Beijing's Global Environment Institute Tests the Boundaries of NGO Activity

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Few fledgling nongovernmental organizations can claim the kind of success that Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute (GEI) has enjoyed: an operating budget of half a million dollars, a board comprised of internationally prominent environmental professionals, an impressive portfolio of projects, and even a spin-off organization. Given all this, it’s hard to believe that GEI is a Chinese NGO, or that it’s only two years old.

GEI operates with a degree of familiarity and political know-how typically found in more seasoned organizations—experience that can be attributed to its founder, Jin Jiaman. When Jin co-founded her first organization, Green Earth Volunteers, in 1996, NGOs were just starting to appear in China. Many of these first-generation groups—such as Green Earth Volunteers and Friends of Nature—focused on environmental education, working to raise public awareness of China’s environmental problems. These pioneering NGOs were the first to test the waters and took care not to operate too far outside the bounds of public awareness campaigns.

But the range of NGO activities in China has since broadened. In the mid-1990s, Jin served as Director of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Science. This academic work, coupled with her experience at Green Earth Volunteers, convinced her that China’s “next generation” of environmental organizations should participate in the policy process and conduct serious research. “I felt that by 2002, Chinese NGOs should reach that level of involvement,” says Jin.

Jin was already incubating the idea for a new organization. While at the research academy, she had witnessed how ineffective pollution-reducing regulations were when implemented without economic considerations. She recalls cases where factories that had recently installed pollution removal machinery would refuse to run the new equipment because it was cheaper to just pay the pollution fines.

Committed to forming a research organization with a market-oriented approach to solving environmental problems, Jin founded GEI in 2003 with the backing of other members of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Science. The Blue Moon Fund, a U.S. foundation, provided funding to jumpstart the organization.

At first, it was mostly learning by doing for Jin and the GEI staff. “It was very chaotic in the beginning,” Jin explains. “One day we would focus on national policy, and then we would suddenly realize that we need to focus on choosing the right technology. Then we realized that someone had to pay for this technology. It is very complicated. I think after two years we have a better grasp of this interdisciplinary approach.”

Today, GEI’s work spans five programs: energy and climate change, biodiversity conservation, rural development, capacity building, and partnerships. Projects usually involve collaborations between GEI staff, academic researchers, other local and international NGOs, and local governments. In its energy and climate change program, GEI is conducting research on improving energy efficiency at Chinese cement plants through co-generation technology. The organization is also facilitating a research project to advance the commercialization of small natural gas combined-heat-and-power technologies in urban areas, as well as the use of biodiesel fuel in China.

In its conservation work, GEI is promoting an innovative approach called “conservation concession,” which relies on contractual partnerships between the government and the nongovernmental sector. In these agreements, the nongovernmental entity—an institution, private corporation, or community—helps manage state-owned lands with the goals of ecosystem and biodiversity conservation. GEI believes this approach, which has proven successful in the Amazon areas of Peru and Brazil, will help preserve some of China’s most ecologically fragile regions in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guangxi.

In its rural development efforts, GEI has focused on promoting an integrated approach to renewable energy, organic agriculture, and ecotourism. In Chanshui, a village in western Yunnan, the organization has established a demonstration project to help local villagers organize a farming cooperative association. Through this cooperative, GEI is connecting small organic farmers to larger markets, giving them access to a greater pool of potential consumers for their produce. The organization is setting up similar projects in the autonomous regions of Guangxi and Tibet and putting together a feasibility study for replicating the model in Sri Lanka.

GEI also sees itself as a platform for developing the capacity and technical know-how of other Chinese and international NGOs through its partnerships programs. “A lot of our projects have the potential to continue on their own…once we set up the demonstration project,” says Lila Buckley, GEI’s Assistant Executive Director. “What we aim to do in the next few years is help some of our more developed projects connect with investors or establish their own profit-deriving entities.”

Already, GEI’s Bus Rapid Transit project has spun off into a fully independent organization aimed at addressing urban congestion in China through the development of efficient and cost-effective bus transport. Similar plans are also in the works for GEI’s Auto Project on Energy and Climate Change, which works towards promoting higher vehicle-emissions standards in China.

Looking to the future, Jin Jiaman believes one of the biggest obstacles Chinese NGOs will face is boosting their capabilities and credibility. “This is a real challenge,” explains Jin. “If you want to influence policy, what you say needs to be well researched to be convincing. In China, most of the country’s experts work for government research institutions. As an NGO, we do not have the ability yet to keep up with the government.”

But Jin also believes that GEI should not simply serve as a counterweight to the government. “Even if we say something does not work, we need to give a reason as to why that does not work. You cannot just be critical; you also need to provide a solution to the problem.”