Reporter 458, 6 November 2000
Visiting far-flung mountain villages in south-west China to research the reform of marriage laws in the People’s Republic, Professor Delia Davin met a Leeds graduate heading the Development Organisation of Rural Sichuan.
In remote places like this, it always helps a researcher to have a contact with extensive local knowledge – someone the villagers trust and admire.
The director, working for an agency that runs forestry projects, water supply systems, micro-credit schemes and education and training initiatives for rural women, knew the professor already.
Meeting of minds: Rose Acock, right, by a peach tree in Sugu village with township women’s cadre Gan Zhuren, an interpreter in the Yi minority language who helps run a rural credit scheme.
Photograph: Richard Anderson
It is less than five years since Rose Acock completed her MA in development studies at Leeds, a programme to which East Asian Studies, the department Professor Davin heads, contributes.
Ms Acock now heads the fieldwork of a small UK charity which she set up, to promote and facilitate sustainable and equitable development in Hanyuan. More than 70,000 people in this rugged county have an annual income of less than £65.
"It’s certainly a poor area, and some of the mountain villages are three hours from the nearest decent road," said Professor Davin.
"However, the people are outward-looking and resourceful, always willing to consider new ways of getting by."
Well received: Delia Davin, Professor of Chinese and head of East Asian Studies, was made welcome in Sichuan villages where a Leeds graduate is a local heroine
Local officials encouraged increased production of fruit and nuts, but market prices have slumped because so many people started growing them.
Although the coast is a huge distance away, some families now take part in local government-sponsored deep-sea fishing expeditions to supplement their incomes.
"In return, they get their children’s school fees subsidised. They are very education-oriented: many parents will pay half of their entire income to put their children through school," said Professor Davin.
Having previously researched on rural-urban migration in China, she is familiar with Sichuan: formerly the country’s most populous province, it has the highest migration rate.
"Wherever you go in China, you’re never surprised to meet people from Sichuan."
But what might be more surprising would be to find a poverty alleviation project in 14 Hanyuan villages being led by a young Gloucestershire woman, who graduated from Huddersfield before her Leeds Masters degree.
Eastern promise: many impoverished families in Hanyuan county invest half of their household income on their children’s education.
Photograph: Delia Davin
Already, Rose Acock has been awarded a government medal for foreign citizens making a major contribution to China’s development.
Her organisation works closely with local communities, on the principle that they themselves are best placed to define their needs and bring about change. With only Ms Acock and a handful of volunteers working from the Hanyuan county town of Fulin, it acts primarily as a facilitator.
When a need is identified, the team prepares the formal proposal, evaluates progress, helps with fundraising and liaises with local authorities.
Its main official liaison partner is the Sichuan poverty alleviation office, but it also works closely with the Hanyan county government and the Sichuan regional agricultural development office.
Comparing notes: Rose Acock consults a villager in Sugu on the progress of a local credit scheme
Photograph: Richard Anderson
From the outset, the organisation tries to make contact with as many of the local people as it can, holding household surveys and particularly seeking out the views of women, the elderly and those with disabilities.
As a project progresses, villagers are regularly consulted in open meetings, the aim being to make them genuinely the owners of the project.
Hanyuan county is well known as the area where pioneering social anthropologist Isabel Crook carried out her fieldwork in the late 1930s. Ms Crook still lives in China and has become a supporter of the development organisation’s work.
Hanyuan is home to a substantial ethnic minority, the Yi people, whose language and customs are different from those of the majority Han Chinese.
The Development Organisation for Rural Sichuan has been supporting schoolchildren in the Yi village of Zhaohoumiao for several years and has made loans to the women of the village as part of a Women's Rural Credit Scheme.
Professor Davin was impressed by the progress achieved in the organisation’s first few years, and by the high regard in which the young Leeds graduate is evidently held by local people.
"The villagers all seemed to know ‘Miss Rose’ and they received me kindly because I was with her," said Professor Davin.
"Rose has became perfectly fluent since arriving in China – though she has a very strong Sichuan accent!"
Information about the Development Organisation of Rural Sichuan can be found at www.dors.org.uk
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