GIVING IN A CHANGING WORLD (2010/06/19 International Herald Tribune)
International Herald Tribune June 19-20, 2010
The Global Edition of the New York Times
GIVING IN A CHANGING WORLD
Was produced by the IHT Creative Solutions department and did not involve the newspaper’s reporting or editorial departments. It was sponsored by BNP Paribas Wealth Management and is the third and last installment in a series. Text by HEIDI ELLISON.
PROFILE / Chung To, Chi Heng Foundation
Special Prize winner of the 2010 BNP Paribas Prize for Individual Philanthropy, the former banker Chung To chose to divert his resources to “wisdom in action”
[photo caption] The philanthropist Chung To now divides his time between fieldwork and publicizing the foundation’s activities through lectures and conferences.
Helping HIV-affected children in rural China continue their education
=== ‘I said to myself, the world can live with one less banker, but these people are not getting any help’ ===
With degrees from Columbia and Harvard, and a successful career in international investment banking, Chung To, Special Prize winner of the 2010 BNP Paribas Prize for Individual Philanthropy, could have become a Master of the Universe. But instead he chose a very different path. Through his Chi Heng Foundation (www.chihengfoundation.com), he sends children in China affected by AIDS to school and raises awareness about HIV/AIDS among vulnerable populations in China.
Born in Hong Kong, To moved to the United States with his family when he was 15. After graduating from Columbia, he got a master’s degree from Harvard in East Asian studies before beginning his banking career. In 1995, he returned to Hong Kong as an associate director of UBS.
One of the defining moments of his life had occurred much earlier, however. When To was in high school in the United States, his algebra teacher died of AIDS, an experience that touched him profoundly and spurred him to volunteer on HIV/AIDS projects.
In 1998, To, alarmed by ignorance about HIV/AIDS in Hong Kong and mainland China, created Chi Heng (which means ‘‘wisdom in action’’) to distribute condoms and safe-sex kits, and to provide counseling, information, and legal and medical advice to the gay community and sex workers. Then, in 2001, he had another life-changing experience.
‘‘I was at a conference in Beijing,’’ he says. ‘‘During the dinner break, I sat next to a man and his three or four-year-old son, both of whom had AIDS.’’ The man explained that they were from a remote area in the countryside and couldn’t get treatment there, so they had come to Beijing for help. ‘‘I wondered how they could have gotten HIV in such a poor and remote rural area without many commercial sex and drug issues,’’ To recalls. ‘‘Then I learned from a friend who is a doctor in Henan that people were selling blood in villages, and that many were dying.’’
To went to see for himself. It turned out that a devastating HIV epidemic had been started by a well-intentioned government-endorsed campaign in Henan Province to encourage blood donations in the early 1990s. In some of these ‘‘AIDS villages,’’ up to 60 percent of the adult population was infected, and many poor people could no longer afford to feed, clothe or educate their children. HIV infection had spread to neighboring provinces as people traveled to Henan to make money by selling their blood to unofficial blood
During that trip, To visited more than 100 afflicted families. He was especially disturbed by the stigma attached to the disease; one man was left unburied for two days because no one dared to touch him. ‘‘Children were stigmatized, too,’’ he says. ‘‘HIV is just a virus like flu, but it translates into a moral attack. It’s very shocking. It reminded me of how dying AIDS patients were discriminated against, kicked out of their families, etc., back in 1980s in the United States.’’
The experience was a call to action for To. In 2002, he launched the AIDS Orphans Project and decided to quit his job and work full time for the foundation. ‘‘I said to myself, the world can live with one less banker, but these people are not getting any help.’’
Beginning in one village in Henan, the grassroots foundation worked with a few volunteers, including To himself, with financing from friends and his own pocket, and gradually expanded its activities to other provinces. Discretion was important at the beginning, since this was a politically sensitive issue. Now the central government is supportive of HIV work, while local authorities are sometimes less so. ‘‘Some areas don’t welcome outside help,’’ says To. ‘‘They are afraid of exposing their problems. The attitude is improving, but it’s still far from ideal.’’
The project provides children who have an AIDS-infected parent with school fees and expenses until they finish university or vocational school, concentrating on education as a way of helping lift the children out of the vicious circle of poverty. Nearly 12,000 children have been sent to school since To began working with them. The foundation, which uses local workers to administer its programs, tailors its services to the needs of each child and also provides psychosocial support and mentoring.
The foundation gives the money directly to students through bank transfers or home visits. ‘‘We put the money in their hands,’’ To says. ‘‘Other groups would outsource this, but we don’t think that is accountable. It takes a lot of our time, but we like to have direct access to the children.’’
The home visit is more than an administrative task. “It also has psychosocial value,” he says, “giving hope to the children. It shows them that someone cares about them and is willing to go all the way to visit them at home.”
A United Nations 2010 progress report estimated that at the end of 2009, 700,000 people were living with HIV in China. While the problem of HIV transmission through blood transfusions has greatly lessened, the need for assistance has not.
‘‘I’m more concerned about poverty,’’ says To. ‘‘Blood selling is only one outcome of poverty. There are still many desperate people willing to do anything for money. We are trying to get them out of poverty through education. The key is to give them a job, a future and hope.’’
To spends about half of his time in the field and the rest publicizing the foundation’s work and developing new programs. Fund-raising is another important activity, especially since donations dropped by 30 percent during the economic crisis. He hopes that the BNP Paribas Prize for individual Philanthropy, which comes with a cash award of €50,000 ($60,000), will help raise awareness of the HIV problem in China and inspire others to help.
‘‘For the past few years,’’ he says, ‘‘Westerners have been hearing that China is rich and doesn’t need help anymore, but people are still very poor in the countryside, and the poverty gap has widened. I hope people will support the development of civil society there. And, when it comes to HIV, many people think the problem is solved, but in China, India and Africa, it’s still a big problem that needs our support.’’
PROCESS / A diversified model
In order to keep giving, a focus on ways to keep earning
===To is making a concentrated effort to find innovative ways to raise money ===
[photo caption] One of the foundation’s partners funds a French bakery, where students can study baking with a master.
Chung To created the Chi Heng Foundation in 1998 to fight HIV/AIDS among vulnerable populations, including the gay community and sex workers, in Hong Kong. But by 2002, when he quit his job as a banker to devote himself full time to the foundation, its scope and direction had changed radically. Now most of its resources are devoted to educating AIDS orphans in Central China.
To has never taken a salary for his work with the foundation and lives off his savings, investments and occasional outside jobs. The foundation, which has a budget of €1 million ($1.2 million), now has 40 paid employees and around 200 active volunteers.
Funds come from a variety of sources, with 20 percent to 30 percent from big international organizations like the Global Fund, Unesco, the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation, and 60 percent to 70 percent from private and corporate donors, mostly in Hong Kong.
The cost of sending children to school depends on the level, ranging from $20 to $30 a year for primary school to $600-$700 for university. Extra money is given to very needy students. While schooling is free in China for the first nine years, there are still costs for books and fees.
Since donations have dropped by 30 percent because of the financial crisis, To is making a concentrated effort to find innovative ways to raise money. Fund-raising events like film premieres and gala dinners can be time-consuming. ‘‘In the past,’’ he says, ‘‘we had supporters who gave annually even without events, but now we have to do them. It takes a lot of effort. We don’t want to divert our energy from helping the children.’’
Another solution To is looking at is running social enterprises that would provide employment opportunities and build capacity. The summer camps run by the foundation used to be open only to its own children, but now accept fee-paying overseas students. ‘‘We are commercializing our summer camp program,’’ says To. Each of the overseas children, most of whom come from Hong Kong or North America, becomes the ‘‘buddy’’ of one of the foundation’s children. ‘‘They are also learning and developing a sense of social responsibility,’’ he says. ‘‘We focus on art or music to break the language barrier.’’
For another program, sponsored by the Accor Group, mothers of children in the program make reusable shopping bags, which are sold in the group’s hotels. The profits go toward their children’s education. ‘‘It’s better than giving them welfare,’’ says To, ‘‘and it makes the HIV-positive mothers feel useful.’’ Another partner, the Carrefour Foundation, funds a French bakery in China where students can study baking.
A microfinance program offers another way to create employment. ‘‘Some of our students are going home and starting organic farms or chicken farms or other businesses, taking resources back to their villages,’’ To says. He adds that he wants to get more involved in microfinance and is sending some of the foundation’s graduates to entrepreneurial training courses.
Ecotourism offers other fund-raising opportunities. To is currently working on a project that would include a hostel for paying guests and ‘‘voluntourists’’ (people who pay to help out on a project during their vacation). Another possibility is an after-school tutoring program.
The foundation is registered as a tax-exempt charity in Hong Kong, where it is subject to strict rules similar to those for U.K. charities, and it has legal status in China. There is also a registered charity in Canada called Chi Heng Foundation Canada.
The Chi Heng Foundation’s AIDS-awareness program for the gay community and sex workers is active in six Chinese cities and now takes up 20 percent to 25 percent of its resources. Volunteers visit gay bars and parks to educate male sex workers and others about safe sex. ‘‘It’s a challenge to do this on a continuous basis, and getting funding is very difficult,’’ says To.
To’s experience as a banker has influenced the way he runs the foundation. ‘‘Accountability is very important to us,’’ he says. ‘‘The foundation is helping people, but it is run efficiently and professionally. Many of our volunteers are professionals, and we have an information-technology person and lots of expertise that most charities couldn’t afford, since some work for free.’’ The foundation publishes audited accounts and is committed to good governance. It keeps a database for monitoring and evaluation purposes covering every child it supports.
Like many of those who create foundations, To has to think about what will happen when he is no longer around to run it. He has already started training younger leaders to take over many projects so that he can focus on developing social enterprises to provide sustainable funding sources. “We want to diversify our income and develop revenue-generating skills,’’ he says of the future. ‘‘In terms of human resources, I’m not worried, but I am worried about funding.’’
Recipients’ stories, in their own words
Like Chung To, whose direction in life was radically changed by seeing someone he cared about die of AIDS when he was young, the lives of many of the children being helped by his Chi Heng Foundation have been determined by their experiences with the disease.
Many of the students write letters to ‘‘Uncle To’’ every year. ‘‘I was born in an unfortunate time,’’ starts one boy, a high school junior whose parents have AIDS, ‘‘but I am lucky in some ways’’ — lucky because he is receiving help from the foundation.
The child of a peasant family, he asks if To can help him find temporary work so the family won’t have to rely on outside help.
A high school freshman tells about the good life her family had until her parents were diagnosed as HIV-positive. ‘‘At that time, I was in school and didn’t know what had happened,’’ she says. ‘‘But later I found my Mom’s health condition slowly deteriorated and her whole body became swollen.’’ The mother insisted that her children keep going to school, but then the family’s savings were depleted by the cost of treating her, and they could no longer pay school fees. ‘‘They had to drag their sickly bodies around, trying to borrow money.’’ she remembers.
The daughter dropped out of junior high and went to work, an experience that taught her the importance of an education. Around the time she went back to school, the government started providing free medical treatment to AIDS patients, but because her parents were unable to work, the family remained poor. The girl’s parents ‘‘were moved to tears’’ when they saw the money sent by the foundation.
A high school junior remembers that when he was small his mother would leave him to go and sell blood to pay for his father’s treatment for an illness. Later, ‘‘just when we were happy and joyful [because the father’s health had improved], we were told the dreadful news’’ — his mother had contracted AIDS from selling blood. ‘‘I realized at that time that absolute fairness never existed, for if it did, there wouldn’t be so many kind and honest people dying young, and there wouldn’t be so many bad guys, some even with bloods on their hands, still leading a happy life.’’ After thanking the foundation for its help, he adds: ‘‘Sickness has brought us closer together and made us treasure life more. I guess there are both sides in all things, right?’’
A sophomore whose father is already dead and whose mother is dying apologizes for her grades, which she says are not as good as they should be. Depressed and suffering from a sense of inferiority, ‘‘even when I am laughing,’’ she says that she has to ‘‘endure all the pain alone.’’ She thanks To for the material help he has given her and ends her letter, ‘‘I sincerely wish you all the best and happiness. Aren’t these what we want?’’
RESULTS / Quantifying change
A ripple effect as benefits spread
[photo caption] Students in one of the 13 reading rooms financed by the Chi Heng Foundation.
Since the Chi Heng Foundation began its work in a village in Henan Province in 2002 with a handful of volunteers and funding from the pocket of its founder, Chung To, it has expanded its reach to more than 200 villages in eight provinces and has sent almost 12,000 children to school. Around 3,000 have now finished their education. Five hundred are now studying at universities, and around 100 are university graduates, 14 of whom now work for the foundation.
Getting a good education suited to their abilities has changed the lives of these children, most of whom had little hope for the future after members of their already-poor families had died of AIDS.
‘‘One of our kids told me that HIV had caused him lose his family,’’ says To, ‘‘but it also helped him get a new family, a bigger one.’’ The program’s university graduates often stop by the regional office to ask if they can help out, while others stay in touch by e-mail or the program’s alumni networks. One graduate, who majored in English, has worked for Reuters, while others have become doctors, engineers or taken up other professions.
‘‘They stay close to us,’’ says To, ‘‘which means that they have received more than financial support. We want to provide love and care as well as education, so they will stay in touch and help the younger children. I hope they will all carry on the spirit of what we do. We are like a big family, empowering those being helped to become able to help others. ’’ He adds that after the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, 21 of the program’s university students went there to help victims.
To is also encouraged by the way others are emulating the Chi Heng Foundation’s efforts. ‘‘Smaller programs are being set up in other places, some of them started by the villages themselves and some with help from the government,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s good to see others doing the same thing.’’
He is hoping that the BNP Paribas Prize for Individual Philanthropy will have a similar effect: ‘‘I hope the award will help connect us to like-minded people so we can work together on some things.’’ After he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2007, he says, he benefited from meeting a number of people who were able to give him valuable advice and share experiences, including a field trip to visit earlier awardees’ programs in India and Thailand.