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Changes in Chinese Philanthropy One Year After the Sichuan Earthquake

May 6, 2009

By Michael Howe

Schools and homes collapsed, and 80,000 people were left dead or missing following the May 12, 2008 earthquake in China. In addition to leaving millions of people surviving in shattered communities across Sichuan Province, the quake is now marked as a turning point for Chinese philanthropy.

Prior to the earthquake, philanthropy in China was a concept and activity relegated to the ultra wealthy within the country, and to corporate philanthropy from domestic and international businesses. However, the earthquake changed all of that – beginning with a groundswell of support from tens of millions of Chinese people from all walks of life, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid.

At the end of April, in preparation for the earthquake’s one-year anniversary, I joined trustees, staff and donors of Give2Asia for a visit to China, including a tour of the earthquake-affected areas, followed by a series of discussions in Beijing to consider the future of Chinese philanthropy.

Sichuan Study Tour

In the provinces affected by the disaster, 3.5 million people are living in temporary housing after losing their homes and farms. A group of us set out from Chengdu, near the quake’s epicenter, to visit project sites – some of which Give2Asia had funded with partners and donations to the Give2Asia China Earthquake Recovery Fund. Upon seeing these communities, I was struck by how much must still be done, the sheer number of buildings that still need to be demolished and debris that must be cleared.  I was also deeply moved by the incredible progress that has been made in rebuilding homes, given the scope of the damage.

All of the projects we visited addressed critical needs for earthquake recovery, including education, structural reconstruction, and economic rebuilding. We visited Mianzhu City, one of the most devastated communities, and saw first hand a microfinance project which helped families buy pigs, breed them, and sell them to local villagers. We visited temporary schools in Tongji Town of Penzhou City, and saw work being done to rebuild homes in the Tu Men Township.

Long-term volunteering akin to our AmeriCorp designed to help with rebuilding was better than anything I have ever seen, government response was swift and not hampered by politics, and there was a real sense that rebuilding would be done well within the proposed three-year timetable.

Yet, local communities have been asked to make additional sacrifices. Because of the scope of the disaster, much of the planning and decisionmaking has been centralized in hopes of bringing about recovery more quickly and making infrastructure development more cost-effective. As a result, entire communities of farmers are being asked to relocate into larger hub settlements, with farmland re-allocated and shared – versus the single-family farms that existed prior to the disaster. Likewise, it is being proposed that school aged children be moved to boarding schools closer in to urban hubs so that they can benefit from better teachers and school facilities.

These and other changes indicate that life has forever and permanently changed for many of these families and communities, and that new challenges lay ahead of them through the difficult transition of rebuilding the housing, education, economic and social systems the region needs to become sustainable once more.

Beijing Forum

Following the tour through Sichuan Province, Give2Asia hosted a forum in Beijing, which brought together over 60 leaders from philanthropy, government, and business to discuss the current state of charitable giving for China, and new directions and opportunities for philanthropists in the future.

During these discussions, it became clear to me that the Chinese government has recognized the shift in philanthropy’s role following the 2008 earthquake, and is beginning to embrace the development of a nonprofit sector which would become a valuable partner in the future.

Speaking in one of the morning sessions, Dr. Wang Zhengyao, Director General of Social Affairs and Charity Promotion at China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, described how Chinese social policies are currently not well matched with economic development. To fill the gap, he said, philanthropy is taking a leading role in China, with a ten-fold jump in annual giving, from RMB10 billion before the Sichuan earthquake to RMB 107 billion after.

He said that while some believe this is an unsustainable spike, he believes that the disaster has helped to leapfrog philanthropic development forward in the country to a new level of permanent growth. Prior to the quake, volunteerism was a foreign concept for many Chinese. However, now there are 100 million volunteers doing charitable work in China.

Naturally, challenges still exist using philanthropic funds effectively. The Chinese government learned, according the Dr. Wang, that it is often easier to raise money than to spend it efficiently. In addition, he said, charities need to do a better job at reporting back on the results of their work. In many ways, this is all new for a country whose laws changed a mere five years ago to begin encouraging the development of private, domestic foundations.

Xu Yongguang, Vice Chairman & Secretary General, Narada Foundation spoke about the importance of non-governmental organizations in China, their growth and development since 2005 and why China must have well-supported, non-governmental organizations for China to continue to develop.

Following their presentation, two philanthropists in China discussed their approaches and aspirations for philanthropy in the future.  Jeffrey Li, Country President & Chief Representative, Novartis provided an overview of their corporate philanthropy.  Novartis has a very robust program focused on sustainable development, an institute to reduce tropical diseases, an international patient assistance program, free treatment for leprosy patients, a malaria control program as well as their program which resulted in giving over RMB 16 million by Novartis and their employees to help survivors of the Sichuan Earthquake.  Following Mr. Li’s presentation Joy Cheng, a business woman turned philanthropist provided the audience with an overview of how and why she moved from business to philanthropy.

An afternoon panel discussion included Mr. Wang Xingzui, Executive Director of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, who described a new pilot program that the Chinese government has implemented to contract with NGOs to carry out social services. So far, nine national-level NGOs have started selecting local, grassroots groups to implement a range of projects.  The programs reflect recognition within China that independent NGOs can play a valuable role in tackling social challenges, and that the government needs the help of these organizations to address these issues effectively.

Other speakers from the afternoon panel included Terry Farris, Head of Global Strategy for ammado; Zhang Ye, China Country Representation for the Institute for Sustainable Communities; and philanthropic consultant Peter Little. The discussion and audience Q&A was both lively and informative resulting in an agreement between the four speakers that the need for strong philanthropic and non-governmental organizations is both important and critical to the continuing development of China.

Clearly, philanthropic work in China is just beginning, and we should soon expect a surge in new NGOs across the country.  All these changes convey that philanthropists have new opportunities to find local partners in China to pursue their charitable goals in support of local Chinese communities.

Michael Howe is Give2Asia’s President & CEO. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: China
Related programs: Inclusive Economic Growth

1 Comment

  1. I ran across your article this morning and read it with interest. It caused me to wonder what progress has been made in terms of philanthropy and civic engagement since 2008? Did you find a surge in NGO’s in China as well as an increased receptiveness to a global NGO presence?

    Many thanks,


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