Update 5/20/08: New York Times reports on unprecedented volunteer movement among Chinese citizens wanting to help earthquake survivors.
As I listened to earthquake news this morning from China’s Sichuan province, I realized that the cards may be aligned for the Chinese government to welcome a real nonprofit sector. Reminds me of post-Berlin wall days in Eastern Europe.
There are already thousands of grassroots nonprofits in China, but they are fighting just to survive without the necessary support and infrastructure, much less to provide services to this huge population (estimated at 1.4 billion). Weak management skills and lack of operating resources are among the key barriers to Chinese nonprofit impact, as cited in a recent McKinsey & Company report.
However, dramatic events are the most common harbinger of major change, and there’s little more dramatic than the events of the last days in China. There may be a star in this dark, dark sky.
The Chinese government’s response to this earthquake is strikingly different than that to the last major quake in Tangshan in 1976. In those last days of Mao’s regime, the government tried to hide the earthquake, vastly underestimating the death and injury toll. By the end of the year, the Gang of Four was out of power.
In this last ten days, we’ve seen the Chinese government act very differently in:
- Launching a massive rescue and relief effort
- Asking for help (rescue equipment)
- Opening information and news channels
- Opening its doors to foreign aid (contributions and aid experts), and acknowledging that "without aid [they] won’t be able to return to even current quality of life in the region for over 30 years."
- Honoring its citizens who perished in the quake with a three-day period of mourning (the first ever for Chinese citizens).
Yes, this is political maneuvering (aka crisis communications) as China tries to shine in contrast to Myanmar’s government’s disgraceful power play rather than the well being of its people and to the worldwide critique of its anti-human-rights approach, while maintaining some semblance of national glory in hosting the 2008 Olympics. Nonetheless, it’s the end result that really matters.
In addition, over $1 billion in domestic donations have been made by a citizenry largely unpracticed in giving. What a great start. Much of the giving, according to NPR, is coming from students, and those who have achieved urban success after migrating from rural locales who are already busy on message boards questing for accountability for the use of their gifts.
This is a society aching for nonprofits to fill the gaps the government has been content to hide for so long. This is a people no longer willing to live without rights, or in poverty. This is a country where nonprofit organizations can bring their issue and functional expertise to complement what the government can provide.
Watch, look and listen. With over 50,000 dead and 5 million homeless quake survivors, there’s no better time than now for China to birth a robust nonprofit sector.
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