September 2, 2010
I was introduced to Ma Yinling by a common friend in Beijing. Ma was nice enough to arrange a cheap room for me at the guesthouse of her university, Southwest Nationalities University in Chengdu, where she teaches anthropology and does research on the Yi minority. Ma herself is a Yi.
The morning I arrived in Chengdu, Ma showed up at my guesthouse door armed with several books she had edited or written on the Yi. One of these was a Yi-English dictionary, probably the only one of its kind, edited by her and two American linguists. She is clearly passionate about what she does.
Ma’s NGO is called the (Yuexin county) Poverty and Development Research Center, and is registered as a social organization (shetuan) with the county Civil Affairs bureau. Her NGO, which she started around 2000, targets minorities in poor areas through education, health and economic development programs. One of her projects, funded by the UN, is to help the Yi understand PRC laws and policies relating to the Yi. She has another project funded by the World Bank Development Marketplace to educate Yi women findmarkets for their handicrafts, and thereby earn money to pay for their children’s schooling. This project involves working with the local Women’s Federation and county officials.
Like other NGO leaders I’ve met, Ma can be single-minded in her devotion, seeing her NGO as her own personal project. She told me that she after working in Yuexi county for several years, she decided to build a house there so she could share her experiences with others from the city. When she brought up the idea with her husband and son (both of them are also Yi), they opposed it, but she went ahead anyway and built the house without the help of her family. Most of the building materials and appliances had to be transported from Chengdu, a two day drive from Yuexi.
Ma sounded reluctant to build up her NGO. She has a small 3 person staff which works mostly on a volunteer basis. When I asked why she doesn’t pay her staff full-time, she gave several reasons. One is that she doesn’t want to raise their expectations too much in case her NGO should fail, and she has seen too many NGOs go under because they devoted too many resources to their staff. She also said that her funding tended to be project-based and didn’t pay for staff salaries.
Ma talked to me about what motivated her to spend so much of her time and effort on her NGO work. She spoke about Yuexi, a poor county located on the Sichuan/Yunnan border with a diverse population of Yi, Tibetan, and Han. Yuexi, she said, faced a number of problems. – high infant mortality, alcoholism, psychological problems, spousal abuse, medical problems like Hep B. At the time she was considering setting up her NGO, a logging ban had been in effect since 1998 and a new policy in force which stopped assigning university graduates jobs. These two policies had a negative effect on minority graduates, so many minority families encouraged their kids to work rather than go to the universities.
Ma wanted to address both of these problems. One of her early projects was to teach minorities how to fix and use the gas burners that replaced the wood ones as a result of the logging ban. She also wanted to educate women about the importance of going to college. She said she started with 10-12 women, and was moved when many more than 10 women showed up to learn Chinese.
Ma also spoke to me about having to educate the officials about her project. A number of the local officials initially showed interest in her project because they saw it as a source of revenue, so she had to tell them that the money was for the women in the county. She found she also had to educate the officials about gender equality, and the use of participatory methods to lessen the gap between farmers and officials. One of her goals is to change the attitude and view of local officials so that they can see the bigger picture, and the importance of working with her NGO and the larger community.
When I asked her what pushed her into this line of work, Ma talked about her own anthropology work on ethnic minorities. Another important influence for her was the Fourth World Women’s Conference held in Beijing in 1995 where she participated in a forum on minority women and first learned what gender equity and NGOs were. But most of all, what’s kept her going has been her work in Yuexi which opened her eyes to the many needs in the area and the desire of local women to participate in improving their lives.