Ma Yili interview (Part ll): social organizations are learning how to work with government

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  • Ma Yili interview (Part ll): social organizations are learning how to work with government

This is the second part of an interview with Ma Yili, former director of Shanghai’s Bureau of Civil Affairs, conducted by the Amity Chuanyi Philanthropy Culture Fund. You can read the first part here.


Q: During emergency response operations following major disasters, social forces play an important role and have a strong impact. Do you have any suggestions about how social forces can more effectively coordinate with the government and private sector?

Ma: On the one hand, as the major actor in emergency responses, how does the government better guide social forces to participate in a response in an effective and orderly manner? This comes back to what I talked about before: the connection between the government and social forces. How should the two connect with each other? Setting up a social department in the committee meeting is something that’s worth trying. Other than that, we need to record specifically how social forces can participate in the emergency response and write it into the government’s emergency response plan, including specifying what kind of professional organizations we need for each level of response and for what kind of tasks.

On the other hand, after a major disaster, how should social forces actively respond? According to my observations, when social forces participate in emergency response operations, there is also the problem of order. We cannot just all rush in there to help. First line responders should be those organizations that can do professional rescue work, for example, rescue teams that have experience with field work. Material goods and donations should follow. What follows next, I think, should be social workers and people offering counseling and other types of services.

Q: From what I understand, social work in mainland China didn’t formally get involved with disaster response and relief work until the “5.12 Wenchuan Earthquake” in 2008. Social workers in Shanghai at the time were exploring new ways of responding to disasters and had gotten quite far with their work. You were the director of Shanghai Bureau of Civil Affairs at the time.

Ma: There are three main parts.

The timing and priorities of social work interventions should be decided after conducting a field assessment. Sometimes if social workers go into the affected region too early, it might make things worse. The day after the Wenchuan earthquake, we held an emergency meeting with relevant experts from Fudan University, East China University of Science and Technology, Shanghai Normal University, the Office of Youth Community Affairs, Shanghai Association of Social Workers, the Association of Social Workers in Pudong District, the Shanghai Center for Youth Community Affairs, and other relevant units, and we discussed the feasibility and necessity of Shanghai social workers providing post-disaster recovery services. After that, we held a video conference with expert social workers from Hong Kong and Taiwan to listen to their advice on social work interventions in Wenchuan. After gathering advice from various experts, we decided to dispatch an expert team to do a post-disaster assessment for social work in Mianyang eight days after the initial earthquake, rather than dispatching service teams. This resulted in the first social work-based needs assessment report in the history of disaster response in China.

This report paid attention to the fact that the earthquake was not only a threat to life itself and destroyed basic infrastructure, but also caused great damage to social ties and social organizations. People had lost family members, neighbors and colleagues, and many people were relocated multiple times and had left their familiar social environment. The function of rural organizations and communities has changed drastically. The needs assessment also discovered that some were suffering from mid-life crises. This report, with an emphasis on relational damage, provided a unique perspective on and clear guidance for social work interventions.

The recovery of social relationships should be an important part of post-disaster recovery, and it is also what social work interventions can help with and focus on. Based on the problems mentioned in the needs assessment report, including damage to social relationships and mid-life crises, Shanghai Bureau of Civil Affairs drafted a special report for the city government titled “Social work experts give attention to the recovery of social relationships during post-disaster recovery”. The bureau also suggested including social workers in the city rescue team sent to the affected region. Its suggestion received approval from the city government. A month and a half after the initial earthquake, Shanghai dispatched four service teams to the region, consisting of college teachers specializing in social work, members of the Association of Social Work, professional social workers, and community volunteers.

It is very clear what professional social workers should do after a disaster: provide assistance and help with recovery efforts. Recovery not only includes reconstruction of basic infrastructure, but also the re-connection of human relationships. During the disaster recovery period, it is very important for social workers to keep local people company and help them rebuild damaged social relationships and support networks.

It is possible for the government and social organizations to collaborate when responding to disasters. This was one of those memorable collaborative experiences. Many of us that experienced it miss that kind of collaborative environment.

Q: In recent years, especially during last year’s pandemic when social forces participated in the response, many doctors, social workers and psychologists coordinated their actions. And this practice was validated by many experts. What do you think of this kind of practice? How could it work better?

Ma: Coordinated action is a kind of improvement. However, in practice, some problems were identified and there will be room for improvement in the future.

For example, it is easy for people to recognize doctors and psychologists, but most people don’t know what social workers do. There are occasions when a social worker should be on the scene, but a doctor or psychologist gets sent instead. There is a lack of coordination between the three different professions, so the skills of social workers sometimes go to waste. For example, last year in Wuhan’s Fangcang Hospital, it was the nurses who led the patients to do things like exercise and sing. Many nurses later reflected that while it was not necessarily what they are good at, they learnt how to do it because it was what their patients needed.

So, who would be the best fit for this job? Who were they going to learn from? In fact, they were learning from social workers who were working remotely online. Social workers are trained to help rebuild social relationships, connect internal and external resources, promote peer support amongst patients, help people help themselves, provide grief counseling, assist in changing attitudes towards life, and help people recover their social functions. So it is a pity that these social workers could only provide guidance indirectly and remotely.

If we describe the job of a psychologist as teaching you how to talk to yourself, or describe the job of a doctor as treating one’s physical illness, then the job of a social worker can be described as teaching a person how to manage social relationships. I will share an example to illustrate the different angles these three professions focus on.

The elderly programs often teach seniors to do “finger exercises”. However, I realized that each profession pays attention to different aspects of the exercise. Doctors are more likely to pay attention to people’s ability to do the exercises. They tend to focus on how the exercises can help recover one’s physical abilities. When psychologists teach the exercises, they pay attention to a person’s facial expressions to see what mood they’re in. But social workers tend to pay attention to whether social relationships between the elderly can be altered by the exercises. Do strangers become acquaintances? Do acquaintances support each other? The three different professions focus on very different things. And the social work team tends to focus on social relationships.

My own work experience has shown me that it is very important to capture social perspectives and see things from the angle of social workers when solving social problems. Government documents have encouraged the use of social workers many times, however, social worker teams and organizations in our country are still in their initial stages of development and cannot sufficiently meet the needs of society. There needs to be a process for growth.

Q:  Before, we talked about how the government and social organizations can coordinate and work together in order for social forces to assist with public emergencies in an effective and orderly manner. We also discussed the interaction among different social organizations in the relevant response. In fact, what you just talked about, the coordinated action by three different professions is one such aspect. What are your observations on coordination between different social organizations in recent years?

Ma: With regards to the relationship structure of social organizations, there are roughly three types of relationships: external relationships between the government and social organizations, external relationships between social organizations and the corporate sector, and internal relationships between social organizations. We have already talked about the relationship between the government and social organizations during emergency response situations. What we want to talk about here is why we should pay specific attention to interactions between social organizations. In recent years, especially during last year’s COVID response, I found that various social organizations — including funding agencies, rescue teams, and social work service organizations — were connected to the government, but they ignored the connections between each other. This resulted in a lack of collaboration between social organizations, especially between funding agencies and service organizations. Because of a lack of agreement and coordination of resources, precious charity funds were sometimes not used wisely.

For example, during last year’s COVID response, there was one organization that had the capacity to provide grief counseling, but instead it ended up building a factory to make masks. And some funding agencies didn’t know where to donate their money, while some service organizations didn’t receive the appropriate funding. These examples, from my point of view, were a result of a lack of coordination and interaction between different social organizations. So, it is of utmost importance to strengthen the diverse and organic connections between social organizations.

Q: Of course, disaster response and recovery work are important, but equally important or even more important is the prevention of disasters, and raising awareness of and capacity for disaster response work. Do you have any suggestions for social organizations in this regard?

Ma: For individuals, it is extremely important to raise their awareness of and capacity for disaster prevention and response. We are weak in this area. There are many natural disasters. For example, before the floods in Zhengzhou, there was a similar event in Beijing, but the lessons learned were not recorded and acted upon. Social organizations can help with this by educating people on the lessons learned from previous disasters.

In addition, it is not enough to just have the knowledge. Social organizations can help raise the public’s awareness of disaster prevention and response, and transform that awareness into new habits and capacities. We have previously promoted activities designed to reduce the risks posed by disasters in communities across Shanghai. And with the help of social organizations, we encouraged local residents to participate in marking the “community disaster (response) map”. We have also carried out demonstrations and training, including inviting firefighters and the Red Cross to teach residents the relevant knowledge and skills to save themselves and each other in different disaster scenarios. These are all things social organizations can do.

This piece was kindly translated by Tang Tianyu, a volunteer at China Development Brief.