Insights and Analysis

Emerging Chinese Foundations Expand Role in Disaster Management

September 17, 2014

By Chen Liuting

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesLast month, the One Foundation, one of China’s most visible charitable organizations, presented a new strategy to government officials and national researchers that marks a major shift in the approach to disaster mitigation in the country. The plan started with a pilot project on disaster preparedness education for children in schools and communities affected by the April 2013 Lushan earthquake that killed 200 people in Sichuan province. These efforts were replicated in central and western China where vulnerable communities have few resources to improve resilience. Ultimately, the Foundation plans to develop broader public education campaigns around the country.

Sichuan Earthquake relief

Historically, most foundations in China have focused almost solely on immediate emergency disaster response. However their role is shifting to better preparedness for natural disasters that can mitigate damage in the longer run. Photo/Give2Asia

Until recently, the One Foundation, which was started by actor Jet Li, focused almost solely on immediate emergency disaster response, which has been the main tactic taken by Chinese foundations and the government in coping with disasters. However, the Foundation’s new strategy illustrates how major foundations in China have expanded their role in and approach to disaster management in recent years. Foundations have gradually learned integral lessons from their relief efforts – better preparedness for natural disasters can mitigate damage in the longer run – and have started to consider a different approach. In addition to the One Foundation, other organizations like the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) are starting to support more disaster mitigation work at the community level. Understandably, these foundations are still active in the emergency relief phase since that is a big opportunity for fundraising. However, the new focus on community-based disaster preparedness programming has big implications for disaster management in China, given the overall growth of foundations in the past decade.

Since 2004, when China issued regulations regarding foundation management, the number of foundations has increased fivefold, totaling over 3,900 nationwide. They receive the bulk of domestic donations. Historically, the majority of Chinese foundations have channeled their resources through government agencies for disaster response. The Chinese government is usually capable of providing emergency relief and rebuilding infrastructure facilities rapidly, but it often fails to engage affected communities and address longer-term recovery issues. Recognizing these constraints, Chinese foundations have started to encourage a more participatory programming intervention with their resources, complementing the government’s top-down rehabilitation projects. To better work at the community level, these foundations have found it necessary to foster new partnerships with less traditional players in China’s disaster management – grassroots NGOs that understand local conditions but often struggle for resources to survive.

In the wake of the massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008, for example, several foundations, including CFPA and the Chinese Red Cross Foundation (CRCF), made grants to grassroots NGOs to address local needs and improve local resilience through participatory approaches. One of the 17 grants made by the CRCF funded a social worker group in Mianzhu, a badly hit town, to run a project targeting community members who were physically paralyzed by the earthquake. The group mobilized support from communities, organized training based on needs identified by the beneficiaries, and facilitated networking to increase job opportunities. These efforts were successful in empowering project participants, who are usually viewed as passive recipients of charity, and helping them to integrate into their communities. Charitable sector leaders and practitioners are encouraged by this trend of grantmaking from foundations to grassroots NGOs, which number between two to three million in China. This model could well expand into other programming areas and subsequently foster diversity and innovation for China’s civil society in the long run.

In addition, Chinese foundations also see disaster programming as an opportunity to promote transparency and accountability in the charity sector, which was significantly damaged after several scandals involving major government-backed foundations. Shortly after the 2013 Lushan earthquake, the China Foundation Center (CFC) and several leading foundations created an alliance to voluntarily publicize their work and donation spending related to the earthquake response and recovery. Subsequently, the CFC released an unprecedented report online this April on the first anniversary of the Lushan earthquake, detailing how domestic foundations had spent the RMB1.7 billion in donations.

While domestic foundations are playing a bigger role in disaster management in China, they are also looking for opportunities to utilize their experiences and to engage in foreign disaster assistance. Earlier this year, The Asia Foundation organized a workshop on international humanitarian relief in Beijing which brought together representatives from major foundations like the CFPA, One Foundation, and China Youth Foundation to discuss challenges and opportunities confronting their international operations, and shared opportunities to better understand existing standards and become active players in international humanitarian assistance. We also organized training for these foundations and their partners, participated in the strategic planning exercises for disaster preparedness programs, and assisted them in expanding networking with international partners. As one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters, China will no doubt increasingly rely on these foundations to make sure its citizens are prepared.

Chen Liuting is senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in China. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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