Based on case studies of NGOs in three cities, this paper discusses some of the common constraints on the ability of Chinese social welfare NGOs to perform both service delivery and advocacy functions at the present time. It shows that the effectiveness of NGOs is above all conditioned by their institutional environment. When the general level of social welfare provision in a country is low, it also sets a limit to what NGOs can achieve. Given the crucial importance of the institutional context to NGO performance, the paper concludes by arguing that unless the context is changed, NGO performance is unlikely to be drastically improved by capacity building programmes that only focus on these organisations themselves
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