One of the reasons Al Jazeera’s team in China decided to revisit the victims of the Yushu earthquake (our report above) was because of the curious issue of where all the money had gone to help survivors and for reconstruction. If the official numbers were correct, then we expected a lot of changes on the ground.
Recently, the government even passed a regulation requiring major NGOs to transfer all donations for the magnitude 6.9 earthquake earlier this year, and pass that money on to local administrators.
Officials say this is to better track — and better use — some of the $1.57 billion US dollars in donations that have come in to help victims. But such a move has never happened before, and this sets a precedent which some say is a step backward for civil society in China, putting NGOs firmly under the control of the government.
While China is excellent at paving new highways and constructing new buildings, NGOs and other grassroots organisations bring specialisation. Many of the victims of the earthquake were Tibetans, and there is a role — as China’s premier investigative newsmagazine points out — to assist them in “soft relief.” That includes urban job training, workshops, and even mental health recovery for those with post-trauma stress issues. The state is less adept at doing that.
Chinese citizens also have a right to know when they make a donation to China’s Red Cross, the money will be used by the Red Cross, and not for some other organisation for some other purpose. People have preference for where their money goes. Maybe someone would like to contribute to education, or would like to help young victims in particular. Yet others may want their money to go towards dealing with environmental reconstruction.
It is entirely plausible government officials have examined NGO conduct in other disaster zones (the 2008 Sichuan earthquake comes to mind), and have found the work of grassroots organisations somehow wanting. After all, many of these groups have only been formed recently. Their late arrival in China could well mean some organisations are mismanaged, face organisational issues, capacity problems, or questionable impact.
On the other hand, the narrow focus of an NGO on one particular issue could well mean they are best equipped to handle certain situations. A young organisation could well be an advantage or could mean greater flexibility and adaptability than any government department weighted down by bureaucracy and red tape.
But none of this is being debated, and what has instead happened is a transfer of money from NGOs to a government with a bad track record when it comes to transparency.
Al Jazeera did find the chance to speak to Xie Xiaoping, general director of the foreign affairs office from Qinghai. I asked him if he could address the concerns of grassroots organisations about the appropriation of their funds.
“We are rebuilding this city into a modern, environmentally-friendly city,’ hesaid. “This means reconstruction efforts will require scientific planning and organisation. All government and private charity money will be used following our plans … Planning and reconstruction is not something up to individuals.”
He appeared to confuse the type of work NGOs do, adding: “It is not for some person to say, ‘I would like to build a hospital’ and then you build a hospital. It is not for some person to say, ‘I would like to build a school and then you build a school.'”
No one would disagree that recovery efforts should be professional and scientific, but this has become a missed opportunity for the government to work with NGOs rather than co-opt them. And Xie’s comments reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the role NGOs regularly play.
And, in this particular natural disaster, monks were also some of the first to arrive on scene to help. In the early days, they were very visible volunteers but a skittish government, worried about the role the Tibetan Buddhist monks were playing, asked them to return to their monasteries. Yet another missed opportunity to build some bridges with the local community.
Taking over the finances of some NGOs suggests the government doesn’t believe there is a role for NGOs to play in recovery efforts. Does the government believe they knew best?
“Officials don’t have the right to make final decisions. We should discuss all possibilities, and make a scientific judgment,” Xie replied diplomatically.