Quake prompts growth in NGOs

Updated: 2013-05-13 07:31

By Hu Yongqi (China Daily)

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 Quake prompts growth in NGOs

Students play at Weicheng primary school in Mianyang city, Sichuan province, which lost 135 students in an earthquake in 2008. Photos by Feng Yongbin / China Daily

 Quake prompts growth in NGOs

Fu Chengxi (right) and his wife Zhu Xianbi have improved their standard of living by breeding rabbits with the help of a local NGO.

 Quake prompts growth in NGOs

Li Zhenping (left) and his assistant Zhang Pengfei at Leifeng Volunteer Service Station, which he founded in 2008.

Quake prompts growth in NGOs

Volunteers learn from disaster experience, reports Hu Yongqi in Mianyang, Sichuan.

Leaning heavily on a walking stick, Li Zhenping panted as he limped along a rocky road to visit his old friend Fu Chengxi.

The 55-year-old from Shuping village, Beichuan county, has been using the cane since he broke his leg carrying a patient up the stairs of a hospital.

When Li reached the village, Fu was waiting with his motorbike. Li hopped on and they set off, leaving behind a trail of dust. The friendship that began in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 has been maintained in this simple but enduring way.

Their first meeting came during a rescue operation in the village, 70 kilometers from Mianyang in Sichuan province. Li arrived at Shuping the day after the earthquake, in which approximately 69,000 people lost their lives. Fu, then deputy head of the village committee, was overwhelmed by the job of pulling property from the debris and Li was the only person to lend a helping hand.

During the two months that followed, Fu and Li pulled hundreds of valuable items from the ruins and returned them to their owners, if they were still alive. In a year of quake-relief operations, Li and his volunteer team helped 2,000 people travel to the hospital and transported more than 100 metric tons of supplies, such as food, water and tents.

On May 31, 2008, Li founded the Leifeng Volunteer Service Station in downtown Mianyang. The NGO provides ongoing support for quake-hit areas of the city, mainly working with the elderly and children whose parents have moved away as migrant workers.

A month ago, Li borrowed the car of a fellow volunteer and drove to Shuping to check the walnut trees that well-wishers had donated to the isolated spot. After a 60-minute drive from Mianyang, Li finally arrived at the village, where Fu, 45, was waiting for him. A further hour on the motorbike saw the two men arrive at Fu's house. The distance is only 5 km, but the local geography and the dirt roads mean progress is often slow.

"During the time of the quake, I discovered that Shuping lacked ways to help farmers increase their incomes. Although the barren land is so rocky that many plants won't grow, it's perfect for walnut and other types of tree," said Li.

Three years ago, Fu's family planted the first group of walnut saplings on an area covering roughly one hectare. In another two years the trees are expected to bear fruit. "We can grow other plants in the spaces between the trees, which means we can sow profitable crops," said Fu.

Li was one of more than 1 million people who volunteered for relief work in the quake zone in the month after the Wenchuan earthquake. In light of his contribution, Li was given the "outstanding volunteer" award by the China Association of Social Workers in 2009.

"The quake fundamentally changed my life and those of other volunteers in Mianyang. A dozen nongovernmental organizations were founded almost overnight after the quake five years ago and most of them are still pursuing their goals of helping those in need," said Li.

Raising the standards

Leifeng Volunteer Service Station, which has 3,700 volunteers, continues to provide long-term help for quake-hit families.

In 2010, Li introduced Fu to a professor of animal husbandry from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Fu, who had two school-age children, was looking to increase his income and, after discussions with the professor, decided to breed rabbits for a trial period to see if he could improve his standard of living. It was a bonus that his wife, Zhu Xianbi, 44, was able to help with the business.

"Before I began raising rabbits, I worked on construction sites to make cash. But every time a building was finished, the job ended and I had to find another," Fu said.

The business has now grown from an initial six does to around 70. "Often, ideas are more important than actions. If no one had told me about rabbits, I would not be in this industry," said Fu with a smile.

To further raise incomes in "his second hometown", Li Zhenping raised 180,000 yuan ($29,000) to buy and plant 18,000 walnut trees.

In addition, Li's organization provides classes for school students in Mianyang's Youxian district. On April 19, Li's assistant Zhang Pengfei and a number of volunteers made their weekly visit to Weicheng primary school, where they taught around 40 excited kids to recycle used newspapers and fashion them into artworks. The school lost 135 students in the 2008 disaster.

Zhang said the students need stimulation to help them forget the terrifying quake and move forward unburdened by recollections. Meanwhile, the school likes to give the students the chance to learn unusual skills as relaxation from the intense rounds of classes and exams.

Wang Bin, an associate professor of psychology at Southwest University of Science and Technology in Mianyang, who provided psychological counseling for the children after the Wenchuan quake, has also founded an NGO - the Weile Volunteer Research and Development Center. During the past five years, he has been to quake-hit zones in the provinces of Qinghai and Yunnan.

"The work of relieving post-earthquake mental trauma is similar everywhere, there are always common factors. That means we've gained a wealth of experience and the things we learn can easily be transferred from place to place," Wang said.

Over time, the volunteers forged deep friendships with the people they helped, earning themselves nicknames such as "older brother" or "big sister".

Changing attitudes

Although they all suffer from a lack of funds, the NGOs have proved adept at mobilizing social resources, according to Guo Hong, professor of sociology at Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences.

The Wenchuan experience also changed the way NGOs help survivors. The initial passionate response has been superseded by a more rational approach. Instead of simply heading off to a disaster area as soon as news breaks, the NGOs now plan their engagement more carefully to establish goals and ensure the work they do is effective and relevant. The NGOs and their volunteers have matured, according to Guo.

"In the past five years, many people have chosen to make voluntary work a full-time role. Their growing experience means they have become better adapted to rescue and relief work - that was evident in the way they contributed after the earthquake in Ya'an last month," she said.

Sichuan has the third-largest number of NGOs, after Beijing and Shanghai, according to the 2013 China Development Report. The Wenchuan quake was a catalyst in their foundation. "To my knowledge, about 50 new NGOs have been set up in the past five years, although most have fewer than 10 workers," said Guo.

She said the original volunteers were just regular people who wanted to make a difference. Many, however, failed to fully appreciate the role they'd chosen to play and although motivated by the best of intentions, they had little idea of what a volunteer should do or the concepts of civic awareness and public interest.

The movement toward greater efficiency and professionalism is the most noteworthy change the NGOs have undergone, said Guo. For example, they now have a very clear division of labor, with some volunteers focusing on psychological counseling, some on improving the livelihood of the community, and yet others specializing in environmental protection.

The change has resulted in greater recognition of their efforts. "Many people saw the work the volunteers were doing and decided to join in. They're proud to be a part of the movement," said Guo.

Before 2008, people were suspicious of the volunteers' motives - after all, why would anybody willingly spend their own money to undertake the sometimes perilous work of helping survivors in disaster zones?

That attitude seems to be dying out. "When people talk about volunteers, now they are no longer cynical. That trust is essential for voluntary organizations," said Guo.

The Wenchuan quake also helped NGOs to understand the importance of coordination - volunteers didn't respond to the Wenchuan quake until three days after the event, but the NGOs started to move into Ya'an just four hours after the quake.

"This time, our first reaction was not 'We must go there'. Instead, the question was 'What can we do for people?" said Guo. "In this sense, volunteers and NGOs are more rational, and they arrive at a disaster zone with a clear idea of their roles."

NGOs are not specialists in search and rescue operations, said Guo. Their job is to provide immediate help ahead of the official emergency services and to hold the fort until professional help arrives. In the aftermath of the Ya'an quake, the government organized relief operations much more rapidly than in the wake of Wenchuan, leaving little immediate work for the NGOs, who now understand that their efforts will probably be directed toward reconstruction, she added.

Gao Guizi, president of Shangming Charity Development Research Center in Chengdu, has observed the transformation of NGOs with interest. After Ya'an, the local NGOs recommended that Gao should be one of a team to coordinate efforts to aid survivors. He answered so many phone calls that he almost lost his voice.

"The coordinators must decide where supplies are needed and how they can be transported," said Gao, remembering one of the lessons from Wenchuan, when he founded a platform to serve NGOs nationwide.

Gao said the Wenchuan quake can be regarded as a period of "rebirth" for Chinese NGOs, as the focus of charitable efforts and voluntary work shifted to the NGOs and away from the government and established companies.

The past five years have seen a re-evaluation of the role of NGOs, and an increasing number of people have devoted themselves to charitable and voluntary missions, Gao said.

The rise of NGOs in Sichuan, both in terms of numbers and quality of service, can partly be attributed to a change of attitude by the local governments. Since 2011, NGOs have been allowed to register independently in Chengdu, instead of having to find an official "supervisor", a practice that applied to NGOs in other parts of China at the time.

"Chengdu was the only city to provide 500 million yuan to support social organizations. That was one of the city's five major targets in 2011," said Guo.

However, according to Guo, some NGOs still haven't registered, although he didn't give a specific number. In Mianyang, only three out of 10 NGOs have registered. The others have been stymied by a requirement that they must have registered capital of 100,000 yuan, according to one NGO leader in Mianyang who asked not to be named.

Government support is crucial for the development of NGOs, and last year Chengdu's Jinjiang district established a foundation to support a dozen, mainly those serving local communities. In Mianyang, Li's volunteer station is also supported by the local youth league.

"In the coming years, NGOs will grow quickly, but will also face many obstacles," said Gao. "We hope all the fetters can be broken and the volunteers will have more room to perform their roles and help others."

Wu Wencong, Li Yu and Huang Zhiling contributed to this story.

Contact the writer at huyongqi@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 05/13/2013 page6)