Learning from Nepal: Part Two of an Interview with Humanitarian Relief Expert Jock Baker

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  • Learning from Nepal: Part Two of an Interview with Humanitarian Relief Expert Jock Baker

This is the second half of the interview. The first half is here.


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: Previous alliances between Chinese NGOs taking part in disaster relief work in China have been criticized for not materializing on the ground or for falling apart once the relief work has ended. Do you think Nepal is different? Do you think there will be stronger alliances afterwards?

Jock Baker: I think the answer is probably yes and no. There will be some Chinese NGOs that continue their activities into the recovery and reconstruction phase and others that end their activities and return to China. But that is true of any international humanitarian response. The same thing will happen to Western NGOs that participate. In a way, the barriers are even higher for Western NGOs that are in Nepal but have no previous experience of international relief efforts. They have much more competition from similar organisations.

As to whether they are able to sustain their activities, funding will be an issue, as will the identification of viable partnerships that should go beyond the relief effort. Chinese NGOs are potentially in a very good place with regard to future humanitarian action. International NGOs have a much longer history and they have made many mistakes that Chinese NGOs can learn from. Another thing that I’ve discovered is that Chinese NGOs have a good connection with Chinese academic research, something that Western academics and NGOs often lack. Chinese academics that focus on disaster relief topics can have a very “hands on” approach to their research and are happy to work together with the agencies, both government and NGO, involved in Chinese disaster relief. I think that this active learning process combined with the opportunity to learn from the experiences of international actors bodes well for the future of Chinese engagement.


TB: Maybe that’s because most universities in China are administered by the government and there is a history in China of a strong government role in disaster relief. Therefore there is already an established academic link.

JB: Yes I think so too. You have the National Disaster Reduction Committee that is an advisory board for the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The academics I have met that are members of that board are very practical people with a lot of international exposure. They have the potential to bring in outside learning and communicate it to a Chinese audience. I believe that this involvement with academics will help in also building the capacity of Chinese NGOs.


Jock participates in an assessment with the Amity Foundation and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in a village that had been largely destroyed two hours north-east of Kathmandu (photo by Jock Baker)
Jock participates in an assessment with the Amity Foundation and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in a village that had been largely destroyed two hours north-east of Kathmandu (photo by Jock Baker)


TB: You have already mentioned some ways in which Chinese NGOs are cooperating with partners. How about their cooperation with the Nepalese government?

JB: There has been quite close cooperation with the Nepalese government. Whereas direct contact with the UN appears to have been limited, most have made sincere efforts to cooperate with the Nepali government. That is what the Chinese organizations are used to doing in China and, at least at the district level, this should be an appropriate channel. The UN coordination mechanism has mainly been at a national level in Kathmandu, although they have also now setting up some sub hubs in the most badly affected areas. The coordination at the field level goes through Nepali government actors, although the capacity of those actors varies depending on location.


TB: Do you think that Chinese NGOs tend to work better with government actors than their international counterparts, because that is what they are most used to?

JB: Well they also have to learn because in China, the capacity of the government is much greater. In Nepal outside of Kathmandu, the local government has limited capacity and local and international NGOs are much bigger players. So I don’t think it’s an advantage; it varies across the NGO response.


TB: So Nepali civil society has a lot of depth?

JB: Yes, very much so. There are lots of Nepali NGOs. I understand that more than 30,000 Nepali NGOs were registered prior to the earthquake, so they outnumber international NGOs by a large margin and most of the programs of international NGOs are implemented through national partners. They have a very strong civil society, similar to the strong civil societies that you can find in other South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh. Chinese NGOs will probably have to work closely with local NGOs. Working through them makes sense; they have local expertise and tend to provide good value for money, both in terms of cost effectiveness and sustainability. However they also have their own problems to deal with. The capacity of many Nepali NGOs is often not very strong. They also have their own issues such as corruption and the caste system to deal with. Cultural aspects such as the caste system is just one part of the local culture that international NGOs, including Chinese ones, have to learn when they are operating there.


TB: In the future, China – at both the government and non-government level – will probably participate in more and more international relief efforts. Regarding preparedness for future involvement in international relief efforts, does China currently participate in readiness planning or simulation exercises with other international or regional actors? Do Chinese NGOs get involved?

JB: They do indeed, both government and non-government. The government has a large training centre outside of Beijing where they do training and simulation exercises, that’s where the government teams keep a lot of their equipment. It‘s an international centre – I talked to individuals from Nepal and Bangladesh who have been trained there. It’s also open to NGO teams participating in training. They also work with international partners. The UK and China have a community-based disaster management project, they plan to set up a kind of disaster learning center and they have six pilot communities projects across China. As I have already mentioned, in China there seems to be a focus on “hands on” learning - either through simulations or learning from real-life responses. Their experience in Nepal should translate into increased preparedness, learning how to be effective responders, how to deploy quickly, how to do needs assessments in unfamiliar contexts. They are also learning what is needed to engage at the international level, including having the necessary language skills and an understanding of how the coordinating UN systems work.

In terms of sending relief supplies, China as a whole, both non-government and government, has considerable potential being a kind of regional hub supplier for relief supplies, similar to Dubai or Panama. These two places have set themselves up as regional hubs where lots of international agencies have release docks. China with its location, access to ports, and proximity to manufacturers, could do the same.


TB: What agreements and mechanisms have regulated the Chinese involvement?

JB: In Nepal there are rules and regulations for international NGOs. Newly arrived NGOs in Nepal are supposed to register with the social welfare council although the earthquake has disrupted normal processes. I heard that only three foreign NGOs out of the more than 100 that responded had actually registered and that the government had agreed to more flexible visa arrangements to facilitate the response.  That’s not unusual after a big disaster. Bureaucratic systems are often too slow to deal with the aftermath of a large-scale disaster and governments are obliged to make temporary flexible arrangements.


TB: I wonder if experiences learnt from Nepal will streamline efforts to enable international responders to help in future relief efforts that occur within Chinese borders?

JB: Yes possibly. Although I think that it is also important to remember that it shouldn’t be an open door policy. Some NGOs do perform well in disaster responses, others are criticized for keeping money and not delivering results. NGOs need to demonstrate that they can add value to a relief effort. For example, to do the kind of smaller-scale community-based work which governments don’t do that well. I’ve evaluated NGO humanitarian activities during many years and I certainly wouldn’t say they are all perfect and there have been cases where they sometimes cause more problems than they solve. In the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, evaluations found that there was a lot of wasted resources and unprofessional approaches. For example, many (though not all) international NGOs largely ignored local civil society. They had a lot of money and they felt that they didn’t need them, they didn’t know how to work with them, they didn’t speak the language.

Right now there is a big debate in the NGO community about certification of humanitarian agencies. Those in favor of certification argue that people in lifesaving professions like doctors, nurses and firefighters have to be certified. Therefore, if humanitarians are saving lives, why shouldn’t they be certified too? Why can anyone come in to respond just because they work for an NGO? Having done a lot of evaluation and worked for several agencies, I think there is probably something to this argument, although there remains the questions about who certifies, and how do you certify without overly constraining the flexibility and independence of NGOs, which may be a strength. I think that in terms of becoming more professional and more thoughtful in their approach, there needs to be some kind of control and at the moment it’s mainly the receiving countries that determine that. In Nepal, there has not been a lot of control, but in other countries like Ethiopia, they control very closely, and they control very carefully who comes in. In terms of international organizations, they certify them themselves and they do joint monitoring visits each year with them, so they say, ok this is what you said you would do, we are going to check, and they check. There are currently efforts so that international NGOs come up with our own kind of professional standards.

Currently, professional standards, such as Sphere, are voluntary. The main question is how accountable the NGO is, because the money is not given to the NGOs, it is given to the NGO so that they can assist a community that has been affected by a disaster. So NGOs must demonstrate the value that they add, to demonstrate to donors that they will get more for their money if they donate through the NGO than if they had given directly to the community.


TB: From your responses to the questions, I think you have quite positive opinions about what Chinese NGOs have been doing in Nepal. I wonder if you think that it has also provided a good window for the Chinese government to further realize and recognize the worth of NGOs?

JB: Maybe. I am more positive about the future potential, especially if Chinese NGOs can learn from this disaster so that they can perform at a higher standard during the next response. There is definitely a better understanding within the Chinese government of international humanitarian relief efforts and the recognition that China now has a regional, if not global, role in humanitarian efforts and that includes Chinese NGOs. My understanding so far is that it’s not yet the sort of working relationship that you see between Western government aid agencies and NGOs, but the trends are positive. They are finding out where it makes sense to collaborate, they’ll learn from that and they’ll come out of it positively. It looks good for the future.


An Amity Foundation staff member conducting a needs assessment (photo by Jock Baker)
An Amity Foundation staff member conducting a needs assessment (photo by Jock Baker)



TB: What are the main lessons that Chinese NGOs can learn from Nepal? What can Chinese NGOs do in the future to improve their capacity to take part in international operations?

JB: Well, they are learning something new every day. There is an issue with communication, with the English language, and understanding how international NGOs work. The local context is also very different from what they are used to and they have to learn how they can add value in an environment where many NGOs, both international and national, are operating. While they are responding they need to do a continuous updating of their assessment, and in the process they are learning, and hopefully they’ll be doing it in such a way that they are capturing the important things. They should also be taking the opportunity to learn from the more experienced agencies on the ground. In this way they will be better placed to respond next time. Some examples of lessons learnt could be the strong support they have received from the ethnic Chinese community in Nepal or the complementary relationship with the Chinese government. Both of these could contribute to a model for future responses.


TB: This month was the 7th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake. Many consider that earthquake to be a watershed moment for Chinese NGOs. Do you think that the Nepalese earthquake marks another watershed moment for Chinese NGOs?

JB: We will probably be better placed to answer that question a year or so from now, once we see what has been achieved and what has been the effect on Chinese NGOs, but in terms of potential, I think yes. I’d put my money on it. Certainly Nepal has been a great opportunity for the Chinese government, they’ve become a substantial regional player. It is definitely also a big opportunity for the NGOs, especially because they are going into an NGO-friendly environment.


TB: Disaster relief is only a small part of what NGOs do. I wonder if you see any benefits from Nepal for smaller Chinese grassroots NGOs that often find themselves struggling to survive?

JB: Firstly Nepal has been an opportunity for these big Chinese foundations to see themselves how smaller Nepali community-based organizations function. Secondly they are going to share all of the lessons that they have learnt with their partners in China. This particularly includes things like monitoring and evaluation, which is an area that is perhaps less developed in most Chinese NGOs. The big NGOs, for example the One Foundation, are quite good at it. They do have monitoring and evaluation capacities. However this capacity can still be improved and it’s a question of whether they are happy with what they have or if they want to develop further. It’s now very difficult for Western NGOs to raise funds if they can’t show their donors that they have independent evaluation and auditing processes. As I mentioned before, these are areas where the larger Western NGOs based have relatively more experience than Chinese NGOs, including the experience of making mistakes! So the possibility of learning from this experience and these mistakes can be a great advantage for Chinese NGOs. It can also enable them to demonstrate better how they can add value. This is also something that Chinese NGOs can and will improve upon. All of these are lessons that the Chinese NGOs in Nepal can convey back to NGOs that remained in China.




In Brief

The second half of CDB’s interview with 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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