Saturday, 31 October 2009

Impossible is just a word

A personal exploration of realism vs. idealism

During a recent exchange of emails with the director of a highly effective, and very well respected child welfare NGO, I received the following sobering caution:

“As I’m sure you know, media can be complex when you are doing charity work. We try to keep a low profile and a very positive outlook because we are so grateful for the access we have. Our only goal is to help the kids. The few times we have done interviews for local television and newspapers we have seen an increase in the abandonment of babies, as parents who are desperate for help hope we will take care of them if they are orphaned. It’s really quite sad. I know some orphanages have even put a ban on stories about helping kids for that very reason.”

My wife and I sat long into the night arguing the merits and flaws of agencies choosing a low profile as opposed to stepping into the media spotlight. We were both moved and saddened on any number of issues related to the director’s comments on what is evidently an intractable problem.

On the one hand, of course, the publicity alerted some desperate parents to the possibility that there was perhaps one last chance to give their children a better shot at life. Clutching this opportunity, they made the heart-breaking decision to abandon their child into the care of strangers.

Before you judge those parents too harshly, consider the alternative. Many of the children that end up in orphanages suffer from what polite society describe as “special needs.” It might be a disfigurement or deformity, many of which are actually treatable, but the cost of surgery and rehabilitation is beyond the means of the poorest. So the children face a miserable life on the fringe of society. Wouldn’t you grasp at any straw, however painful it might be, to give your child a better life?

Those children were taken in by the agency. They were cared for and loved, and are now looking at the world through more optimistic eyes. The agency concerned should be rightfully proud of their work and contribution. They gave a child a new start, and the potential for a more fulfilling and productive life.

On the other hand, the publicity doubtless attracted some less than scrupulous parents or guardians and gave them the opportunity to get rid of what – for them at least – was a troublesome and potentially costly burden. All that being said, whatever the motive of the parent, the child concerned is now living in a clean, safe and positive environment. And isn’t that the whole point?

So did the publicity work? Was it a positive thing? The idealist would say yes, absolutely. The realist would be rather more cautious.

Sadly, given obvious financial constraints, there is only so much that any one agency can do without taking the risk of diminishing the level of care and attention they provide to the children they are already responsible for. Notwithstanding the realities of limited resources, turning away a child in need is an impossible decision for any care-worker.

There are inarguable benefits to publicity and a higher profile. Just as there are the obvious downsides. It’s a tricky dilemma. If an agency relies solely on word of mouth and targeted – but narrow – campaigns to raise funds, they are always going to be on the brink. Always faced with the unimaginable burden of turning children away. It’s impossible to argue with the simple economics of the situation.

If, on the other hand, they decide to mount a publicity campaign or agree to media coverage, there is the danger of being overwhelmed before the hoped for donations arrive – if they ever do. The unique challenge this presents to agency directors is beyond the imagination of most of us.

Consequently, many of the smaller or specialized child care agencies fly just beneath the radar, attracting as little attention as possible. On shoestring budgets they do the best they can, for as many as they can. But they live with a harsh reality. In many cases the children they reject have lost their last chance of a better life. A necessary cull, if you like, in order that the few the agency can help will survive and thrive.

When the realist meets the idealist the inevitable words of reason and comfort are, “You can only do what you can with the resources you have. You cannot take care of the whole world.”

But as our television screens and newspapers deliver a daily litany of financial scandals, inexcusable waste on a massive scale, criminal mismanagement of the world’s resources, petty politics and greed – it is apparent that the realist’s statement is simply a reflection of the world we live in – but isn’t strictly true in the sense that we are universally helpless and fundamentally incapable of caring for the world and everyone or everything in it.

So when told they cannot save the world, it should come as no surprise when the idealist will invariably reply with a defiant, “Why not?”

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Sunday, 25 October 2009

Contrasts - Journal w/e 24 October, 2009

Pictures and journal from our personal webpage.

This weekend we visited the Xi Wang Zhi Xing School (Star of Hope) as part of our ongoing project with CAI to record activities at schools for the children of migrant workers in Beijing.

Just 35 minutes by bus from the center of Beijing’s bustling commercial and entertainment district of Chaoyang, the dreary and rather squalid suburb of Dong Ba could not have more effectively demonstrated the contrast between the well-publicized face of China’s phenomenal growth – and those who are playing a desperate game of catch-up.

Late in the afternoon an older gentleman came up and interrupted our filming – expressing embarrassment at the piles of rotting and fetid rubbish piled along the streets. This exchange led to a lengthy discussion later in the day.

The question Shirley and I were debating was fairly simple: Since the old chap was aware enough to be embarrassed by the garbage, why didn’t he and his fellow villagers just clean it up?

While we didn’t come to any conclusive answer, we did agree that people - whatever their educational or social background might be - do let their standards slip when they lose hope. That is why programs such as the one being run by CAI are so important. They help to empower the youngsters – open the door to a world that some in their community perhaps didn’t have the opportunity to walk through.

In short, it gives them hope. And as usual the kids were bright, enthusiastic and full of energy. Well done, CAI!

Earlier in the week I had the opportunity to join a meeting organized by another local NGO, Magic Hospital ( and hear about their programs for the coming year. They have some exciting things planned and we are looking forward to the opportunity to help them promote and record their activities.

The meeting was hosted by Golden Bridges ( The mission statement of this Beijing-based NGO is to connect corporations and philanthropists to NGOs working on the frontlines. If you are seeking opportunities to make a contribution, you really should check out their webpage.

At the moment the plan is to spend most of next weekend editing the video before the final day of shooting in the first week of November... well, that's the plan!

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Monday, 19 October 2009

Journal for W/E 17 October - an inspiring week!

Saturday morning saw Shirley and I off to the Hong Li Primary School in the far north of Beijing to begin filming our feature on CAI/The Promise Foundation. CAI (or 才 in Chinese) means ‘talent’.

CAI’s mission statement is, “to target the underserved communities of migrant labourers in China. We work through arts and sports programs and character development activities.”

By an amazing stroke of good fortune the cold, overcast and windy weather of Friday had cleared and we were blessed with warm sunshine throughout the day. In contrast, Sunday has been absolutely freezing with a full gale blowing all day!

At their Hong Li project, CAI have partnered with young students from the Dulwich College International School in Beijing who have generously given up part of their weekend to work with young children. About a dozen Dulwich volunteers were on hand to give English, drama and music lessons, and lead the kids in outdoor activities – including basic basketball techniques.

We had the pleasure to conduct a brief interview with Dulwich student, Jorge Zarate, the team leader who recruited and organized the volunteers from the college.

He told us he was delighted with the way the program was going, “And I can’t wait for the weeks to come,” he said, “It will be fantastic!”

After witnessing the enthusiasm of the Dulwich volunteers and the warm reception they received from the children, we have no doubt it will be “fantastic.”

Over the coming three weeks Shirley and I will be filming and taking photographs at another two schools for the children of migrant workers on the outskirts of the capital.

Earlier in the week I had the opportunity to meet with some other quite unique and inspiring people during a panel discussion to mark ‘Vision 2020 – World Sight Day’.

In the Today on Beyond Beijing studio we welcomed – among others - a staff member and volunteer from The Beijing One Plus One Cultural Exchange Center.
We talked about the challenges facing the visually impaired here in China – and their remarkable achievements.

If you have some time to spare, you really should take a listen to the MP3 version on this link -

Visit the group at

Another highlight of the week was dinner with Cyrille Jegu and He Si-tang from The Natural Step – an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to education, advisory work and research in sustainable development.
It was impossible not to be energized by their dedication and enthusiasm for creating a better, sustainable environment.

For information on their program and what you can do to contribute to the quality of life for future generations, visit their website at -

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Thursday, 8 October 2009

Animal Welfare Legislation in China

With local media often overwhelmed with other social and environmental issues, the problem of animal welfare is one that is often overlooked.

That fact could not have been more obviously portrayed by the complete indifference of this young chap regarding the why, the where, and the how this beautiful pelt came into the hands of the street vendor.

The haggling went on for about 10 to 15 minutes. I was actually quite surprised that nobody seemed to be overly concerned that I was taking pictures. No sneaky long lens was needed - I was using a fixed focal length 35mm F1.8 - so I was almost on top of them!

The fact is, however you view the moral implications of their their transaction - it isn't illegal. I asked the Asia Representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for his opinion and this is what he had to say:

"In China, animal protection laws are essentially non-existent. Fighting awful situations like these is not usually possible from a legal standpoint because, for the most part, no laws are being broken. Even if the pelt you saw was a dog skin, it would likely still be legal to sell. I’m sure you’ve seen this footage:, and it’s all completely legal"

I should warn you, the footage from PETA is foul and extremely disturbing.

But the deal was eventually closed - for between US$40 to US$50 - and this pelt was on its way to decorate a young man's apartment.

For more background visit

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