Tuesday, April 27, 2010

NGOs participation in disaster relief in China

April 28, 2010

I do plan to get back to discussing the previous cases of restrictions on NGOs in China, but wanted to highlight the role of NGOs in responding to natural disasters in China given the drought problem in Yunnan and the recent earthquake in Yushu, Qinghai. I wrote in a previous blog about the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 being a watershed event in energizing the NGO community here. We haven't seen a similar grassroots response in the drought and the Yushu earthquake. But NGOs are playing a role in both, whether we see it or not, and it's worth tracking their efforts in both disasters. Disasters and other crises seem to expand the space for NGOs by creating an urgent need for assistance in a short period of time that the government itself is unable to fully satisfy. But not all disasters are equal. The Sichuan earthquake was located near urban areas where a number of NGOs were concentrated. The same cannot be said of the Yushu earthquake, which is in a more remote area. Still, some of the websites I have listed on this blog, such as China Philanthropy, have articles about the Yushu earthquake relief. And below is an article by Yu Fangqiang, coordinator of an NGO and a thoughtful commmentator on the Chinese NGO scene. Thanks to Asia Catalyst for translating this article and making it available on their blog.

Where are the NGOs in China's Natural Disasters?
April 27, 2010 1:23 PM | No Comments

By Yu Fangqiang

The other night, a little after midnight, I was about to turn off my computer and go to sleep when I noticed, with surprise, an article in China Development Brief's Community Times: "Droughts in the Southwest Test Emergency Response: Where are the NGOs?"

China has recently been hit by a number of natural disasters, including the epic drought in the southwest and an earthquake in Qinghai. After reading this article, I had a few thoughts I had to share.

Certainly, NGOs were very visible and powerful during the Wenchuan earthquake. While the public could not see the challenges China's NGOs face, they could definitely see the impact they can have. But droughts raise another set of challenges. What exactly should NGOs contribute in these circumstances?

First of all, we need to bear in mind that not all NGOs have the technical ability to respond to a disaster like the current drought. Second, of those NGOs that have the capacity to respond, not all can dedicate their limited time and energies to the drought. And third, even those NGOs that have the ability and the capacity can't measure up to the ability and capacity of the state. NGOs do not exist to replace the state, but to widen the competitive environment for public interest work. Within this environment, NGOs can monitor official organizations and government departments in order to improve their effectiveness, and urge them to work more efficiently. If NGOs were better at everything than the government, we wouldn't need the government.

In the response to the southwestern drought, we do indeed see the government playing a positive role. However, has this response been efficient and effective? What we see are an increase in state funding while the drought continues. The state's response has largely channeled mandatory donations to the same old officials, institutions and cronies as in the past. In a particularly outrageous instance, school teachers have compelled students to donate at least 2 yuan (about 30 cents) each to drought relief efforts - an immoral and illegal action.

Getting back to the NGOs, however: most NGOs are grassroots organizations in a state of malnutrition. To start with, most cannot register in the Bureau of Civil Affairs. After struggling for several years, they began to register in the Industrial and Commercial Bureau, which compelled them to pay taxes. After a few years of continuing with program work while paying taxes, the Bureau of Civil Affairs and Trade and Industry Bureau began to launch investigations into the discrepancy between the commercial names these groups used to register, and the names they used to do their NGO work. Those NGOs that survived this process now have to deal with the new foreign exchange regulations. In addition, we had the shutdown of migrant workers' schools in Beijing, in advance of China's Two Sessions, the shutdown of the Chongqing Sensen orphanage on March 15, and the restrictions on civil charity activities during the Shanghai World Expo.

Some groups have attempted to resist the restrictions on NGOs, as in the case of the tax resistance campaign which some two dozen organizations signed onto earlier this year. As of late April, I do not know what the results were of this effort; even if they are successful, this will be a long, hard fight. And of course, the case of Oxfam's treatment as a class enemy by the Ministry of Education, which recently warned colleges not to participate in Oxfam programs. Oxfam has carefully managed its government relations, and must have felt like a woman whose lover refuses to marry her after making love to her for twenty years. Oxfam is one of the few NGOs with the capacity to respond to the drought crisis - but unfortunately, they're otherwise occupied now.

We cannot accuse NGOs of failing to help respond to the drought when their difficulties are caused by the state. NGOs have no funds to donate, no institutional capacity to respond to crises, and struggle with all kinds of internal and external challenges. But nonetheless, I recently saw a report online which said that "more than twenty NGOs called for water conservation in the north". Does this make us feel better? It is simply not true that NGOs are unconcerned about the drought. The truth is that their movements are hampered.

Yu Fangqiang is chief coordinator of the Chinese civil rights organization, Yirenping. This article is translated and adapted from the Chinese original at http://www.chinadevelopmentbrief.org.cn/ngo_talkview.php?id=1245.

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