NGO Participation in Disaster Relief : Profiles of Reconstruction After the Sichuan Earthquake

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This is our last in a series of articles on NGO responses to disasters that we are making available in commemoration of the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan.  This article highlights the ongoing work of 10 NGO projects in the long-term reconstruction work in the earthquake-stricken areas of Sichuan.

Aside from revealing different approaches and models of NGO work, this article offers several reminders.  One is that reconstruction after a disaster as devastating as the Wenchuan earthquake is a long-term process.  A second is the need for NGOs that are attentive to the needs of local communities.  Finally, it shows that the earthquake not only opened a space for NGOs to participate in the short-term relief effort, but also stimulated new, creative, and often collaborative, NGO initiatives, approaches and models that have been sustained in the long-term reconstruction.

Because of the number of natural disasters over the past three years, more NGOs are participating in disaster relief. On the three-year anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, several organizations organized activities to share their experiences in disaster relief.

Guo Hong is a scholar at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences, as well as a participant in NGO-sponsored earthquake relief efforts. In July 2010, just two years after the earthquake, many were hasty to declare that “reconstruction was completed.” But Guo strongly disagreed, declaring that “economic, political, cultural, social, and environmental reconstruction has only just begun, and reconstruction itself has created new problems,” and calling for “a ten-year plan for continued reconstruction.”

If Taiwan’s experience with the much less severe September 21, 1999 earthquake is any indicator, it will probably take at least 10 years to fully recover from the far more destructive Wenchuan earthquake. Even three years after the earthquake, reconstruction efforts seem to have accomplished little, and there are still a host of social problems that need to be addressed.

Related to this is the effort of civil society.  Public interest organizations have made a significant contribution to continuing relief efforts, including innovations in social reconstruction. Guo has studied the activities of many of these organizations.  These case studies reveal the challenges of “post-reconstruction,” and point to appropriate solutions.

Case 1: The “Lehe” Model for Rural Reconstruction– Lehe Jiayuan (乐和家园) in Pengzhou City’s Daping Village

Initiated by the well-known environmental activist Liao Xiaoyi(廖晓义)reconstruction in Daping village (in the township of Tongji in Pengzhou city) preserved the village’s historical integrity by helping villagers acquire government investment to improve transportation infrastructure in the area.  [Editor’s Note: Liao Xiaoyi is the founder of the Beijing-based environmental NGO, Global Village (地球村).  This project was one of the first grassroots NGO projects to receive Chinese Red Cross funding.]  In addition, the Lehe Ecological Preservation Association (乐和生态保护协会) mobilized village residents to actively participate in reconstruction, and it was decided to take the opportunity offered by reconstruction to develop the village’s eco-tourism industry.  Residents built “green” houses, replete with environmentally friendly toilets and gas stoves, developed more eco-conscious agricultural practices, and helped residents to start a local embroidery industry. In this process, every major policy decision was implemented with the input of the local residents.

Case 2: A Community Model that Begins with Children– Student Action’s “New Summer Life”

Student Action (助学行动)is an education-focused public interest organization that began its relief efforts in Wenchuan immediately after the earthquake. In the heavy hit region of Pengzhou, Student Action provided schools with emergency lighting systems, lightning protection systems, electric fans, and other facilities. In order to meet the needs of bereaved and displaced children, Student Action also decided to set up a “New Summer Life” activity center in Pengzhou. With the help of university student volunteers, the center hosted fun interactive programs for local children, aimed at reducing the negative psychological impact of the earthquake and its aftermath. In cooperation with the Beijing Horizon Education Center of China (北京泓德中育), Student Action also installed eco-friendly toilets, and worked with Qianqiu Zhudu (千秋助读) to put together a small library. In addition, by working through the elementary school at the Xiaoyudong temporary housing district, Student Action provided counseling, community performances, and self-help programs to assist residents in rebuilding the local economy

Case 3: Mobilizing Community Residents in the Construction of Residential Housing During the Resettlement Period in Mianzhu City’s Zundao Township

The Sichuan Assistance Team (援川团队)of the Shaanxi Women’s Research Assocation (陕西妇研会)mobilized residents to cooperate in the construction of temporary housing. [Editor’s Note: the Shaanxi Women’s Research Association (whose full name is陕西妇女理论婚姻家庭研究会) is one of China’s oldest, and best-known NGOs. It was founded by Gao Xiaoxian in 1986 and registered as a social organization (社会团体) in 1999.] The team developed three different types of low-cost temporary facilities to fit the needs of earthquake-affected areas, and with the input and planning of a total of 128 local residents, they constructed 36 buildings. These temporary housing communities have become a public space where disaster victims as well as the elderly and infirm can all congregate. This public space has strengthened the ability of local residents to organize themselves. In larger temporary housing communities, the Sichuan Assistance Team has also constructed children’s playgrounds, as well as public sanitation facilities such as showers and toilets.

Case 4: Encouraging Local Residents to Create Their Own Livelihoods– The “Phoenix Plan”

The “Fire Phoenix” Women’s Embroidery Skills Training and Livelihood Program (“火凤凰”妇女绒绣技能培训和生计计划)  is a product of the cooperation between the Pudong Association of Social Workers(浦东社工协会) and the Shanghai Sanlin Embroidery Society (上海三林绒绣社合作). The Pudong Association of Social Workers provided part of the production costs for the Embroidery Society to train unemployed or low-income women in embroidery. The Pudong Association of Social Workers then sells the embroidery, providing the women with a fair share of the income. The Association also has a long-term plan– a formal economic co-op, the “Phoenix Embroidery Co-op” (火凤凰绒绣合作社) which they hope will promote stable production and present the women with a commonly owned professional economic association. The members of the “Pudong Social Workers Service Team” (浦东社工服务队)primarily come from the Shanghai Lequn Social Work Center (乐群社工服务社), Sunshine Social Workers (阳光慈善救助服务社), Zhongzhi Community Service Association (中致社区服务社), and Leshi Social Workers Service Association (乐蓍社工服务社), all of which provide services in Dujiangyan County.

Case 5: The Cooperative Model for Residential Reconstruction—Sanjia Neighborhood Homeowners Association in Mianzhu City’s Jiannan Township

After the Wenchuan earthquake, the damage in the Sanjia neighborhood in the Sanxing Community in the Sanjia Community of Jiannan township was assessed as Level D, so severe that complete demolition was recommended. However, some local homeowners opposed the demolition of the buildings. So community representatives surveyed district residents for opinions and suggestions, as well as commissioned an architectural firm to come up with a plan for structural reinforcement of the buildings. But this plan met with the disapproval of another group of local residents, resulting in the formation of two opposing sides.

A decision was then made to hold a consultation meeting on February 23, 2009. A volunteer team from the Community Participation Action served as a third-party mediator and hosted the meeting. In accordance with the mediation process, every homeowner in attendance was allotted time to speak, while all in attendance were allowed to comment on what was said as well as discuss various points of agreement and disagreement. After more than 70 percent of the homeowners in attendance had spoken, a vote was held, and it was agreed that the plans for reinforcement of the damaged buildings should be carried out. The homeowners signed an agreement, plans were submitted to the construction bureau, local residents provided funds for renovation, and work on the damaged buildings began.

Case 6: Post-quake Creation of Village Cooperation Organizations– The Mianzhu City Vegetable Cultivation Co-op

After the Wenchuan earthquake, the Mianzhu Supply and Marketing Co-op (绵竹市供销联社)organized residents. provided them with information and technology services, and founded the People’s Livelihood Vegetable Cultivation Co-op (民生蔬菜种植专业合作社). The co-op received funding from the Red Cross, as well as enthusiastic support from the Sichuan 512 Civil Relief Services Center (四川5.12 民间救助 服务中心)and NGOs participating in earthquake disaster relief, including CCPG(城市社区参与治理资源平台),Horizon Education Center of China(泓德中育), and Wild Grass(野草文化). This support was used to develop the rabbit-raising industry in local communities. CCPG also assisted in the construction of three temporary residential areas, as well as a community arts and recreation center which include study, entertainment, recreational, and exercise facilities.

Case 7: AIDS Prevention Education in Disaster Relief

With the support of UNAIDS, the Aibai Chengdu Youth Center (爱白成都青年中心) implemented a project for the integration of post-quake NGO-sponsored AIDS prevention efforts. While engaging in disaster relief efforts, the Aibai Center discovered that medical workers were taking insufficient measures for HIV prevention, an oversight which during emergency relief efforts can bring disastrous consequences. The Aibai Center translated the UN’s report on Africa’s experience with AIDS entitled “A Guide to HIV/AIDS Prevention in Emergency Situations” (“紧急状况下HIV/AIDS 干预指南”) and following approval of the provincial Emergency Management Office and other government agencies, the guide will be used in China for training purposes.

Case 8: Community Participatory Reconstruction: The “Foundation + Enterprise + Cooperation” Model — The Tumen Folk Village in Mianzhu

The Tumen Folk Village in Mianzhu was poor and under-developed even before the earthquake struck, and it was also one the hardest-hit areas– 93.2 percent of the houses collapsed during the quake, with infrastructure and public facilities also severely damaged. The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation and Nokia joined forces to support reconstruction of the village, taking a “participatory” approach. Funds that had originally been quantified to each household were donated to village residents in the form of stock equity, which was then used to set up a public fund to support sustainable development for the village.  Through village forums and outside visits, villagers were persuaded to use more than 2.6 million yuan in donated funds to establish a “Minle Zhongyang Specialized Coop” to reconstruct the village collective.  As a stockholder, each village resident would receive dividends on a long-term basis.   At the same time, villagers were trained to participate in public affairs through organizational forms such as a board of directors and a supervising board, and mechanisms such as project bidding, professional management operations and stockholder veto.

Case 9: The Multi-NGO Cooperation Model– The Dazhonghua Community in Luoshui Town

In the temporary residential community of Dazhonghua in Luoshui Town, the NGO Disaster Preparedness Center (NGO备灾中心, hereafter the DPC)with funding from Trafigura Group(托克国际) is coordinating and leading joint social work activities. With the participation of nine different public interest organizations and school clubs, the DPC has developed several two-year projects, including: family education, geriatric wellness, rehabilitation for children with disabilities, entrepreneurship, women’s career services, and social work services for schools and disaster areas. In addition, the DPC has built a community activity center called the “Heart Space” (心空间). The activity center provides a number of services and activities, including career services, entrepreneurship training and financial support, social work services for children and the elderly, community parties and dances, and children’s art competitions. The center serves over 9,000 people each month.

Case 10: Focus on Environment Protection: The Eco-friendly Dry Toilets Program

In many Sichuan villages,  the public toilets are dry toilets, while the private toilets are normally combined with pigsties, which because of unsanitary conditions often spread disease. After the Sichuan earthquake, which compromised many public sanitation systems, the need to improve conditions in public toilets became even more urgent.

A number of public interest organizations, including the China Environmental Protection Foundation (中华环保基金会), Friends of Nature(自然之友), Global Village (地球村), Wild Grass (野草文化), Chengdu Urban River Association (成都城市河流研究会), Rabbit King Research Association of Poverty Alleviation (大邑兔王扶贫中心),and the Farming Assistance Project (爱农项目), worked together to launch the eco-friendly dry toilets project. They were able to construct over 100 public dry toilets, as well as several hundred dry toilets in the homes of private residents. These eco-friendly dry toilets reduce river pollution, the transmission of disease, and the need for waste disposal in disaster-affected areas.

These organizations did not merely install toilets; they used this opportunity to promote a more comprehensive community awareness of sanitation and hygiene, conservation of water resources, and preservation of the local environment, thus empowering residents to become better stewards of their own villages.

This article was revised according to suggestions made by the Social Development Research Group at the Sichuan Science and Technology Consulting Group 四川省科技顾问团社会发展组.


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