Bringing Transparency to Disaster Response in China

Prior to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, China’s grassroots NGO and foundation sectors played a much smaller role in society. In fact, many experts point out that the earthquake that killed 80,000 people in central China had the inadvertent effect of launching Chinese civil society.

Despite the NGO and foundation sector’s new role in China and its success in the 2008 earthquake recovery, civil society in China has run across public trust issues in recent years. Whether the few large public scandals indicate widespread corruption is not clear. What is clear is that mass donations to the Ya'an earthquake this time have gone to the private charity organizations particularly the micro-charities instead of government organized NGOs, as the public donors are looking for a more transparent system.

Despite strict laws on the timely release of financial information, a lack of transparency has compounded the issue of public trust. Simply put, most foundations have not provided the level of transparency necessary to assuage concerns of corruption. According to a study by Tsinghua University, one year after natural disasters only 4.7 percent of donors in China were aware of how their donations were used. Foundations that did release information typically released only total amounts received and did not disclose details on the use of the funds.

This has begun to change, in part because of China Foundation Center (CFC). CFC was established by 35 leading Chinese foundations in 2009 and is now the world’s leading source of information on foundations in China. The organizations’ Foundation Transparency Index measures financial disclosure and transparency, and has seen participation increase from 16 to 90 percent of Chinese foundations over the past three years.

Give2Asia’s latest partnership with China Foundation Center (CFC) is aimed at further building public trust in China’s NGO sector, while facilitating transparent recovery for the latest earthquake in Sichuan Province. A US$150,000 grant from Give2Asia’s Sichuan Earthquake Fund 2013 will build an online disclosure platform for donations, grants and projects related to current earthquake recovery efforts. The project will build on CFC’s existing China Foundation Transparency Index to provide donors with a clear picture of where, why and how much of their disaster relief donations are being spent by participating foundations. The online platform will include a database with indexes that can be easily navigated by both foundations and donors.

While the donations coming in for the April earthquake are a small fraction of the donations from 2008, more than 6 million people made donations to Chinese NGOs for relief and recovery this year. CFC’s three-year program will allow these donors to easily learn how their contributions were spent. In addition, the project can serve as a template for disclosure of projects in future disasters.

CFC has shown that the antidote to the public’s skepticism toward charities is grassroots, donor-demanded transparency. Rather than just satisfying a checkbox on a government form, or a top-down mandate for numerical disclosures, an accurate and accountable picture of where each contribution comes from and how it is spent will be necessary. Only by building a culture of transparency can concerns of corruption be overcome – and they must be overcome to continue the diversification and professionalization that the sector currently enjoys.