Let NGOs do more for disaster response

Governments rightly admitted flaws after criticism of how they handled recent floods, but keep charities from giving help to people who need it

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 2:45am

As once-in-a-century floods ravaged the nation's northeast this month, abnormally heavy rain also struck the southeast. In the Guangdong city of Shantou, 350 kilometres east of Hong Kong, flash floods trapped many people in rural areas in a 24-hour period.

Photos taken by those trapped and posted online showed water reaching the second floors of main street buildings in the suburbs of Xiashan and Chendian.

On August 17, rainfall in Chaonan district, where Xiashan is located, reached a record high of 55.5cm overnight, leaving four dead and affecting more than 800,000 residents.

By August 19, residents of Chendian complained that they were still trapped and there was no sign of rescuers. They had been left to their own devices to escape, using rubber dinghies, dragon boats and even inflatable mattresses.

Internet users also accused officials of covering up the extent of the floods, saying that government-owned media neither mentioned the floods nor the dire conditions facing residents in the following days .

Local officials were not prepared for the storm. In a news release on August 18, they admitted that moving stranded people was "very difficult" and that residents were encouraged to "save themselves" - in short, there were not enough rescue service resources to handle the crisis in a timely manner.

While the public had to deal with officials' slow reaction, they were dealt a double insult when a government-backed newspaper said the casualties were partly caused by people's lack of survival skills.

The Global Times, a conservative Beijing-based tabloid, ran an editorial on August 20 saying that placating online complaints was as important as saving disaster victims.

It was wrong to only blame local officials, the paper said, when individuals' preparedness was also a key factor in coping with such disasters.

"Developing countries often suffered high casualties in disasters," the Global Times' said. "Individuals' insufficient ability to help themselves is a major factor, while insufficient government capacity is just one of the factors of these kinds of tragedies."

Many felt it was shameful for the government-backed media to say such things when thousands of ordinary people had not only lost their homes and belongings, but were still in danger. Authorities should not shift the blame to those who they should protect, but were unable to.

Global Times is owned by the People's Daily, the Communist Party's leading mouthpiece.

Furthermore, the comments made by the Global Times not only tainted the mainland propaganda machine responsible for polishing the government's image, but also showed the paradox facing the central government.

On one hand, authorities have admitted they are not almighty. China has long followed a model of omnipotent government where everything should be under its control.

Though many officials are still accustomed to playing key roles in different day-to-day matters, in more cases, especially unexpected disasters, they are learning that flexible responses by groups and individuals are more efficient and can muster greater resources in a very short time.

That was why in some disasters, such as the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, the 2010 Yushu quake, and this month's floods, people were "encouraged" to save themselves and non-government organisations were allowed to help with rescue efforts.

But on the other hand, mainland officials are still reluctant to loosen their reins on the authority they are trying so hard to command, and only cede limited control to individuals and NGOs under special circumstances.

Other than during large natural disasters, governments continue to keep a close eye on NGOs and contain their growth out of fear they may become too influential. NGOs are required to register with authorities and struggle to raise funds.

When NGOs become too large, governments become suspicious of their activities - whether such fears are founded or not - and clamp down on their movements. There are many examples where NGOs and individuals who help vulnerable groups such as Aids patients, migrant workers and petitioners facing harassment or are even ordered to close down.

The Global Times' article was right in one respect: that the best way to deal with natural disasters is by government and individuals working together. But, without giving civil society the room it needs to grow, how can governments expect NGOs to play a larger role come the time that they really need them?