spare time.


梦想和现实的距离

很高兴看到对中国NGO反思的文字,我个人认为面临挑战的是整个中国NGO行业,相对于西方专业化的NGO行业,除了工作条件的压力,最大的困境是体制问题。很多NGO在国内很难发挥应有的作用,政府在政策方面的局限不容忽视。此外我本人也正在经历是否从事NGO工作的选择。

The distance between dreams and reality

I am very glad to read articles on China's NGOs. In comparison to professional NGOs in western countries, NGOs in China as a whole face challenges not only from the pressure of working conditions, but also from the governance mechanism of the country.

As such, it is very difficult for China's NGOs to make necessary contribution to the society. The limitation imposed by the government policies is another factor which can not be ignored.

I am also considering if I shall choose to work for a NGO.


个人观点

我目前就职于成都一家环境NGO机构,觉得选择在NGO工作跟选择其他工作没什么不同,以前一直不明白为什么总要拿NGO来当个事说.直到最近才豁然开朗,原来NGO在中国,在市场经济体制下承担了相当重要的作用.

My personal view

I am currently working with an environmental NGO in Chengdu. I don’t feel any difference from working with other corporations. I really didn’t understand why NGO has remained a topic of controversy in the past. Until recently I came to realize that China’s NGO can play a very important role in China under its market-economy system.


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