Letter 1 - 17 January 2002
As a consequence of the report published in Libération, there are now about twenty of you, based in France, Belgium and Britain, who have shown your willingness to help Ma Yan to continue her school education. Although the individual contributions made are modest, you can imagine that the sum total still represents a lot of money in a province as poor as Ningxia.
But as I told you in my previous message - and there is a paradox in this - sudden influx of money may actually destabilise a community like this, and end up doing more harm than good. This would especially be the case if just one child were to benefit from an extraordinary bounty, while all the others remained plunged in obscurity and misery. Therefore, let me put the following suggestions to you. They are obviously subject to changes and to your feedback, to which I am looking forward.
OUR AIM : Our idea is that we will create a fund, for the main purpose - of course - of helping Ma Yan, whose personal initiative started our movement of solidarity. We want to help her to take her education as far as possible. But it seems quite clear to us (‘us’ meaning my assistant He Yanping, who was also moved by this young girl’s story and by her personality, and who is determined to help her so she can continue her studies) that if we helped only Ma Yan, we would risk generating envy in her environment, which could turn against her.
Moreover, the donations that have been offered mean that even when she is assured of regular and long-term help, there will still be enough left to let some other young girls also go back to school, and break out of the vicious circle in which they are now entrapped in. The alternative to creating a fund of the kind I propose would be that every one of you sent Ma Yan a donation. This would have the advantage of simplicity, but carry the risk of throwing this village, already in crisis, completely out of balance.
OUR METHOD : There is no thought here of creating yet another NGO. But there is also no reliable organisation already in existence and operating in Ningxia, which could be entrusted with this project. Therefore, we have to work out a mechanism that runs as smoothly as possible and at the same time allows us to be transparent and efficient. Efficient, because we want every penny to reach its intended destination ; and transparent, because everyone amongst us has a right to ascertain that their donation is used in a proper way.
As for helping Ma Yan herself, this is not too complicated. We have already sent a first sum of money to her by postal order, to cover the current school term, and we know that she has received the money. We have asked her to write to us regularly, so we keep informed about the progress of her studies, and she is doing this. Her letters will be translated, and they shall be passed on to you in due course. We are perfectly able to continue with this commitment and to fix a certain monthly sum to be paid out to her as a bursary, which will allow her to pay her school fees as well as to improve her living conditions and thus allow her to study better.
The easiest way would doubtless be to open a bank account for Ma Yan in France, which would allow us to pool the donations, and then make transfers of larger sums of money from this account : this will minimise bank charges and help to avoid errors or mistakes upon arrival of the money.
It is more complicated to work out how to help other girls deprived of school education with further bursaries, if our funds permit it. How to select them ? How to get the bursaries paid out to them ? And how to follow up on further developments ? The easiest would be, it seems, to go through the Education Bureau which the article mentioned. This Bureau has all the files on local families who are in difficulties and unable to pay their children’s school fees. Then the required fees could be paid directly to the respective school, in such and such a child’s name, so as to avoid the payment of intermediaries. In this case, just as in Ma Yan’s, the children would be required to write regularly to let us know how they were doing. And it would also be necessary actually to go there at regular intervals, once a term perhaps, to make sure that all was well...
The photographer Wang Zheng, who was our guide when we first came to Ningxia last spring, and who is himself from the ‘triangle of thirst’ in the south of the province, though he now lives in the provincial capital Yinchuan, has agreed to help us with this project. He would be an indispensable contact in the province.
Together with him, my assistant and I myself would be at the heart of the project, establishing and maintaining contact between you and Ma Yan as well as other future beneficiaries of the project, and following up on the developments in the village to ensure that the entire mechanism was working properly.
It might be a good idea to enlist the help of a representative from a humanitarian organisation such as MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) or the Save the Children Fund, or, as one of you suggested, the Alliance Française, which also has an educational mission, on this project. Such a person could help us to avoid mistakes and ensure the transparency of our project which, modest as it is, does involve some financial transactions.
Sorry to have written such a long letter, but I think it is better to tackle all the questions that will inevitably arise, before we actually start. I am looking forward to having your views : Do you agree to set up a fund as suggested, or would you prefer to address yourselves directly to Ma Yan ? Do you agree on the proposal to help other young girls, once Ma Yan’s own needs are taken care of ? Do you agree on the mechanism I have suggested ?
Beijing, 17 January 2002