Than Bayar Khon, a village in central Myanmar with a population of just 350, is about an hour's drive from Yangon, the largest city in the country. Until recently, villagers were forced to live in primitive conditions. With no access to electricity, most villagers powered their stoves by burning wood on open fires. After dark, children had to study under candlelight. The only water to which they had access came from a muddy stream nearby.
This is not the only village in Myanmar that lives in such conditions. According to the World Bank in 2014, 48 percent of the population of Myanmar then had no access to electricity. The common practice of cutting down trees to use as fuel in Myanmar's rural areas poses a challenge to its environment. As a result, the country has the third highest annual rates of deforestation in the world, making it vulnerable to extreme weather events brought about by climate change.
But change is on the way. In 2015, a Beijing-based NGO called the Global Environmental Institute (GEI) started to introduce clean-energy stoves and solar-powered lights to Than Bayar Khon, with help from the Myanmar government and Myanmar's Spring Foundation. For the first time, the village is lit by electricity at night. And by paying a small fee, villagers can now get access to clean water through a solar-powered water pump.
The pilot project also attracted the attention of the Department of Climate Change of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China's top economic planning body. After reviewing GEI's pilot project in Than Bayar Khon, it decided to offer 20 million yuan ($2.9 million) to expand the pilot project to the rest of Myanmar, one of its first climate aid projects abroad.
China is stepping up its climate aid to developing countries. Its 20-billion-yuan South-South Climate Cooperation Fund, first announced during the 2015 US-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change, has already launched to help other developing countries combat climate change. China also plans to establish 10 low-carbon model areas and implement 100 projects of climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, as well as offering training to 1,000 future workers in the area of climate change.
Material aid, so far, accounts for a large proportion of China's climate aid. Last March, China vowed to gift 200,000 LED lights to the Maldives. In September, during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Cuba, China signed a memorandum of understanding in which it said it will send solar energy generators and LED lights to the island nation. According to China's 2014 white paper on foreign aid issued by China's Information Office of the State Council, from 2010 to 2012, China offered 16 batches of new energy equipment to 13 developing countries, and gifted 500,000 LED lights and over 10,000 energy-saving air conditioners to 9 African countries.
Most of these aid projects were carried out through a competitive bidding system open to eligible enterprises and there was little space for Chinese NGOs to participate. "Most of these foreign aid projects are large engineering projects, and the design of the bidding system leaves no space for NGOs to take part," Ji Lin, managing secretary at Global Environmental Institute, told the Global Times.
Her comments are echoed by Jia Xijin, associate professor at Tsinghua University's NGO Research Center. "On most occasions, Chinese NGOs and the government are not on par with each other in terms of their status. NGOs are, at best, ancillary, and it's very rare that NGOs and the government can form a real partnership," Jia told the Global Times.
Ji said there's a lot that Chinese NGOs can offer to these foreign aid projects. "Foreign aid projects are comprehensive. Apart from supplying material goods, there are a lot of areas where NGOs can help. For example, NGOs can supervise how this aid is received, and emphasize to the locals that this aid comes from China. They can also evaluate the effects of the project," she said.
The cooperation between GEI and the NDRC climate department in Myanmar might prove to be a model for future climate aid projects. GEI's experience in the village's pilot project helped the NDRC decide on the model and quantity of clean energy stoves and solar panels to provide the nation in their expanded scheme. "For example, from the feedback we heard from the pilot project, the stoves we offered to Myanmese families - which usually consist of 5 to 7 family members - weren't big enough. So in the NDRC project, we helped them choose larger stoves," Ji said.
Following the advice of GEI, the NDRC decided to offer 10,000 clean energy stoves and 5,000 solar panels to Myanmar. They were gifted to Myanmar's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation on March 1 in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar.
GEI also monitored the products' arrival in Myanmar by coordinating between Myanmar's government, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar and Chinese companies, and also organized training for local officials so they know how to install and maintain the gifted equipment.
"We're trying to ensure that China's aid receives a good response in Myanmar, rather than just offering them equipment and caring nothing about their effects," Ji said.
Chinese workers help Myanmese locals to install new clean-energy stoves. Photo: Courtesy of Global Environmental Institute
The project is also a positive step toward improving popular perceptions of China's presence in Myanmar, which have been hit by anti-Chinese sentiment in recent years.
For years, China has been in a lengthy dispute with Myanmar over the building of a $3.6 billion hydropower plantacross the Irrawaddy River, called the Myitsone Dam. The project was approved by Myanmar's military junta regime, but as the country has gone through democratic political reforms in recent years, work on the dam was halted amid public pressure. Many critics of the project in Myanmar believe the dam may have a negative environmental impact on the Irrawaddy River, which aggravated anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar.
It was under this background that GEI started its activities in Myanmar. Ji recalled that in 2011 and 2012, when anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar was at its height, it was difficult for GEI to carry out charitable activities there.
"Myanmar's authorities had negative feelings toward Chinese organizations at that time, and refused to meet us once they heard we are Chinese. And when we went to grass-roots communities, they were under the impression that the Chinese were here to grab their resources," she recalled.
For a while, Ji said GEI had to carry out all its projects in cooperation with US foundations so as to minimize the negative impact their Chinese identity brought them.
But as events such as Aung San Suu Kyi's visiting Beijing have eased China-Myanmar relations in the past two years, the Myanmese public's opinion of China is gradually changing for the better. To help carry out China's climate aid project in Myanmar, GEI built relations with four local NGOs, who agreed to partner with it in increasing local communities' capacity to deal with the impact of climate change, on top of ensuring China's aid reached more Myanmese villages and is properly used.
Some experts think Chinese NGOs' growing activities in Myanmar will also counteract the influence of Western NGOs, which Chinese experts say mobilize people against projects such as the Myitsone Dam.
Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University of China, said before, the majority of the NGOs that were active in Myanmar are either Western NGOs or those funded by the West. "Many Western NGOs interfered with Chinese projects in developing countries, and the most typical case is the Myitsone Dam," he wrote in a recent book.
"[Western NGOs] have a knack for mobilizing people, and are good at organizing rallies and protests," he wrote in The Opportunities and Challenges in the Belt and Road Initiative (2015).
Chinese NGOs working in Myanmar will alter this dynamic and improve China's image and soft power. "Now, with our own NGOs working on the front line, we can affect the locals and let them know that we're there to really solve problems, " he said.