Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake and China's NGOs

February 25, 2010

Yesterday, I spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) about the impact of the 2008 Sichuan (or Wenchuan) earthquake on China’s NGOs, along with Xu Yongguang, the director and cofounder of the Nandu (Narada) Foundation and a prominent leader in Chinese NGO circles.

The earthquake was widely seen as stimulating an outpouring of volunteerism and public donations, the likes of which has never been seen in the history of the PRC. But what was less well understood was the way in which the earthquake energized the Chinese NGO community which responded almost immediately and from all corners of the country to the disaster.

We are now much better informed thanks to several Chinese academic studies of the NGO response, and reports by NGOs such as China Development Brief (the Chinese version), and Huizeren, which have published their own valuable accounts of how NGOs performed in the earthquake relief and reconstruction. One of the most comprehensive accounts is a survey of the NGOs that participated in the earthquake relief. The survey involved researchers from Beijing Normal University and Tsinghua University’s well-known NGO Research Center, and has been published in Chinese under the title, Wenchuan dizhen: gongmin xingdong baogao – jinji jiuyuanzhongde NGO (The Wenchuan earthquake: a report of citizen action – NGOs involved in emergency relief). Deng Guosheng, a professor at the Tsinghua University NGO Center, has also written a book titled Xiangying Wenchuan: zhongguo jiuzai jizhi fenxi (Responding to Wenchuan: an analysis of China’s disaster relief mechanisms) which contains several chapters on the NGO response.

My presentation at the FCCC was based on a paper that I coauthored in English with Professor Deng who has been a tireless advocate for China’s NGOs. In that paper, we argue that the earthquake energized the NGO community in important ways. NGOs from different parts of the country, and different sectors, responded immediately, forming partnerships with mass organizations and local governments, as well as networks with other NGOs and GONGOs. The network part is important because it shows that NGOs are now capable of organizing and coordinating horizontally, across different sectors, quite rapidly and doing so independently of the government. What we are seeing here is the outlines of a civil society.

But a functioning civil society requires more than a committed, energized group of NGOs. It also requires a supportive legal, social and economic environment, and the NGO response to the earthquake showed that China has a long ways to go in creating such an environment. Legally, the biggest issue is registration. It is difficult for NGOs to get registered, and impossible for NGO networks. As a result, the NGO networks operating in the earthquake region were essentially illegal, which made it difficult for them to work with local governments and get financial support. One of the two biggest networks eventually closed up shop a month after the earthquake. The other, the 512 Voluntary Relief Services Center (512 minjian jiuyuan fuwu zhongxin) is still operating on a shoestring budget because they can’t get funding as an “illegal organization”. Socially, NGOs still have viewed suspiciously by society and local governments, although NGO participation in the earthquake went a long ways to improving their social image.

Economically, the earthquake showed how much public fundraising favors the government. Donations from the public in 2008 hit an all-time high of 100 billion yuan, of which 76 billion was for the earthquake relief. Due to restrictive fundraising laws, however, most NGOs and private foundations cannot raise money publicly. As a result, very little of the public donations for the earthquake relief went to NGOs or private foundations. Almost all of it went to government departments under the Civil Affairs ministry, or to government-run foundations (GONGOs) like the Chinese Red Cross and the China Charity Foundation. Ultimately, because these foundations are government controlled, the public is not informed about how their donations are being spent. This issue touched off a debate among academics and NGOs about the need to draft new regulations governing public donations.

Still, there are some positive trends in the economic picture for NGOs. One is that after the earthquake, for the first time in the PRC’s history, GONGOs have started disbursing funds to grassroots NGOs. The most publicized case was the Chinese Red Cross setting aside 20 million in 2008 mostly for NGO projects in the earthquake area. One of the beneficiaries of this Red Cross money was Global Village, a Beijing-based environmental NGO that is rebuilding a village near the city of Pengzhou that was damaged by the earthquake. I visited that project in June and Global Village appeared to be well on their way to finishing much of the housing for the farmers in the village.

The other is the rise of private foundations since the Foundation regulations were passed in 2004. These private foundations are not allowed to raise funds publicly, but they can raise funds through private channels. Many of these private foundations are being established by private entrepreneurs and corporations, and their emergence is significant because they represent the conjoining of China’s entrepreneurial class with the public welfare sector.

One of the people at the forefront of both of these trends is Xu Yongguang, who I profiled in an earlier post. Xu used to head the China Youth Development Foundation where he was the brainchild for the Project Hope schools, and since 2005 has been heading the Nandu Foundation. NGO leaders have told me that Xu is one of the people responsible for the Red Cross’ change of heart in funding NGO projects. Xu is also a leader in the world of private foundations. Together with a number of other private foundations, he plans to establish a China Foundation Center which seeks to provide a set of standards for, and information about, China’s foundations, and thereby promote the growth, transparency and credibility of China’s private foundations.

I’ll be posting Xu’s remarks about the importance of private foundations for the nonprofit, NGO community in China in a later post.