Learning from Nepal: An Interview with Humanitarian Relief Expert Jock Baker

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In China, The Asia Foundation has actively engaged in projects supporting Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to do work abroad. These NGOs who are interested in working overseas, especially the growing number of Chinese foundations, believe that responding to emergencies outside China is the key potential growth area for their international operations because they have successfully gained hands-on experience in the most natural disaster-prone country in the world. Earlier this year, The Asia Foundation had discussions with major domestic foundations and international NGOs (such as Save the Children and Mercy Corps) on launching a long-term capacity building project in this particular area. After the powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, a large number of Chinese NGOs responded swiftly and an NGO platform was set up in Beijing to coordinate relief efforts. As a member of this coordination platform, The Asia Foundation supported Mr. Jock Baker and Mr. YUE Yao, two experienced specialists on international humanitarian assistance, to provide on-the-ground technical assistance to Chinese NGOs working in Nepal during the period from April 29 to May 9. Subsequently Mr. Baker and Mr. Yue travelled to Beijing and shared with Chinese foundations and international NGOs their initial impression on these international and Chinese NGOs’ response to the Nepal earthquake. Such analysis and experience sharing will serve as a good foundation for the long-term efforts by The Asia Foundation and others to improve Chinese NGOs’ capacity to respond to foreign disasters.

Jock Baker’s biography is in this footnote ((Jock Baker became an independent consultant following a long career with a number of United Nations agencies and international NGOs in mainly field-based assignments in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, Central America and Eastern Europe. He has led a number of studies, lessons-learned reviews, independent reviews and evaluations covering a range of themes, including disaster resilience, humanitarian financing, country strategy evaluations, humanitarian accountability, value for money, mine action, climate change adaptation, post-conflict recovery, post-conflict microfinance programming and donor aid effectiveness. He has also led or participated in global institutional reviews for the donor governments, UN agencies and international NGOs and was an adviser for ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System reports. He has published articles on a variety of subjects, including disaster risk reduction, interagency collaboration and capacity building, climate change, environmental assessment, and joint evaluation approaches.))

This interview was conducted on 13th May, 2015.


Tom Bannister: Can you describe what you have been doing in Nepal?

Jock Baker: It has really been a dual role. My involvement with Chinese NGOs actually pre-dated the Nepal earthquake since my involvement stems from a long-term interest from some of the Chinese Foundations to become professional international humanitarian agencies. These foundations would like to build upon the experiences they have gained from responding to disasters in China to move out to respond to disasters outside China, particularly in the Asian region. There had already been some initial activities prior to the earthquake, although the numbers of people trained is still quite small.

When the Nepal earthquake struck, the role of the work I was doing shifted to assessing how the Chinese foundations were responding and the challenges they were facing.


TB: What challenges were these?

JB: The challenges they are facing can basically be divided into two main categories, those that international NGOs are facing generally in Nepal and those that are unique to Chinese NGOs. Chinese NGOs were not the only ones operating in Nepal who have limited international experience. There were a lot of Indian NGOs for example, which have gained experience responding to disasters in India over the years but are now responding for the first time outside of India.

My colleague Yue Yao has a lot of experience working with Chinese NGOs and has been able to help Chinese organisations in Nepal in various ways, including setting up logistics systems. There are problems with emergency relief supplies getting into Nepal, with bottlenecks emerging at customs checks. We also provided some training on international disaster relief standards, for example Sphere ((Sphere is an international set of principles and standards that apply to humanitarian work. Although they are widely used, adoption and adherence to Sphere standards is voluntary. See www.sphereproject.org for more information.)). We tried our best to provide a combination of hands-on training and practical support while Chinese NGOs were busy with ongoing operations. I worked with the UN and international NGOS for many years so one of my main roles in Nepal was to assist in connecting the Chinese organisations up with the international system.

Another challenge is that although Chinese NGOs are now used to responding to disasters in China, in China the government takes the lead in coordinating the response and providing relief assistance. However in Nepal, the government does not have this kind of capacity or resources so that NGOs, both international and national, have a relatively important role in responding to the disaster. Working alongside so many NGOs is something that Chinese NGOs have had to learn to do.


The Indian NGO “White Army” off-loading food aid.  Similar to the Chinese NGOs, this was their first experience working outside of their own country (photo by Jock Baker)
The Indian NGO “White Army” off-loading food aid. Similar to the Chinese NGOs, this was their first experience working outside of their own country (photo by Jock Baker)


TB: Which Chinese NGOs were you working with in Nepal?

JB: There were basically two categories. There were a few large foundations that had pre-existing partnerships with international organisations and alliances that had been developed during responses to disasters in China. The One Foundation had an existing partnership with Save the Children, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation worked with Mercy Corps, and the Amity Foundation was a member of the global ACT Alliance. Most of the other Chinese NGOs didn’t have these kinds of existing relations and counted on developing partnerships themselves after they arrived in Nepal. For example the Buddhist faith-based organisation, the Lingshan Charitable Foundation, partnered with monks in northern Nepal to provide relief at the community level. Most of these small organisations were working through the district-level Nepali local government.

There were a number of search and rescue teams deployed as well, including of course, the Chinese government’s search and rescue team which I understand was the first international rescue team to arrive in Nepal. The Chinese NGO search and rescue teams faced similar problems to other international search and rescue teams since coordination was being done by an overstretched Nepali government system with only partial information about needs.  As a result, many of of the international search and rescue teams, including Chinese NGOs, ended up focusing their operations in the Kathmandu valley.

Other NGOs were arriving even as we left Nepal in the beginning of May. Many were looking to participate in the recovery and reconstruction phase, for example a Hong Kong NGO was planning to conduct a psycho-social assessment looking at both immediate and longer-term needs.


TB: Chinese NGOs have taken part in a few previous international relief efforts, for example in 2011 after the Japanese earthquake. However in those situations they were usually considered junior partners, operating in a country in which the civil society is more experienced. These represented learning process for Chinese NGOs. Have there been situations in Nepal where Chinese NGOs have taken the lead?

JB: The smaller Chinese NGOs have been operating on their own providing small scale assistance with the help of local partners. There is a Chinese NGO platform based in Beijing that was set up after the earthquake which is providing daily situation reports. Although it is small-scale assistance, it can be quite effective because it is direct and targets visible needs. The larger NGOs like Amity and the One Foundation are working through international alliances and partnerships. Their international partners have been active in Nepal for many years and have already built strong partnerships with government and civil society organizations. They are making use of their pre-existing networks to carry out needs assessments to ensure their assistance meets priority needs.

In Nepal we talked to international partners of Chinese NGOs, such as Save the Children and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and they were very happy with the performance of the Chinese foundations. As an example, even though the One Foundation didn’t have a large presence in Nepal; just an English-speaking staff member acting as a liaison and coordinator and a search and rescue team. However they still managed to maintain effective cooperation between the Save the Children Federation and the One Foundation’s head office in China. The One Foundation certainly seem to have good contacts because they were one of the few international NGOs in Nepal that was able to bring in relief materials immediately after the earthquake. Furthermore the feedback from the One Foundation’s international partners was that the material supplies that the One Foundation was bringing in were what was actually needed based on accurate needs-assessments. This suggests that the One Foundation and Save the Children were operating really effectively as a team.

As for the Amity Foundation, they appeared to have integrated well into the ACT Alliance response where the relief effort was being led by LWF Nepal. We accompanied a team from Amity and LWF to conduct a needs assessment in a village outside of Kathmandu that had been almost completely destroyed. The Amity team has been actively participating in LWF-led assessments, planning meetings and distributions and is seen as a valuable member of the ACT team. They are currently discussing with ACT Alliance members about possible involvement in the recovery and reconstruction phase.

I think that during the next phase, the recovery period, Chinese NGOs could potentially assume an important role in certain areas. The Nepalese government has requested a handful of donors to assume lead roles during the recovery and reconstruction phase for different geographical regions and my understanding is that the Chinese government will take on a leading role in the northern central region. There thus seems to be good potential for partnerships between Chinese NGOs and the Chinese government. Even though they may not be familiar with the international humanitarian system – about how it works and how to use it to their advantage – Chinese NGOs do have some advantages. Nepal has a large ethnic Chinese population and Chinese NGOs have connected with this community in a way that would be difficult for western NGOs. They are getting a lot of support from Chinese communities in Nepal.


A young girl who had been buried under her collapsed house for 12 hours before being rescued (photo by Jock Baker)


TB: What has the media response been towards Chinese NGO participation in Nepal?

From what I have seen, the media in Nepal has been very positive about Chinese assistance, although reporting has mainly focused on the response by the Chinese government. There is still relatively little awareness of the activities of Chinese NGOs in Nepal. They do not have a high profile in Nepal and face difficulties communicating what they are doing to a local audience due to language difficulties, a lack of knowledge about how the international humanitarian system functions, and other factors. At the same time, I think that Nepal is likely to be a milestone for both the Chinese government and Chinese NGOs participating in international relief efforts. Having talked to senior UN officials, I know that they are very impressed with the Chinese government response and, as I already mentioned, there has been a lot of good press surrounding it. The Chinese NGO response is much more low profile; there is much less awareness about what they are doing. Those who have had direct contact with Chinese NGOs couldn’t be happier with what Chinese NGOs have been doing and there should be opportunities in future if Chinese NGOs can increase their professionalism and improve their communication.


TB: What you said about the ethnic Chinese community in Nepal is interesting. Do you know any NGOs that have been set up in Nepal by local ethnic Chinese communities, and are helping out in the relief effort or cooperating with Chinese organisations?

JB: From what I saw, it was not really local ethnic Chinese NGOs but business associations and local Chinese businesses that stepped in to help. One way that they have helped is that they are providing free meals and accommodations for Chinese aid workers. They have also helped out with logistics, providing transport to Chinese NGOs . So it doesn’t have to be NGOs, it’s also the private sector that are engaging with Chinese NGOs. It is also important to remember that China and Nepal are closely connected in many other ways. Many Nepalis speak Chinese and many Chinese have visited Nepal either as tourists or on working visits and would like to support the relief and recovery effort.


TB: What are the major needs that Chinese NGOs in Nepal have?

JB: I think that we will have a better idea of this in a few months after we have properly assessed the performance of Chinese organisations in Nepal. Based on preliminary observations, I think that one of the things that Chinese NGOs are struggling with is that there is not a lot of understanding about how the international humanitarian system works. Awareness of international standards and systems like Sphere are relatively low. Chinese NGOs may know it on paper but they are not sure of how these can be put into practice. For example, our observations indicate that much of the assistance they are giving in Nepal is consistent with Sphere, they are not able to articulate what they are doing using the language of Sphere. So there needs to be more awareness of what the international system is and how to apply it in practice.

Another thing is that Chinese NGOs, along with other newcomers, are being challenged with developing clear strategies in Nepal. This is due to a few reasons, including the fact that there are a lot of other NGOs working in Nepal and it takes time for them to work out where they can offer added-value.

The other thing that is likely to limit the involvement of Chinese NGOs in Nepal is access to diverse sources of funding, including international funding available through the UN system. Their funding currently only comes just from their respective constituencies in China. However international NGOs that are working alongside them can be part of the UN-led appeal and they have diverse funding sources from different countries around the world.

Of course many of the international NGOs in Nepal have been operating there for many years. So, addressing your previous questions, we may see Chinese NGOs who are involved in the relief effort eventually establishing a long-term presence in Nepal and, when the next disaster comes along – whether it is flood, an earthquake or other disaster type – they will be in a much better position to respond. They will have existing networks, a better understanding of how the international humanitarian system functions, and a much better sense of how they can add value.


TB: Earlier you mentioned Indian NGOs and their similar needs to Chinese NGOs. Can you expand upon that?

JB: Our focus was on Chinese NGOs and Chinese foundations. However, when we were in the field, we observed and heard about Indian NGOs in Nepal who, like Chinese NGOs, were responding outside their countries for the first time. India is, of course, also a disaster-prone country like China. So like Chinese NGOs, these Indian NGOs had built up their experience responding to domestic disasters and then saw the Nepal earthquake as an opportunity to provide support outside of India. There are quite a few Indian NGOs working there providing search and rescue, and some are talking about taking a prolonged role in the recovery phase.

As with Chinese NGOs, many Indian NGOs seem to be operating outside of the international system. They are not familiar with working in the UN-coordinated system, that doesn’t really happen in India either. Like China, the government, especially the army, plays a huge role in responding to disasters. One difference with India is that the disaster response is often state-led rather than led by the national government. However, similar to the context in China, Indian NGOs are used to working alongside a very strong government response and when they come to Nepal they have found themselves operating in a different context. Due to their lack of international experience, they are encountering comparable challenges to those faced by Chinese NGOs, for example dealing with international transfer of funds and customs procedures for relief supplies.

One advantage that India NGOs have is that, similar to Nepal, NGOs play a significant role in India during a response to a disaster and they are thus accustomed to working alongside many other NGOs.


Jock attending a nightly coordination meeting of Chinese foundations in Kathmandu (photo from the CFPA)


TB: Do you have examples of Chinese NGOs working with Chinese government entities in Nepal?

JB: The CFPA has a limited coordinating role as part of the platform that has been set up there. They set up informal evening meetings, with an open invitation to any Chinese organisation involved in the response where they could share what they have been doing. Newly arrived Chinese organizations could thus benefit by learning about the situation and from the experience of others.

There certainly seems to be a lot of potential. Chinese government and Chinese NGOs have worked together in disaster relief efforts inside of China. And as the Chinese government will certainly play a prominent role in the recovery phase, it seems to me that there will be this kind of collaboration in Nepal. Chinese NGOs may be able to help Chinese government efforts connect better with local Nepali groups and communities.


Part Two of this interview will be published soon.




In Brief

CDB’s Tom Bannister talks to Jock Baker, an independent consultant commissioned by The Asia Foundation to analyse and share the experiences of Chinese NGOs participating in the Nepal earthquake relief effort
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