China's Red Cross funds NGOs

BEIJING, March 7 - China's Red Cross for the first time disbursed money to non-governmental organisations after a major 2008 earthquake, making a successful departure from solely state-sponsored action, a top official said in a rare interview.

Individuals, corporations and overseas chapters donated 19.05 billion yuan ($2.79 billion) to the Red Cross Society of China to help rebuild after the May 12 earthquake killed more than 80,000 people and left at least 5 million homeless in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

The Red Cross in turn disbursed 20 million yuan to non-government organisations in an unprecedented recognition that government alone could not solve all of society's problems.

"It was a real change for us. Before, we tried to do everything ourselves, but we didn't have enough people," executive vice president Jiang Yiman told Reuters in an interview at China's annual legislative meeting.

"Besides, we are founded on the volunteer principle and we need to leverage that in society."

The earthquake that shook China galvanized civil society, as volunteers rushed to bring food and water and dig out victims, while common people opened their wallets like never before.

The central government moved to restore control after the quake, limiting volunteers' access to the disaster zone and mandating that all donations had to go through the Red Cross Society of China and other approved organisations.

By November, however, the tide had reversed again. The Red Cross disbursed money for specific projects to private foundations and groups that had proven their worth in Sichuan.

"The results have been very good," Jiang said.


The need to assure Chinese citizens that their money was well used drove the Red Cross to publish the donations it received, followed by a second report on where donations of goods had gone.

A final report, due out before the first anniversary of the earthquake, will detail where the money has been spent. That could help answer Chinese citizens' concerns about transparency, and aid organisations' questions about how money is disbursed.

The Red Cross Society of China collected about a quarter of the 76 billion yuan in donations for earthquake relief.

The majority, or about 11 billion yuan, is managed by local chapters that are working with local governments on rebuilding a particular area. China has paired each quake-hit city or county with a province that is responsible for its reconstruction.

The national Red Cross received 7.9 billion yuan in earthquake funds, about one-third of which came from Red Cross chapters overseas, in Taiwan or in Hong Kong.

It has disbursed about 4 billion yuan to rebuild homes, rural schools and clinics, Jiang said. The Red Cross also helped supply tents, quilts and food in the immediate aftermath.

Jiang could not give a figure for how much the local chapters have disbursed.

The National Audit Office, which was recruited to ensure propriety in earthquake relief, said on Dec. 31 that the Red Cross "seriously reformed disaster relief funds and materials management based on the audit recommendations," and called the overall situation "generally good."

Nine months later, the Red Cross thinks it could be better prepared for future disasters by improving contingency plans, building better emergency stockpiles and improving rescue skills and expertise among its volunteers.

"We discovered that the international assistance included equipment and skills that we just didn't have," Jiang said.

"Also, we need to be better able to handle such a huge inflow of money. Right now it's all done by hand. As each donation comes in we write the receipt by hand."

The organisation's ranks of registered volunteers have nearly doubled since the earthquake, to 1.13 million.

"We hope that after this, the government will give greater recognition to civic organisations," Jiang said.


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