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Pivoting to Overseas Development: INGOs’ Changing Engagement with China

Fri, July 15, 9:00 to 10:30am, TBA


The context for international non-governmental organization (INGO) work with Chinese actors has changed dramatically over the last decade. At the same time that the 2017 Overseas NGO law has increased regulations on INGO activity in mainland China (Sidel 2018), Chinese NGO and philanthropic capacity have expanded (Fu and Shumate 2019; Cunningham and Li 2020), decreasing domestic demand for international assistance.

Furthermore, a diverse set of Chinese actors have embraced “going global” by increasing their international presence and engagement in realms ranging from business to philanthropy over the past two decades (Hsu, Hildebrandt, and Hasmath 2016). Together, these developments have motivated some INGOs to pivot from operating projects within China to partnering with Chinese actors on collaborative activities outside of China. How common are these overseas activities, what forms do they take, and which actors are involved?

This paper presents new evidence from an original dataset of over 130 INGO-China joint activities to promote overseas development. The dataset sheds light on the areas these activities address, what forms they take, and which INGOs and Chinese actors are involved.

Specifically, we find that the majority of activities are focused on sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, or more broadly address China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Activities most commonly take the form of dialogues such as conferences and meetings, as well as joint research and training. But there are also many tangible, on-the-ground activities, including infrastructure development. While Chinese government ministries are the most prevalent Chinese partners, we also document significant participation from Chinese educational institutions, research institutes, and companies (both private and state-owned).

After providing an overview of the scope of these new partnerships, we examine the motivations and goals of these activities using qualitative data from interviews with key stakeholders. Overall, the paper identifies and illuminates an emerging phenomenon that is likely to expand in the future. Its findings directly contribute to scholarly literature on transnational partnerships, INGO behavior, and China’s role in world development.


Cunningham, Edward and Yunxin Li. 2020. “China’s Most Generous: Examining Trends in Contemporary Chinese Philanthropy,” Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

Sidel, Mark. 2018. “Managing the Foreign: The Drive to Securitize Foreign Nonprofit and Foundation Management in China.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 30(4): 664-677.

Fu, Jiawei Sophia and Michelle Shumate. 2020. “Developing and Validating a Capacity Instrument for Chinese and U.S. NGOs.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 49(3): 631-652.

Hsu, Jennifer Y.J., Timothy Hildebrandt, and Reza Hasmath. 2016. “‘Going Out’ or Staying In? The Expansion of Chinese NGOs in Africa.” Development Policy Review 34 (3): 423–39.