Insights and Analysis

Beyond Borders: China’s NGOs Respond to World’s Natural Disasters

October 26, 2016

By Ji Hongbo

avarabannerpicfinalThis week, over 30 representatives from leading Chinese foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are gathered in Beijing for an intensive workshop delivered by experts from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on the international humanitarian system. The session is aimed at crafting a better understanding among Chinese NGOs of how international disaster assistance is assessed, prepared, and delivered, and the need to constantly refine the model with each experience to bring assistance as close as possible to affected communities.

The workshop is especially timely as a number of Chinese organizations have teamed up to join humanitarian relief teams from around the world to deliver urgent assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew to the battered island of Haiti where an estimated 1.4 million people, nearly half of them children, are in need of clean water, food, and medicine.

China response team in Haiti

Members of a Chinese disaster relief team work near Jeremie, Haiti. Photo/Li Zilong, Director of Response Operation Department, PHR

A small response team made up of about a dozen people, dispatched to Haiti by the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, is providing first aid treatment and distributing urgently needed supplies such as saline and antibiotics. Within the wider aid context, the size of the Chinese team may not seem so significant, but its ability to respond to a disaster some 8,000 miles away signals an important milestone for Chinese NGOs as they look to broaden their reach beyond China’s borders.

In fact, disaster response is a logical first step for Chinese NGOs and foundations in their efforts to expand internationally. China is one of the world’s more disaster-prone countries, and due to the scope and scale of most natural disasters such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, government efforts alone have not been enough. By necessity, Chinese NGOs and foundations have become essential players in managing disaster preparedness, response, and recovery across China. The experience these NGOs have gained make them particularly well-suited to contribute to the international humanitarian system and relief efforts in other countries.

In the last few years, China’s government has taken concrete steps to solidify this cooperative role in disaster management and forms a key part of its strategy to enhance global engagement. In 2014, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on disaster management cooperation, pledging to provide $8.1 million to build ASEAN’s capabilities to respond to regional disasters. Working together on disaster preparedness and risk reduction was highlighted in a 2015 MOU between the U.S. and China aimed at raising the level of bilateral cooperation on development issues, and to work as partners in a third country.

The series of major earthquakes that struck Nepal last year gave Chinese NGOs, foundations, and disaster relief teams a first chance to test their readiness to respond in an overseas context. For the most part, they found themselves in unfamiliar territory as they worked with multiple players and various United Nations agencies, as well as hundreds of local Nepalese NGOs. While equipped with domestic disaster experience, Chinese teams were challenged by working within the international framework and standards for humanitarian assistance. There were also hurdles with language, culture, and coordination.

The Asia Foundation supported these Chinese NGOs’ relief efforts in Nepal, dispatching two technical experts to work side-by-side with them there. The experts provided practical assistance like getting relief supplies through customs, sharing technical standards, facilitating meetings to coordinate Chinese NGOs in the field, and connecting Chinese organizations with UN agencies who were coordinating the international response. In the weeks after, the two experts led a seminar in Beijing with support from the Foundation to share observations and lessons learned. This experience helped form the basis for a longer-term program by the Foundation to build Chinese NGOs’ capacity in delivering international humanitarian assistance. Falling under this program, this week’s OCHA-led workshop helps Chinese NGOs to chart a better understanding of the global needs, standards, and complexities and prepare them for further training on selected technical skills essential to the success of their relief operations outside of China.

In addition to immediate post-disaster relief, China, given its first-hand experience in the devastating impact disasters have on communities, is increasingly recognizing the importance of disaster preparedness at the community level, and is thus well-positioned to contribute to disaster preparedness around the world. Since 2006, The Asia Foundation has worked with Chinese partners from both governmental and non-governmental institutions to engage communities in disaster preparedness initiatives, mobilizing private sector contributions, and developing training courses for communities, businesses, and government agencies.

Under one recent project—the U.S.-based training course program, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)—was adapted for the Chinese context and Chinese disaster management trainers are being trained to deliver the course to communities. Chinese partners embrace the program, citing it as a systematic and highly replicable training model that can equip average community members with basic skills to respond to various hazards and to keep themselves, their families, and neighbors safe in the wake of large-scale disasters before professional responders can reach them.

In the coming years, while The Asia Foundation will continue to support Chinese partners to disseminate CERT in the world’s most populous country, it will also facilitate regional exchange so that Chinese organizations can share CERT and other good practices with other nations. As countries face an increase in both the severity and frequency of natural disasters, the experience and engagement that China can bring will help strengthen and build global resilience.

Ji Hongbo is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in China. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

This post is a look ahead at the issues examined in the forthcoming Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance—Strategic Recommendations for the Incoming U.S. President on Foreign Policy Towards Asia. The Asia Foundation’s quadrennial project convenes a series of closed-door, high-level working groups of Asian and American thought leaders across the Asia Pacific that culminate in specific foreign policy recommendations for the incoming U.S. Administration to coincide with the U.S. November presidential election. Read more.




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