NGOs Joining Forces in Response to Disasters

  • Home
  • >
  • Analysis
  • >
  • NGOs Joining Forces in Response to Disasters

This is one of several articles on NGO responses to disasters that we are making available in commemoration of the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and killed an estimated 70,000 people. The earthquake had an important social impact, galvanizing NGOs, volunteer groups and civil society networks to respond collectively to a large-scale disaster for the first time in the history of the PRC in what is sometimes referred to as the “NGO Spring” (NGO春天). Many of the NGOs in this article are a product of that event. This article calls attention to the slow but steady progress these NGOs have made, four years later, in creating a civil society platform for responding to disasters in China.

Yang Zhenmei hurried over to Yingjiang county, Hong prefecture on March 11th. She had spent the past week in the hospital caring for sick friends, but now rushed to Yingjiang, where a 5.8-magnitude earthquake had struck at noon the day before. As an organization engaged in the work of disaster relief, the Yunnan Youth Development Foundation’s Working Group (云南青少年发展基金会益行工作组) to which Yang Zhenmei belongs is committed to responding rapidly at the first sign of a natural disaster.

According to official reports, the earthquake resulted in 25 deaths and injured more than 350. Although the casualty count was not considered high, the earthquake inflicted extensive damage on Yingjiang, a county of about 30 million. An estimated 28 million people in Yingjiang were affected by the earthquake when their homes collapsed or were damaged. Two of the hardest hit towns in Yingjiang were Pingyuan and Nongzhang. Many houses were constructed using hollowed bricks and shoddy beams. As a result, an estimated forty percent of the main living quarters and ninety percent of adjacent areas like kitchens and sheds gave way during the quake. Few houses in the city were affected, aside from the cracks that appeared on many of the buildings. Still, inhabitants were afraid to return to their homes because of aftershocks, and more than ten million people were camped out in tents.

The government and military stepped in after the earthquake and contributed significant manpower, as well as material and financial resources. They helped to transport food, tents, blankets and other supplies to the earthquake victims. This helped solve the issue of where people would reside, at least temporarily. However, at the end of the emergency relief period, the central government played a more diminished role, and military personnel also pulled out from the disaster area.

A host of problems still remained requiring broad-based community support, including access to clean water, sanitation, disease prevention, child care, the construction of transitional housing and the development of programming and daily activities to occupy residents in the evacuation sites. Not long after, attention began to shift away from the Yingjiang disaster to the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that unfolded in Japan. Yet rescue parties continued their work in Yingjiang and voluntary relief organizations also quickly put together a joint response mechanism to meet the challenge of recovery efforts1.

NGO Collaboration Put to the Test

Since the Yunnan Youth Development Foundation (YYDF) Working Group was established in 2008, it has been involved in emergency relief and reconstruction efforts that revolved around earthquakes, mudslides, droughts, floods and other natural disasters. It has developed a number of best practices. First, any recovery effort begins with a thorough investigation and understanding of the situation in the affected areas. Then, it performs a needs assessment that evaluates the resources available to an organization for disaster relief. In some particularly disaster-prone areas, it will either train on-site volunteers or provide training to on-site organizations to enable them to take the lead in disaster assessment.

Since January, Yingjiang has experienced its share of big and small tremors. Many people are still scared to return to their homes and stay in tents outside. On one hand, their hesitation to return to their homes may have helped explain the fewer casualties in this particular earthquake. Moreover, the YYDF Working Group already had operations in Yingjiang in January and had established relations with the local Communist Youth League, earthquake prevention center, and volunteer organizations. They initially intended to hold another volunteer training session in four to six months when the earthquake struck the area on March 10. Fortunately, the groundwork had already been laid by their earlier preparations.

Upon her arrival in Yingjiang on March 11, Yang Zhenmei contacted the local Communist Youth League and the Baoshan Volunteers Association (保山志愿者协会). Accompanying Yang were the YYDF Working Group’s Li Runjiang, as well as project officers from the China Social Entrepreneur Foundation (CSEF,友成基金会) and the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA, 中国扶贫基金会)2. In a short amount of time, they were able to have a work tent set up at the Pingyuan county evacuation center. That night, they got the disaster aid work station up and running. Public organizations provided support and guidance to onsite volunteers who participated in the emergency relief efforts, while the government played a supporting role.

The next day, other civil society organizations and volunteers arrived on the scene, including the Sichuan NGO Disaster Preparedness Center (NGO备灾中心). At the evening work meeting on March 12, 2011, the YYDF Working Group, China Social Entrepreneur Foundation, China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation and NGO Disaster Preparedness Center together established a joint work station for Yingjiang disaster relief3. The aims of this mutual undertaking by the community, public interest groups, and the government were to collect information on the disaster, effectively mobilize and serve various aid agencies, and by doing so, achieve the efficient use of resources. The joint work station quickly identified that information-gathering, providing support, and organizing interim activities and events for the community were priorities.

One needs to understand the general situation and needs of the victims before providing disaster relief. Therefore, investigating the impact of the disaster is the first order of business. Those who volunteered for the information-gathering mission were split up into four groups to collect data from the two evacuation centers situated by the city square and Ying Lake, 13 schools, and 25 villages affected by the earthquake. After the data collected was collated at the workstation, it was then released publicly. Since some regions attracted relatively little interest in terms of aid while other areas received an excess supply of aid, there was also a concurrent effort to integrate and redistribute the aid over the various regions. More than 140 lines of detailed information on the disaster were submitted by over 40 participating, public interest organizations and volunteers. The CFPA and the county’s Communist Youth League made a record of the information received from the government’s disaster relief headquarters, which had helped coordinate some of the aid.

After the disaster, the greatest need was for transitional housing. After the work station made an assessment of the 25 villages affected by the earthquake, the CSEF suggested that bamboo, which is plentiful in the region, be used to construct the transitional dwellings. Using bamboo and building a traditional Chuandou structure, which involves attaching a fence made out of bamboo to the bottom of the wall and using recycled steel for the roof, would be clean, practical and aesthetically pleasing. These transitional housing projects were endorsed by NGOs as well as promoted by CSEF and CFPA. By the end of March, at least 21 villages and over 1,300 households had benefited from the housing project, which attained a 10 percent coverage rate of the disaster area. Wang Xiaoyan, a senior project officer with the CSEF’s Disaster Relief Center, said locals had praised and remarked on the rapid progress in the construction of the transitional houses. They saw houses built right before their eyes, some in as little as four days’ time. The bamboo material, however, is vulnerable to insects and therefore not designed to last beyond one or two years. The houses still can only serve as transitional housing.

The support functions that had to be performed were also numerous, the first being coordination. This involved hosting visiting public welfare organizations and the media, communicating with them and sharing information, as well as synchronizing efforts with and communicating with government departments. The second essential function was the management of volunteers, from training volunteers and dispatching them to work areas to providing them with logistical support. The lack of reliable information after a disaster can hinder the efforts of volunteers and civil relief agencies. Many volunteers and aid organizations come unprepared and without knowledge of the needs of the affected areas. For instance, one girl who learned about the earthquake from the internet brought two sacks of instant noodles and bread from Wuhan, only to discover when she arrived that there was no longer a food shortage. By the end of March, the joint work station had dispatched a total of 140 individuals. In order to help the volunteers understand the situation and let them feel that their skills and talents were being utilized, the work station kept them informed on weather and road conditions, traffic updates, and the situation in the affected villages. Working together with more than 20 armed police officers, Mr. A Hu, a construction engineer from Deyang, Sichuan, helped break down a door for an elderly resident and was glad that his technical skills came in handy for the job.

Meanwhile, daily events and activities are planned specifically with the community in mind. Over 400 children between the ages of 6 and 12 were housed in the shelters. They could be found running around in the streets nearly every day without much adult supervision. Activities were arranged by volunteers for the kids, which included crafts, drawing and other interesting small group and environmental activities. The kids were often excited to take part in the events. Participating in these events also to some extent helped lessen the anxiety and fear brought on by the earthquake. In addition, people residing at the shelters were interested in viewing television news, both local and outside news. Through joint efforts, the work station was able to obtain a television and sought to broadcast news on noon and six respectively, along with entertainment programs or videos on disaster management and prevention. With the involvement of “Miss Li’s” grassroots education assistance organization (丽姐助学), more than 500 books were donated as reading material for the crowds gathered in the shelters. Other cultural activities included a display of community art and film screenings. These activities gradually helped restore normalcy to the community.

Only two weeks after the earthquake, the marriage of a young ethnic Dai girl in the village of Mangling took place. The disaster relief work station’s dispatch vehicle took away the newlyweds. A house was also built for them in the traditional Dai style with assistance from the CSEF. Staff from the relief station even took part in the wedding. Some were on the bride’s side giving her away, while others on the groom’s side received her. Everyone enjoyed themselves with the gracious hospitality of the hosts.

Although the work station was just built on the 11th, it was already actively engaging the community by the 12th. No matter how late into the evening, staff would get together every day to discuss and exchange information. Requests for supplies and other items that were needed went out on the microblog. They also inquired about the government’s plan of action, follow up measures, and daily preparations. Local staff from the CFPA expressed their admiration and hoped to emulate such efforts. In the past, civil society organizations coordinated among themselves for relief work, or there was cooperation between a foundation and NGO, or cooperation with the government. This time, however, with better communication, the work station was able to coordinate the efforts of the foundations, NGOs, volunteers as well as the government and enable them to fill in each other’s gaps. Resources were also allocated more efficiently, as relief agencies determined the division of labor by region and ensured appropriate, daily arrangements for relief.

This type of joint work station model is catching on. On June 6, various civil society organizations rushed to establish a joint rescue station to handle flooding in Wangmo, Guizhou.

Local volunteers should continue doing their part for disaster relief

Li Xiaoxiong is a freshman in Yingjiang No. 1 High School. After the initial panic from the quake, he and other students took to the streets to see how they could help. At first, they helped carry the injured in the hospital. Then, because of the joint work station’s central location in the city square, Xiaoxiong signed up to help. Soon he became a key volunteer, responsible for the information platform’s research on how the rural population affected. Xiaoxiong was familiar with not only the local language, but also the lay of the land. He led other volunteers as they distributed vegetables, medicines, rice and other supplies to people in the region, and he helped draw maps of the disaster area. He was also responsible for coordinating work between the joint work station and the government. In April, when I first met Xiaoxiong, a skinny, mature boy, he told me this experience made him realize the strength of teamwork. At school, Xiaoxiong, a Jingpo ethnic minority, is a member of the Jingpo Minorities Association. The group is not formally recognized yet. Xiaoxiong hopes to have the Association affiliated with the school and to organize Jingpo cultural preservation projects.

Interestingly, many of the children in the settlements were cared for by the volunteers, yet they themselves were also volunteers. On the morning of March 12th, the workstation opened to more than 30 children and trained them, organized them into small groups, such as the television group, the information gathering group, the environmental protection group, and the arts group. They could choose their own team liaison and lead. The television group would decide their opening and closing times and explore what programs people wanted to watch. Each member of the information gathering group received a piece of paper and a pen, They were told to find out what the community was thinking by asking any question they wanted. Child or adult, nobody likes the feeling of being bored. This kept them occupied with something to do.

Locals formed the majority of the volunteers at the workstation. During the critical emergency period, local volunteers had inherent advantages that allow them to play a vital role. Later on, however, it became evident that their capabilities were lacking. For instance, in the area of disaster assessment, they needed more systematic guidance. Xing Mo, director of the Yunnan Development and Training Institute (云南发展培训学院) once noted that some foreign foundations and civil society organizations rely too heavily on their own resources and experience, and provide insufficient support to indigenous civil society organizations and volunteers. Local organizations are often seen as instruments rather than as a full-fledged partners.

Yang Zhenmei said, two months after beginning work on the joint work station, most of the work had been turned over to the local volunteers. Meanwhile, the Yunnan Youth Development Foundation Working Group would continue to provide disaster reduction training for the community, as well as disaster management training and other support for the volunteers.

Disaster Relief Requires a Multi-Stakeholder Effort

China is a country that is prone to natural disasters. There are a range of disasters. They are widely dispersed throughout the country, with a high frequency of occurrences, and the regional and seasonal characteristics of disasters are very pronounced. According to a White Paper on Disaster Reduction Measures in China, natural disasters cause more damage in China than anywhere else in the world. Between 1990 and 2008, the average number of individuals affected by natural disasters was 300 million. Economic losses directly resulting from natural disasters accounted for 2.48 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Direct economic losses were 2.5 trillion over the 11th Five-Year Plan period, or a yearly average of 500 billion. 17.9 million houses collapsed, and a total of 81.3 million people were evacuated. In the past, disaster relief missions have been undertaken by the government and military, but in recent years, civil society groups have become more involved in disaster relief. Mutual cooperation and support between the state and different civil organizations in responding to the disaster has become an important means for reducing disaster losses. At the information exchange meeting held after the Yingjiang earthquake, Yu Xiaogang, director of Yunnan Green Watershed (云南绿色流域) warned that we may become future disaster victims if we are not proactive in our disaster relief efforts. [Editor’s Note: Yu Xiaogang is one of China’s best-known environmentalists, and recipient of a Goldman Prize, the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists.]

At the beginning of summer, news of natural disasters began to spread. Severe drought plagued the downstream areas of the Yangtze River, followed by floods and mudslides caused by consecutive days of heavy rains, as well as flooding in Wangmo, Guizhou. Rescue efforts were urgently needed everywhere, and no party was able to respond individually to the disaster. It called for the entire community’s attention, and government and civil society had to work together. In 2008, following a 5.12-magnitude earthquake, much of society was recruited for relief efforts. Civil society also formed disaster relief coalitions, including the Joint Sichuan NGO Disaster Relief Office and the Sichuan 512 Voluntary Relief Services Center (四川5.12民间救助服务中心,hereafter the 512 Center). Still, the actions were fairly limited in scope and duration4.

On April 7, a month after the Yingjiang earthquake, the NGO Disaster Preparedness Center, the 512 Center, the Pengzhou Green Root Social Work Development Center (彭州中大绿根社会工作发展中心), the Guizhou Youth from Red Cross (贵州意气风发红十字会), and the Yunnan Youth Development Foundation Working Group participated in the May 12th earthquake relief and reconstruction efforts. Later in Sichuan, Qinghai, Guizhou, and Yunnan, they participated in emergency relief and reconstruction work for earthquakes, mudslides, droughts, floods and other natural disasters. The seven NGOs reunited once more to form “United Rescue” (UR, 联合救援), seeking to build a civil society relief platform for reconstruction in domestic areas affected by natural disasters. They ultimately formed a network for mutual support of civil society disaster relief work. “United Rescue” works primarily by establishing a dynamic, interconnected response mechanism to carry out emergency disaster relief and routine disaster prevention education. In Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces, they have established a professional rescue team for rescue operations and regular training. In the event of a disaster, the local partner institutions establish a working platform and assume the responsibility of coordinating and providing services, while other partner agencies support operations and resources.

This is a good vision, but realizing it requires a very long time. Although these institutions have accumulated experience in disaster relief over the years, there are still big gaps to be filled. Community disaster preparedness training is not sufficiently staffed, and funds are lacking to establish professional rescue teams. When the Yunnan Youth Development Foundation Working Group initially paid for a year’s salary for full-time volunteers, it was a personal advance from the sponsor. This diminishes their professional and rescue capabilities. As Yu Xiaogang noted, civil society organizations need to become more capable and effective. They need to have a strong grasp of community-based disaster management planning and methods to assess a community’s disaster vulnerability. They typically need to invest in effective disaster mitigation activities, have professional capabilities to effectively handle disasters, need methods for addressing emergency demands, and also need to promote sustainable development when engaged in community reconstruction.

Although some foundations have contacted local civil society organizations to build disaster relief networks in recent years, the majority hope they can call on organizations to be effective in a disaster even without providing them with support on an ongoing basis. Xing Mo is one of the founders of the Yunnan Youth Development Foundation Working Group. He is deeply dissatisfied that some foundations see local civil society organizations as merely a short-term instrument. Amid global climate change and China’s rapid economic growth and accelerating urbanization, China’s intensifying resource, environmental, and ecological pressures have made natural disaster prevention and response more difficult and complicated. Localized and community-based disaster prevention and disaster mitigation measures tend to provide the most effective and rapid disaster relief. Regional disaster relief civil society organizations also need to develop to be able to cope with the current situation.

Perhaps, it is foundations that should change their way of thinking. The Narada Foundation’s deputy secretary general Liu Zhouhou said in an interview that a grant-making foundation like the Narada Foundation should be attentive to providing ongoing support to NGOs engaged in disaster preparedness or disaster relief, in order to allow them to survive and develop. Then, once a disaster occurs, they can quickly mobilize to participate in disaster relief. We must also build an information platform and offline network, and foster the disaster relief capabilities of more grassroots organizations.


  1. Editor’s Note: The implication here is that the role of the government and military is most critical in the initial stages of an earthquake when search and rescue teams are in greatest need. But long-term reconstruction needs community involvement, and therefore this stage is where “voluntary” organizations such as NGOs and volunteer groups can play an important role. 

  2. Editor’s Note: CSEF and CFPA are both well-known public welfare foundations that supported NGO projects in the earthquake-stricken areas in Sichuan following the 2008 earthquake in that province. CSEF is also known as the YouChange Foundation. CFPA’s disaster relief work is highlighted in another article in this same issue. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The Sichuan NGO Disaster Preparedness Center is a NGO founded soon after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake by Zhang Guoyuan. Guoyuan was one of the organizers of a grassroots volunteer network established a few days after the earthquake struck. 

  4. Editor’s Note: Both of these civil society networks are discussed at more length in another article available on CDB’s website, “An Emerging Civil Society: the Impact of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake on Grassroots Civic Associations in China“. The first of these networks closed down soon after the earthquake, but the second is still operating from its new office in the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences. 

In Brief

This is one of several articles on NGO responses to disasters that we are making available in commemoration of the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and killed an estimated 70,000 people.
Table of Contents