Chinese Foundations and NGOs Cross Border to Aid Nepal
June 10, 2015
On April 25, moments after I heard the news that a powerful earthquake had struck Nepal, colleagues from several NGOs in China, including the One Foundation and Save the Children, contacted me to discuss how to respond to this disaster next door. Using the WeChat app, our group expanded quickly. A dozen Chinese and international organizations active in disaster management in China joined the discussion. Within hours, several major Chinese NGOs swung into action – assessing the situation, deploying response teams to Nepal, and mobilizing domestic resources for relief. It was the first time that most of them had crossed the Chinese border to respond to a disaster.
China itself is one of the world’s more disaster-prone countries, and Chinese foundations and NGOs in recent years have expressed growing interest in responding to foreign disasters, believing that their experience at home, especially during the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008, has prepared them to work in other countries. The Asia Foundation has supported their early explorations, and Nepal’s earthquake gave them their first opportunity to test their readiness. The China Poverty Alleviation Foundation assembled a small response team that departed for Kathmandu the next day. The One Foundation got hold of Chinese members of their network who had been visiting Nepal as tourists, and began an assessment. Amity Foundation, one of the founding members of the global ACT Alliance, sent staff to Nepal to work with its local network. These foundations also started online fundraising, while smaller NGOs considered what help they could provide.
The WeChat group became extremely busy, as more information on the Nepal earthquake started to come in. As a group, we wanted to discuss how Chinese NGOs could provide an orderly and effective response beyond China’s borders. Roughly six hours after the earthquake, I was meeting with representatives from major Chinese and international organizations, such as the China Poverty Alleviation Foundation, the UN Development Program, the One Foundation, and Save the Children, along with professors from Beijing Normal University. We agreed to set up a coordinating group to share information among Chinese organizations and international NGOs in Nepal, giving practical support to Chinese colleagues, who had limited exposure to Nepal and to international humanitarian operations in general. The group’s main task would be to consolidate, translate, and circulate daily situation and progress reports from Chinese and international NGOs. It would also serve as a liaison by taking inquiries from NGOs about needs in the field and linking them with relief organizations in Nepal.
As program officer for The Asia Foundation’s disaster management programs in China, I approached Jock Baker, a technical expert who is familiar with international humanitarian assistance operations and with Nepal’s disaster management capabilities, and shared his knowledge with the coordinating group. We decided to team Baker with another expert, Yue Yao, who has worked with Chinese NGOs, to provide on-the-ground support to Chinese NGOs in Nepal. From April 30 to May 10, the two consultants worked side-by-side with Chinese colleagues in Kathmandu. They met with The Asia Foundation’s Nepal office to learn about their relief efforts and discuss how foreign NGOs could obtain legal status to operate in Nepal. They provided practical assistance like getting relief supplies through customs, arranged meetings to coordinate Chinese NGOs in the field, and connected Chinese organizations with UN agencies coordinating the international response. They also regularly exchanged information with me and the coordinating group in Beijing to keep us informed of what was happening in the field. At the same time, they were trying to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese NGOs in preparation for future capacity building.
Baker and Yue noted that the larger Chinese NGOs were more effective responders due to their existing partnerships with international NGOs. The teamwork between the One Foundation and Save the Children is a good example. Even though the One Foundation didn’t have a large presence in Nepal – just one English-speaking staff member acting as a coordinator and a small search-and-rescue team – they still managed to maintain effective cooperation between Save the Children and the One Foundation’s head office in China. Working through Save the Children, the One Foundation developed an accurate needs-assessment and was able to quickly deliver relief materials. Another success was the Amity Foundation, which worked smoothly with the ACT Alliance’s response efforts led by Lutheran World Federation Nepal. The Amity team actively participated in assessments, planning meetings, and distributions and was seen as a valuable team member. They also discussed possible involvement in the recovery and reconstruction phase.
Immediately after Baker and Yue finished their mission in Nepal, they traveled to Beijing to lead a seminar for Chinese NGOs, organized by The Asia Foundation and Save the Children, to discuss the lessons learned from their initial foray into international relief. Baker and Yue discussed how international humanitarian assistance systems and standards had translated into action in Nepal, and shared their observations about the operations of Chinese NGOs.
While encouraged by their progress, the Chinese groups had found themselves operating in unfamiliar territory. Their previous, domestic experience had not fully prepared them, since they had typically worked alongside very experienced agencies of the Chinese government. In Nepal, the Chinese NGOs had to work with multiple, unfamiliar players: the national and local governments, various UN agencies, established and emerging bilateral donors, and hundreds of international and Nepalese NGOs. Further complicating the picture, the Chinese NGOs were unfamiliar with the international framework and standards for humanitarian assistance.
Differences in political systems, language, and culture presented further barriers as they tried to find their footing in a fluid situation and devise services of real value to the earthquake-affected population. Based on their discussions and earlier consultations this year, The Asia Foundation, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, is coordinating with Save the Children and Mercy Corps to design a longer-term capacity-building program for Chinese NGOs working in humanitarian assistance.
Compared with efforts of the Chinese government in Nepal, the response from Chinese NGOs received little media attention, but with the experience they have gleaned, these pioneering organizations have laid a solid foundation for future recovery efforts in Nepal and for further growth in international humanitarian assistance.
Chen Liuting is senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in China. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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