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Chinese NGOs struggle to grow

Many of the unofficial groups lack know-how for training volunteers and keeping track of how donor money is spent.

By Carol Huang / July 17, 2008



Beijing

Two months after China's devastating earthquake, where do Chinese unofficial nongovernmental organizations stand?

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Two months after such volunteer groups won widespread praise for delivering urgent quake relief, the government has not adjusted its restrictive policies toward them, as people in the field had hoped.

Many groups are continuing quake aid in Sichuan Province anyway. They're setting up offices in Chengdu, the provincial capital.

But some of them say NGOs' main challenge now isn't that the government won't let them grow. It's that they don't know how to grow.

"The biggest problems for NGOs are from inside the field.... They lack abilities and methods," says Zhai Yan, director of the Huizeren Volunteer Development Center, based in Beijing. "People who work in this field are not professionals."

During quake relief efforts, volunteers' work often overlapped or conflicted – coordinating was tough, given the scale of the tragedy, but also, many people just didn't know how to help.

This meant many needs went unmet while others were oversupplied, says Zhang Wei, director of the Beijing Horizon Education Culture Development Center, whose staff arrived in Sichuan Province a few days after the earthquake. He remembers people delivering case after case of water, though medicine was in shortest supply. "Everywhere you went, there was someone to greet you with a bottle of water," he says.

Untrained volunteers can make problems worse, he adds. One might counsel a frightened child to be brave and hide his grief; another, encourage him to cry.

The lack of know-how hurts organizations' ability to stay open, let alone raise funds. Many NGOs don't have a mission statement or keep track of how they spend donor money, says Melody Zhang, director of the Chinese branch of Children's Hope International (no relation to Mr. Zhang).

Gradually, though, more Chinese NGOs are learning to adopt international standards. Ms. Zhang, who studied social work in the United States, says she uses that training and models her group after internationally respected ones like World Vision.

The international community should "help us be more professional," she says. Chinese NGOs, she adds, also "have a responsibility" to improve their services, and eventually expand them to other parts of the world.

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