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Project Visit Oct. 2006 PDF Print E-mail

Project visit report by Bettina von Reden, founding member of AIDS-Waisenhilfe China e.V. and deputy chairwoman until April 2008.

“Your help is changing destinies”


In October 2006, I visited our project partners and several of the children we support in Central China as representative of our organization, which had been founded in 2004. At that time, we already financed tuition fees for more than 100 AIDS-orphans and - depending on the situation - also financed their livelihoods – a big success for us. Nevertheless, some questions remained unanswered from afar, and thus I took the chance to assess everything with my own eyes.

Aktivitätszenter von Save the ChildrenWe are collaborating in China with the staff of the international aid organization Save the Children (SC) which is already involved in other aid projects for children and people affected by AIDS in the area. In addition to the longtime experience of SC, we further profit from the collaboration through SC’s financing of staff work time and thus our money goes completely towards the children (or other agreed-upon projects). But how exactly do the activities function on the ground? How does the local staff feel about the additional work load caused through our project, and to what degree do they take care of the children? How is the usage of our donations being controlled, and how is corruption being prevented? These were some of the questions that I posed to myself in preparing for the trip.

After a short detour to SC’s project coordination office in Hefei we took a five hour bus ride on bumpy roads into the poor and paltry upcountry. In the county capital I was enthusiastically greeted by the local SC staff. They were happy that we do not only transfer money but also showed real interest in their work with this visit. In the next couple of days they accompanied me on visits to several villages within a 100km radius, often on rought tracks that are impassable after heavy rain and stretched out travel time to more than two hours.

Family units
KinderOn the first day the SC staff showed me one of the two family units established in 2006. Here, four orphans are living like siblings with a parent couple. We met, amongst others, 12 year old Aman who had lost both parents at the age of one. She had lived with relatives who had scarcely cared for her, had stopped speaking and was obviously very unhappy. When her grandfather – living in dire circumstances himself and unable to taker her in – heard of the new house with “parents”, he immediately asked for her to be admitted. Since then, Aman has livened up. She does not talk much yet, but has made great progress in school, laughs and gave us pictures she painted herself when we came to visit. The “parents” in the family unit are a married couple – both teachers – and their own children are already in university. They care for the children lovingly, help with homework and offer as much of a family relationship as possible.

The second family unit a few villages ahead, too, seemed very friendly to me. The two buildings are not nice, but quite progressive for the poor village population, with private rooms for two children each complete with desks for homework, a bright kitchen and tidy bathrooms. Each house also has a small vegetable garden. SC financed the building and furnishing of the houses; we are now paying a monthly allowance of about 30 Euros to the parents and the tuition fees of the children. This kind of placement for orphans – known from SOS Children’s Villages – enables them to remain in familiar surroundings and to grow up in a caring family environment rather than a remote orphanage surrounded by other traumatized children. These two families moving into their houses thus symbolized one of our first aid ideas. The sound implementation of our policy and the positive result demonstrated after a short time by the example of Aman, made me especially happy.

Support for more than 100 children
Most children do not want to live in such units, but rather with relatives, mostly their grandparents. Often these remainders of families live in great poverty, as nobody reamains to provide substantial income. They subsist on their own fields but have scarcely any cash. This is especially problematic when it comes to buying exercise books, pens, books or clothes for the children – or even such basic things as tooth paste. If the children’s parents tested positively and therefore demonstrably died of AIDS, the children do receive government support and do not have to pay tuition fees. For this reason, we especially try to help those children whose parents had not been tested. Several of the children we visited had already stooped going to school and were only able to continue learning with our support. 11 year old Qianli barely knew how to write a year ago, but now he has discovered his passion for characters and enthusiastically demonstrates his special talent: He can write some characters in mirror image. When holding the thin paper against the sun, one can see that they are written correctly.  
Das Zuhause eines unserer Kinder
The fact that they can contribute some money to the household and finance their own schooling is first and foremost a great mental relief for the children. A teacher told us that the performance of 13 year old Chencheng, a talented student by any measure, had been deteriorating steadily, most probably because of financial pressure and the fear of having to leave school and abandon his sick grandmother to look for work. But ever since we started to support Chencheng, his performance in school has markedly improved. When I visited, he was happy and joked around with his class mates.

Children such as this receive 10 Euros a month from us which they need urgently both for their living expenses and tuition fees. Chengcheng, for example, is noticeably shorter than other children of his age due to malnutrition – I would have guessed him to be no older than 9. Other children are luckier because they still have an aunt or uncle that can care for them and come up for their livelihoods. They are mainly lacking the tuition fees. SC accordingly suggested supporting these children with only 5 Euros and in exchange admitting more children to the project. It may hard for to imagine that 5 Euros a month can be sufficient to let a child go to school. But in reality this area is so poor that with the 5 Euros these children can afford everything they need to go to school and even have something left over to contribute to their daily needs. Because of this, their relatives have a stronger incentive to leave the children in school.

Save the Children’s work
HIV-PlakatTalking to SC’s staff on our long car journeys to the villages and back at the office at night, I was able to get an impression of their work. SC’s main activities are trainings for teachers and civil servants. They focus on teaching children’s rights and basic psychological knowledge on how to support children in their development. In addition to that, SC is very active in AIDS education and runs several health stations to care for HIV-positive men and women. During our trips to the villages, SC staff members showed me very comprehensible posters and boards that were hung up everywhere, much to my delight. These measures aimed against stigmatizing the subject of AIDS, are urgently necessary, and the public authorities have apparently come to accept this.   

During our visits, the staff also inspected several of the activity centers that SC established. They offer games and exercises after school, and activities especially aimed at reducing the stigma associated with children of HIV-infected parents. When we arrived in a village late in the afternoon or during lunch break, I could witness the centers’ popularity. The children were learning to play Go, played with hula hoops and balls or read children’s books. The majority of the centers are being run by women infected with HIV can thus earn a small income.

Kinder im Aktivitätszenter“The activity centers are important and useful, but what do they help a child that goes east to look for work at the age of 12 because of lack of money, and that probably loses every chance to a better life? Your money can change the destiny of many of these children for the better!”, the woman that accompanied me told me after one of these visits. SC does not have the mandate to financially support families or individual children directly. Many local SC staff members therefore expressed their gratitude during the following days, because they can at least ease the worse distress they encounter every day with the help of our donations. Accordingly, I noticed that much time and effort, thoughts and dedication went towards implementing our project. The local staff inspired me both with their personal commitment, their sense of responsibility and their respectful care for the children.

Collaboration with the local Women’s Association and control
As SC is a foreign organization, it by law requires a government partner in China. SC chose the local Women’s Association (fulian) which is the third party to our contract. During my visits I also met some personnel of the Women’s Association who - in contrast to the SC staff – were unfortunately less respectful and warm towards the children and hardly engaged in conversations with them. I was consequently happy to hear that the Women’s Association plays only a minor part in our project. It functions as the official bank account holder and all measures are coordinated with it to prevent repression by the Chinese authorities. Since family concerns and orphans are topics that the Women’s Association deals with, the staff has a good network and is often able to point out where especially poor children live and which children have been orphaned. In this respect and with regard to the help provided in contacting the relevant authorities and the village administration, the Women’s Association is a very good local partner. SC is almost exclusively responsible for managing our money and holding contact to the children – a great relief for me.

The children always receive the money directly and have to sign a receipt for it themselves. The first time a child receives money, it is always handed out by SC staff that inspects the child’s situation, explains the purpose of the support and makes clear that the child is considered a partner in this project, that people are concerned and hope that he or she will have a chance for a better life by receiving education. Afterwards, the money is given to the children with the help of teachers or members of the village administration. However, SC staff regularly visits the children and makes sure that they receive the full amount of money, that it is being spent solely for the child, and that he or she really attends school. So far, it has happened only once that a family tried to keep the money, while the 12 and 14 year old children had left the village to look for work. The fact that this case was immediately noticed shows that the control works.

“The children need affection”
Brief-AusschnittWith SC our money is in good hands, not just concerning the control over its spending. This was proven by another coincidence: After a boy had expressed his gratitude that finally somebody showed interest and trust towards him in a letter to SC, SC staff members had the idea to write a letter to all children. In the letter, they introduced themselves and us once again, added an envelope to write back and asked the children to write about their situation. Many of the answers arrived during the duration of my stay. The children very openly described their sad family stories and their poor living conditions. At the same time, all of them expressed their sincere wish to live up to our hopes and to work hard in school. We read them together in the office and often found it difficult to hold back tears. We promised each other to redouble our efforts to help more children. SC staff answered all the letters and showed once again how involved they are with the children’s fate.

More projects
Ziegen in "unserem" DorfIn addition to many standing orders, our organization also receives individual donations, part of which also goes towards the monthly support of the children. But we do not want to risk that because of fluctuations in individual donations that we will have to take children off the project that had already been supporting them. Therefore, we are financing small additional projects in “our” children’s surroundings with the left over money. They are aimed at enhancing life quality and the children’s development. To see how these projects are implemented was one of the goals of my visit.

In 2005 we had established a fund for micro credits for a very poor village strongly affected by HIV/AIDS. The villagers were able to borrow money to buy cattle or make another purchase that would enable them to generate income. An enhanced financial situation often means a longer survival time by means of better nutrition and possibly better access to medicine. Amongst other things, our money has been used to build a small plaster factory, in which HIV-positive villagers Gipsfabrikmake stucco to accommodate the building boom in the nearby town. We had trouble imagining this factory and hence drove to this isolated village near the border of Henan. As SC had temporarily suspected that the village committee had privileged relatives of the village chief when distributing the money, the village does not receive support in addition to direct payments to some children for the time being. It was reassuring, however, to see that the plaster factory is really so successful that it can support itself and generate a nice income for some HIV-positive villagers and a disabled man. The director explained that stucco on walls and ceilings is currently all the rage, and that they hardly managed to meet the demand. I spoke to several people that had bought a pig, a goat or bike with trailer. Maybe there would have been more needy people in the village, which is aggravating, but poverty is so great that these recipients, too, were urgently in need of the money. Everyone had at least one HIV-positive family member. The respective purchases seemed to pay off for the families. Hence, our donation does have a positive impact for many families and their children despite of some irregularities.

Schultoilettethe summer of 2006, SC suggested that we support a middle school which was lacking everything: desks, chairs and especially hygienic bathrooms. The school is located in the same village as our first family unit. At least half of about 3,000 inhabitants sold blood during the 90ies, but many refused an AIDS-test in fear of stigmatization. SC therefore estimates a high number of unreported cases. The school’s director described the situation. The area is so poor that teachers salaries are being paid, but no other investments have been made in years. Some of the ancient desks and chairs have big holes and there are not enough of them for some 300 children, even though broken furniture continues to be used. The situation in the bathrooms, being shared by students and teachers, is even more dramatic. Next to the school the director showed me an old, small, partially depilated stone building with overflowing gutters leading to clogged pit latrines that had not been emptied in a long time. Stinking and full of flies, this place was surely not beneficial for the health or psyche of the children. For these reasons, we decided to support the school and are hoping that our money will be able to finance separated toilets which might provide fertilizer and compost and thus an additional advantage in this infertile region.

Conclusion
Even though I have traveled widely through much of rural Chinese before, the biting and very obvious poverty in the villages I visited on this trip alarmed me, and some of the courageous children with their sad stories really touched me. The trip encouraged me to continue to intensify our efforts to add additional children to our project – there are hundreds, if not thousands of children that could need our support. Just how much impact a mere 5 Euros benefited the children I visited was obvious.

My informative and eventful visit gave me the positive impression that we can put our complete trust in the staff of Save the Children, both with regard to their integrity and their efforts and with regard to their conception of the goals we want to reach with their help.

To continue to exercise caution with regard to the authorities, however, is advisable, as many local governments start to cooperate with aid organization but shun publicity. They fear that potential investors will be scared off if the region is associated with AIDS. The threat of stigmatization is very real, despite all educational measures. Accordingly, we have been asked by SC not to publish village names, last names and recognizable pictures of the children. Therefore, we abstain from giving these details or showing recognizable pictures in articles and on the internet.

At the request of SC staff members in Anhui and the children I visited, I want to close with dearly thanking all our supporters – your help works.

Bettina von Reden 

 
 
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