Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
The news that Alibaba Group has set up a 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) poverty relief fund is surely good news in the battle China is currently waging to eradicate extreme poverty - and we can certainly all do with a positive news story as we approach the end of 2017. The initiative comes as China is going all out to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020, and Alibaba CEO Jack Ma said the fund is intended to complement these efforts, especially when it comes to targeting rural poverty. This has remained stubbornly persistent in certain areas of China, particularly in western ethnic minority regions and other parts characterized by marginal geographic conditions, such as mountainous and arid regions.
Announcing the fund, Ma said he had been inspired by China's late leader Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the beginning of China's reform and opening-up in the late 1970s. In the three decades since, some 700 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, so much so that China is now classified as a middle-income country by the World Bank, although still a developing one. The World Bank says that China not only plays a vital role in development and the global economy, but has also been the largest contributor to world growth since the financial crisis of 2008. China was also a great contributor to global achievements during the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, now replaced by the wider-reaching Sustainable Development Goals.
But there is still much inequality in China, as well as other by-products of such rapid growth, including environmental degradation, which also feeds into and can cause poverty. Despite the millions lifted out of poverty, there was still an estimated 43 million living in extreme poverty as of the end of 2016 in China - those living on an annual income of just 2,300 yuan. The international poverty line is set by the World Bank at $1.9 a day - although, as just a monetary measure of poverty, many argue that it is too crude and that other indicators of poverty must be taken into consideration to get an all-round picture of areas that have been chronically poor for years.
The bigger picture includes the standards of housing and whether there is sanitation and access to healthcare and education. According to a New York Times report published in October, many of the chronically poor may be disabled, with others living in areas of extreme environmental degradation.
The only response to poverty relief efforts in these areas may be relocation of residents, but many may not be willing to move, even though many remote villages in China have become depopulated, leaving only the old and the very young behind as those in between migrate to cities for work. In the past, local-level corruption also meant that people did not receive the cash handouts they were entitled to.
So can a high-profile scheme led by one of China's most high-profile entrepreneurs succeed? Four of the firm's top executives are to concentrate on certain areas, including environmental restoration, rural entrepreneurship, empowering women and the education field.
One way sure to help is by raising awareness of the issues. The middle classes and urban elites of China are disconnected from the lives of the rural poor, and even the urban poor - this is perhaps why the recent stories and photos of migrant workers on the fringes of Beijing who were forced to leave their homes at short notice, their belongings piled around them, came as such a shock. As most people assume that poverty in China is a rural issue, it is easy to overlook the millions of urban poor.
Chinese people admire entrepreneurs like Jack Ma - a humble person that has done good. Others on China's rich list, such as Tencent's Pony Ma, have also pledged to give to good causes. In 2016, Pony Ma announced Tencent would give 2 percent of its annual profits - estimated to be some $2 billion - to charity. He has also pledged to use China's increasing use of mobile payment platforms to help charity fundraising. Indeed, not a day goes by when I don't see an appeal for funds for good causes, like animal rescues or children's hospital bills, on Tencent's WeChat mobile app. People respond to convenience and like following the examples of people they admire, it seems.
But in the case of the Alibaba Fund, and indeed in the case of the Chinese government's own poverty alleviation efforts, those involved in formulating projects should be wary of top-down efforts from people parachuted into poverty-stricken areas that do not include the voices of those the projects are intended to help. In the past, and quite rightly, development and aid projects in many parts of the world were found guilty of not being inclusive and not giving local people agency in expressing their needs. It is not enough to decide that rural villagers should be helped to set up a local business without providing ongoing support or even finding out if that is what they want. The aid sector, for all its faults, has thus had to develop other models of inclusivity.
Many people saw the terrifying pictures of children from a remote village in Sichuan being forced to climb a rickety bamboo ladder to get to school, as there was no road access. Shamed into action, local authorities built a safe, steel ladder that has now become something of a tourist attraction, which may provide a source of income for villagers. But there are many other such villages that did not attract press attention, and in these places, there are more pressing needs for safe housing, sanitation, nutrition and healthcare.
And while China aims to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020, if you lift those people just over the poverty line, they are still poor.
It is to be hoped that Alibaba, Tencent and other big firms vying with each other to announce philanthropic efforts choose their projects wisely, do their research thoroughly, and most importantly, ask the very people they want to help for their input.
If local residents are not engaged, then no amount of money will solve the problems of poverty-stricken communities.