The response to the earthquake that hit Sichuan on May 12 has demonstrated that civil society in China is getting stronger.
Major aid Organisations, such as Oxfam and Save the Children, have worked alongside the government and army, arranging donations and providing services to the affected people.
Yesterday, I attended a forum at Lanzhou University on how NGOs can effectively participate in earthquake reconstruction.
The afternoon started with an introduction to the aftermath of the earthquake in the Longnan area of Gansu, 200 km from the epicentre in Wenchuan, Sichuan province. In Gansu, over 300 people died and half a million homes were destroyed.
The main speakers were from 2 Taiwanese organisations.
A group of volunteers from United Way discussed their experiences of the last month in Longnan, where they have been offering psychological counseling for children. Through games and activities they tried to help the children come to terms with the disaster, and build up their confidence for the future. They also trained teachers to continue the work after they leave.
The second group, the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families, discussed their role in the aftermath of the Chichi earthquake in Taiwan in 1999. In particular, they reminded the audience of the unexpected consequences of neglecting adult counseling, and only focusing on children. For example, they recorded an increase in violence in the home, depression and alcoholism.
All the speakers stressed the importance of careful planning in disaster relief. NGOs cannot arrive on the scene with a fixed plan, and rush to execute it.
Instead, the audience was reminded of the basics: carry out on-the-spot needs analyses (questionnaires and forums), and only then move on to devising short and long-term plans. It is equally important to train local people to continue the work that you started, to ensure sustainability after you leave.
The advice seems simple, but I know from experience just how easy it is for volunteers to arrive in a deprived area and interpret the needs of locals to fit the preconceived plans they arrived with.
Despite being currently frozen, the China Development Brief site is still accessible, and has a large bank of NGO stories. The vacancies area of the site is still in operation, though.