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Special Report

Last Mile Poverty Alleviation

Uncertainty Remains

Few question the fact that China deserves credit for its achievements in reducing poverty. However, a huge challenge remains even at the present stage of ‘targeted poverty alleviation’

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Outcomes of the Targeted Poverty Alleviation scheme vary significantly across China. Even in Muli (page 34), which was described as a paradise-like and once mysterious kingdom by Austrian-American explorer and botanist Joseph Rock in the early 1920s, the impact of the scheme differs from place to place. 

To demonstrate the variation within Muli County, in contrast to Guo Chaoming’s flourishing agricultural cooperative in Hangjiao village with its well-established marketing channel, Tashi Phuntsok’s horticultural cooperative growing ornamental plants in Hetaowan Village (Walnut Bay), near downtown Muli, remains in a fledgling state. 

In late April 2017, when our reporter was shown around the greenhouse of Muli Jinyu Horticulture Cooperative in Hetaowan, Wang Phuntsok, one of the cooperative’s managers, admitted that the greenhouse program has yet to break even on the investment put in, due to meager sales of the cultivated plants into the local market. His family was categorized as poor, and so Wang Phuntsok was subsequently offered a job at the cooperative in 2016, with a monthly salary of some 2,000 yuan (US$295) to support his family of seven. The poverty line for Muli is 3,100 yuan (US$ 453) per year. 

Market Exploration 

Tashi Phuntsok, the founder of the cooperative, told NewsChina that he had only recently got into horticulture, and his main income source is still running a gas filling station. The reason for him choosing horticulture was his recognition of the booming demand in Muli for flowers and ornamental plants, and the potential government support for this undertaking as a poverty alleviation project.  

The local Muli government promised him investment of 400,000 yuan (US$59,000) and provided him with necessary equipment including water pipes, plus free technical support and training opportunities. All employees of the cooperative must be local villagers who were living below the local poverty line. The promised government investment had yet to materialize by late April while Tashi had personally invested a total of over 600,000 yuan (US$88,000) on the project. “I expect that the cooperative will not only make ends meet within two to three years, but start to make a profit in four to five years,” said Tashi to the reporter.  

The cooperative, though in its infancy, has already been hailed in government propaganda materials as a local model project guiding locals out of poverty.  

Other poverty alleviation projects in Hetaowan, according to village Party Secretary Yang Xiaowen, include walnut plantations and the development of tourism in the local countryside. 
Despite its proximity to the county center of Muli, developing tourism in Hetaowan is not easy.

Due to its lack of appealing natural scenery or unique cultural sites, only a limited number of tourists from within Sichuan Province have visited so far, and the reporter noticed only three households of a total of 730 in the village have the capacity to receive tourists. “We are dedicated to developing tourism, yet the village tourism project has not yet been mapped out,” Yang admitted during his interview with NewsChina.   

Huang Xuyou, director at the Muli County Poverty Alleviation Office pointed out that Muli boasts 21 different ethnic groups with diversified cultural elements and extraordinary natural scenery in its the high regions, yet all these valuable resources are left untapped because of the region’s geographical remoteness and underdeveloped infrastructure. “For the planting industry, the homogenization of products, such as growing walnuts or peppers, though suitable in mountainous locations, can hardly make any real profit,” said Huang, adding that the local government has dedicated a special fund of 29 million yuan (US$4.24 million) for the promotion of village-level industries that target the poor. Whether these attempts prove to be effective will take time.   

Developing proper economic activity as a means of providing steady incomes and job opportunities for the rural poor has been recognized nationwide as the most effective way to reach the long-term goal of poverty alleviation. “Apart from providing technical support, the key is to provide marketing channels,” said Wang Sangui, a professor at the China Anti-Poverty Research Institute at Renmin University of China, “Otherwise, poor rural households may struggle to figure out how to sell the products that they grow.”  

Zhao Yaqiao, director of the Economic Management Institute at Yunnan Agricultural University is of a similar opinion. At the Yunnan Rural Targeted Poverty Alleviation Forum held in late 2016, Zhao explained his point with an example from Yunnan Province: “Every household is encouraged with financial subsidies to plant certain vegetables and raise chickens, but in the very remote villages, when the vegetables and chickens are ready for selling, there is no government guarantee for promoting those products,” said Zhao during his speech at the forum. 

Greenhouse farming has been developed across Muli, but the limited local demand and Muli’s distance from a city has hampered any boom in its agriculture. Professor Wang Sangui cautioned during the interview that poor regions should not focus on mainstream agriculture or low-end products. “Branding of unique local products that are difficult to grow or produce in other places can win market share thanks to their quality,” said Wang, “This can pose a real breakthrough in promoting village development.” 

Li Xiaoyun, a professor at the China Agricultural University has successfully promoted the brand Xiaoyun Eggs through online marketing. The organic eggs collected around Hebian, a poor village in the rainforest region of Yunnan Province, are sold for ten yuan (US$1.46) per egg, many times the price of regular eggs. Li’s project in Hebian has effectively lifted local villagers out of chronic poverty. “This development model in Hebian village, however, cannot just be replicated,” Li said at a forum held by Yunnan Agricultural University in late 2016. “What I emphasize is that finding creative ways to help industry develop will depend on the situation of each village, that is the localization of the development project.” 

Social Engagement 

Apart from direct investment and support from the government to help poor populations, participation by the private sector and non-governmental organizations has shown significant positive results. 

In February 2016, the Poverty Relief Office of the State Council (PROSC) set up a new department named the “Social Mobilization Department” to harness more social engagement in poverty alleviation. Wang Dayang, head of the Social Mobilization Department said the development of village industry should draw involvement from private sector enterprises.

Enterprises themselves are willing to take part in poverty alleviation to fulfill their social responsibilities. There are successful cases of large enterprises making efforts to help poor villages and regions through promoting local industry and generating job opportunities.  

The Evergrande Group, one of the largest property developers in China, started a three-year project in 2015 to invest 3 billion yuan (US$440 million) to help Dafang County in Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces. Through measures consisting of promoting village industry, moving people into better housing, offering employment opportunities, education and direct donations to impoverished groups, it aims to bring all 180,000 residents of Dafang County classed as living in poverty out of poverty by 2018. Peng Gang from the Guizhou Provincial Poverty Alleviation Office told NewsChina in an interview in late 2016 that Evergrande Group has conducted in-depth research and planning for the area’s industry. Following the plan, it introduced 3,000 Angus beef cattle from Australia and 5,000 cattle from Inner Mongolia to contribute to the improvement of the local breed. “It is an effective measure to have enterprises help with rural poverty alleviation and make full use of their advantages in marketing mechanisms,” said Zhang Zhaoxin, analyst at the Research Center for Rural Economy under the Ministry of Agriculture, to NewsChina, “However, we should also be cautious that some enterprises may take advantage of government policy by making empty promises.” 

Attempts by enterprise in this regard are not always successful. Wanda Group, a Chinese multinational conglomerate, began its own efforts much earlier, helping Danzhai County in Guizhou Province in 2014. With promised investment of a total of 1 billion yuan (US$146 million) over five years for developing animal husbandry and other projects, the plan soon encountered several obstacles. By late 2016, no tangible progress had been made and Wanda shifted its investment focus to the construction of a vocational school and a tourism real estate project.

Wang Dayang told NewsChina that enterprises may not be familiar with the local situation or how to integrate the enterprise’s resources with the local poverty alleviation plan: “Wanda itself should seek cooperation with other social organizations or enterprises experienced in relevant fields rather than depending on its own knowledge.” 

Integration of other social forces such as community-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) into the overall poverty alleviation scheme is also important, though the process might be complicated. According to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, some 40 percent of the officially registered 700,000 NGOs in China work on issues relating to poverty alleviation. The concept of community “participatory development” was originally introduced by NGOs into China in the late 2000s. Back in 2007, the PROSC for the first time allowed 11 domestic NGOs to bid to take part in poverty alleviation projects worth a total of 11 million yuan (US$1.6 million) in 22 villages in Jiangxi Province. The results of the attempts, however, was not reported, and the PROSC never tried the format again.  

“There is no official channel for NGOs to take part in government-dominated poverty alleviation projects so far, despite NGOs having experience in handling local community issues that they could contribute,” Hou Yuangao, director of the Liangshan Yi Women and Children Development Center (LYFE) told our reporter in mid-June, adding that despite being a local NGO with ten years’ experience focusing on HIV prevention, children’s education and community development in Liangshan, western Sichuan Province, the organization has yet to play an adequate role in helping the local government with its poverty alleviation projects. As Hou recommended, the Chinese government should adopt policies to open its projects up to NGOs, while local governments should spend a proportion of total funds on purchasing services from local NGOs which have a clear advantage in integrating various resources.  

 Wang Dayang reiterated social organizations’ indispensable role in poverty alleviation. “We are not short of money, nor market potential, all we need are people who can provide brain power, offer their operation capacity, and help integrate various resources,” said Wang, “This is why we are in urgent need of help from various social organizations.”