The wealth gap between China’s urban and rural regions has badly skewed China’s education. Due to lack of funding, rural students in China are disadvantaged by systemic problems in areas like teaching, management, infrastructure and educational resources. In the poorest regions, even feeding school children so they have enough energy for learning can be a real challenge.
According to research released in March 2011 by the China Development Research Foundation of the Chinese State Council, poverty in the western provinces of China has led to malnutrition and developmental delays among primary school students. In a sample of 1,458 students aged 10-13 from rural boarding schools in Ningxia, Guangxi and Yunnan, 12% have growth retardation and 9% are underweight.
To tackle this problem, Guangzhou-based charity activist Liang Shuxin started the project “Free Lunch” on 1 April 2011, in collaboration with the semi-official Guizhou Youth Development Foundation. This is a project of the Micro Foundation, an NGO founded by Liang in 2010 with the aim of harnessing the power of the Internet to improve rural education in China.
The explosive growth in the number of Internet users in China allows unlimited possibilities. The popularity of Internet tools like Weibo (China’s Twitter-like service) and web portals facilitate the involvement of a large number of people. At the heart of the project is the concept of “micro donations”. For example, the project has set up a virtual shop on the platform Taobao, where netizens can buy two lunch meals for school kids for just RMB 5.00 (around $0.80 USD). To ensure transparency and accountability, the project has also created a blog with stories, photos and feedback about how the donations are used.
The project has achieved some real successes. Since April this year, it has supplied lunch meals for the 205 students at Hongban Primary School in Guizhou province. Over two thirds of students at the school cannot enjoy a proper lunch due to financial difficulties and long distances from home. In collaboration with local authorities, a “love snack shop” will be built next to the school to supply free lunch for needy students over the next few years. Similar projects will be gradually implemented across the impoverished regions of Guizhou.
The civil-official collaboration is planned to continue for three years, and aims to raise RMB 10 million (more than $1.5 million USD) this year. In an interview with China's Southern Daily newspaper, Liang admitted that there are a number of challenges, such as the sustainability of donations and the building up of a proper lunch supply system. He thinks that the problem of malnutrition among rural students ultimately needs to be solved with governmental initiatives. It is for this reason he has picked the semi-official Guizhou Youth Development Foundation as a partner, which has extensive professional educational networks. Nevertheless, he does believe that a civil organization like Micro Foundation could add vitality to the collaboration by way of its creative, communicative and integrative abilities over the Internet.