From Wenchuan to Lushan: An Overview of Disaster Relief NGO Efforts

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The number of disaster relief NGOs that participated in the rescue efforts following the May 12, 2008, Wenchuan Earthquake can be inferred from the circumstances of the two major coordinating alliances established in its wake. At the time when the NGO Sichuan Disaster Relief Joint Office (NGO四川救灾联合办公室) was established, there were over 100 participating organizations. In June 2008, 46 organizations signed an agreement to form Sichuan’s 5.12 Voluntary Relief Center (四川512民间救助服务中心) (hereafter referred to as the “5.12 Center”). These 46 participating organizations were core members that brought specific programs and services into the disaster area, in addition to more than 30 external supporting groups. At its height, I estimate that there were more than 300 groups that entered the earthquake disaster zone, not to mention the additional student and volunteer societies, and short-term participation by groups and organizations. Altogether there were more than 500 participating groups. At the time, the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Sociology (四川社科院社会学所) and the Fuping Development Institute (富平学校) cooperated on a “Volunteer Gas Station” project (supported by a donation from the Ford Foundation), which counted approximately 1200 Sichuanese university students among its participants. After the beginning of the academic term in August that year, a large number of volunteer groups left the disaster area. At the same time, the government also accelerated reconstruction efforts, ordering the public to return to their homes and begin repairs, while various engineering projects simultaneously attracted a large group of laborers. Consequently, the target group of many NGO activity centers disappeared, and disaster relief efforts reached a low point.

For the first half of 2009, some NGOs continued to implement selected services from their disaster relief projects, but the period from late 2009 to early 2010 was the most challenging for NGOs. In addition to the emergency response programs of many NGOs coming to an end during this time, the government began post-disaster reconstruction efforts and some localities began requesting the withdrawal of NGOs and their volunteers. I remember in August 2009 when I went to Beijing to participate in the first Public Welfare Organization Exchange Forum, Xu Yongguang, from the Narada Foundation, asked me how many organizations remained involved in post-disaster reconstruction. I told him that this was the most difficult period we had encountered to date, and that including NGOs, social worker stations and volunteer groups’ projects, there remained only around 50 organizations. In the second half of 2010, the government began rolling out its reconstruction program. Owing to several foundations deciding to offer support, the number of disaster relief NGOs began to slowly increase. On the third anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, Daping Village organized a memorial event in the Global Village (located in the Lehe Jiayuan 乐和家园) that was attended by approximately 60 organizations. There are currently an estimated 80 NGOs working in the 5.12 Disaster Area, including social worker stations.

In 2013, many services organized by these groups were faced with shutting down. The post-disaster reconstruction projects supported by the Narada Foundation and the programs run by the Chinese Red Cross Foundation (中国红十字基金会) from 2008 to 2011 had already come to an end. There were, however, various groups and organizations that developed programs to provide financial support for charities participating in reconstruction efforts. Such efforts included: the World Bank’s ” Marketplace Development Project” (发展市场项目); the Nokia and Song Qingling Foundation (诺基亚与宋庆龄基金会) and the Sinar Mas Group (金光集团) joint “Sunshine Home” project (阳光家园) project; and the Partnerships for Community Development’s (社区伙伴) “Community Influence” project (社区影响”). The “Wenchuan Earthquake Post-Disaster Reconstruction” project proposal program—funded by a five million RMB investment from The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (中国扶贫基金会) between 2011 and 2012—supported projects from 18 on-site organizations and three external organizations that conducted research and offered support and evaluation services. Altogether, 21 organizations received financial support. There were also some disaster relief projects supported by individual groups, such as Amity Foundation (如爱德基金会), Taiwan Sichuan Union (台湾川盟), Red Cross Society of Taiwan (台湾红会), World Vision (宣明会), Oxfam (乐施会), Mercy Corps International (国际美慈), Habitat for Humanity (仁人家园), Hong Kong Red Cross (香港红会), Social Workers Across Borders (无国界社工) and university groups from Hong Kong.

From the end of 2011 to the beginning of 2012, Chengdu implemented reforms concerning the administration of social organizations, which allowed a large group of local Sichuanese NGOs and volunteer groups—as well as several groups without NGO backgrounds—to formally register. The remaining disaster relief groups finally saw a relatively positive turn of events for the public welfare sector.

Prior to the 5.12 Earthquake, there were a number of charities devoted to social development in Sichuan, such as the WWF, PCD, Heifer International (国际小母牛), Chengdu Waterways Research Association (成都城市河流研究会), Roots and Shoots (根与芽), the Chengdu Shuguang Community Development Capacity-Building Center and Conservation International (保护国际). After these organizations concluded their emergency rescue efforts, they all gradually returned to their own sectors. If there were disaster relief projects already organized, then they would participate. They would not, however, take the initiative to organize their own relief efforts.

The disaster relief organizations that changed the most were the group of new organizations that emerged after the 5.12 Earthquake. These groups included: Chinese Heart (中国心), IYouShe (爱有戏), Spirit Home (心家园), Lizhong (益众), Liduo (益多), Lekang (乐康), and Yitiangongyi (一天公益), among others. Many of these organizations were former volunteer groups that were established after graduating from the Non-profit Incubator (恩派) program. In the last five years or so, these groups also received various training and study opportunities. For instance, the Sichuan Academy (川道学苑)—launched in 2010 by the 5.12 Center with financial support from Oxfam—organizes an educational activity every month, with a total of 155 participating organizations and 549 participating individuals. During this time, these organizations succeeded in obtaining project funding and, by means of sheer persistence, achieved a level of organizational maturity. Spirit Home, for example, was originally a group of volunteers but, after graduating from NPI, they succeeded in obtaining two years of financial support from the Nokia Sunshine Home project. Two years later, they benefitted from the improvements to the public welfare environment.

When the Lushan earthquake hit on April 20, the first responders and participants all came from the new organizations founded after the 5.12 Earthquake, and almost none came from the older groups that originally sponsored the 512 Center. Organizations such as The Sichuan Shangming Social Development Research Center (尚明公益), Zhang Guoyuan’s (张国远) NGO Disaster Preparedness Center (NGO备灾中心), and other similar groups should all be regarded as new organizations established after the Wenchuan Earthquake.

An alliance of disaster relief NGOs was able to take shape in 2008 owing to the networks formed among participants from various organizations in the PCD’s Youth Trainee Program, which in turn led to the founding of the 5.12 Center. Originally, the PCD trainee project did not focus on disaster relief. Since participants relied on the network, however, participating organizations transcended typical professional boundaries. Leaders of the organizations developed closer ties, fostering trust and building foundations for cooperation, all of which facilitated seamless cooperation in the aftermath of the 5.12 Earthquake. After the 4.20 Lushan Earthquake, the “Chengdu Public Welfare Organization 420 United Rescue Operation” (成都公益组织420联合救援行动) was formed on a similar coalitional foundation.

How much of an impact has the 5.12 Earthquake had on public welfare organizations in Sichuan? In reality, it did not radically change the conditions under which they exist. Generally speaking, the situation for post-disaster reconstruction NGOs is quite difficult. The standard amount of financial support provided by foundations at the time was around RMB 1500 per month to pay for staff costs, which barely allowed disaster relief NGOs to cover their expenses. The circumstances of the 4.20 Lushan earthquake have been much better. For instance, the Tencent Foundation (腾讯基金会) invested a RMB 500,000 project in one village. In addition, the Narada Foundation had projects valued at RMB 300,000, with which NGOs could also combine other funding sources. In comparison, during the reconstruction efforts following the 5.12 Earthquake, a single project by The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation was only valued at RMB 100,000, or RMB 200,000 at most.

When foundations decide which disaster relief NGOs to support, it is important to not merely consider a group’s immediate needs, but also their long-term prospects. A foundation should only support a program or service if it is capable of training a wider group of organizations. After the Wenchuan earthquake, the foundations offering financial support mainly supported individual projects, which only provided material goods and services to the disaster area, without giving any thought to an organization’s development. If organizational development is not supported, then who will go and work on the projects? In the Lushan earthquake’s case Narada Foundation provided financial support to disaster relief organizations from the beginning, and only with this support were those organizations able to carry out relief efforts. In recent years, the five big foundations—Narada Foundation, Tencent Foundation, China Youth Development Foundation (青基会), The Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, and the One Foundation (壹基金)—have changed their outlooks on providing support and their viewpoint is clear: if you want to support an organization, then that organization needs to be capable of integrating with the community and have long-term potential.

As for whether or not all NGOs need to go to the disaster area, this should be decided based on a group’s strengths and circumstances. Some organizations are more suited to having a stationary post (such as social worker organizations), whereas others are more suited to providing on-site provisional services (such as specialist organizations). For example, the NGO Disaster Preparedness Center clearly understands that if they do not occupy a stationary post, then they must undergo emergency response and disaster prevention education before entering a disaster area. For other organizations, they go to disaster areas because they have the resources and there is a demand for their services. They can broaden the scope of services offered on-site and train their members.

In Brief

The author analyzes the changes in NGO relief efforts between the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008 and the Lushan earthquake in 2013.
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