The news keeps coming in, and the death toll keeps rising from the Yushu earthquake on Wednesday. The latest count says around 700, but with the number of collapsed schools and with the clock ticking on the immediate rescue phase of the people trapped under the rubble of collapsed structures, the toll is expected to climb higher. In the face of this grave tragedy, I thought I'd share some thoughts here for our readers and donors on how to think about donations and giving in the wake of a natural disaster of this magnitude in China. For background on the dynamics of disaster relief and recovery in China, please read our previous blog post overview on the subject.
In a year that has been earthquake tragedy-filled globally, the potential for compassion-fatigue or simply not knowing how to respond is natural. An impactful yet thoughtful response is needed. I believe it is helpful to think about involvement into the Yushu quake in three stages: short, medium and long term assistance.
1) Short term (0-1 month): At this early stage, the Chinese central government and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) are the first responders in any natural disaster here. Given the remote location of Yushu and the surrounding region (about 500 miles away from the provincial capital of Xining) and the danger of continued aftershocks, the Chinese government is best positioned to coordinate large scale rescue and relief efforts in the immediate initial phase. There are local and international NGOs operating in the region whose roles will become more important in the days to come (see below). Since the area is predominantly Tibetan, Tibetan communities within China and abroad are also rallying to help the victims. Currently the most immediate needs are basic supplies such as water and food, blankets and temporary shelters, as well as medical assistance to deal with the large number of injured. Hospitals are in need of Tibetan-speaking translators as the government is sending medical personnel to the area in large numbers. Here are some organizations we know now working on this phase of relief and are receiving cash donations: the Chinese Red Cross (an arm of the government), MercyCorps, World Vision, and Sichuan Quake Relief. An NGO called Plateau Perspectives has set up a Yushu Earthquake Relief site, though SVG has not worked with them before.
2) Medium-term (1 month-1 year): The first year of relief focused on beginning rebuilding of basic infrastructure in the area. Remember the villages of temporary houses and schools in the Sichuan quake zone? Hopefully there will be transferable lessons from Sichuan to make this process smoother in Qinghai. Many of the same groups above will likely continue and deepen their work in Yushu and the surrounding areas, barring any political sensitivities. In this stage, in-kind donations, volunteers and cash donations will be needed. SVG will be watching this space closely, and once the dust settles from the rescue phase will be dispatching our field staff to understand the needs on the ground.
3) Long-term (1 year and beyond): A year after the Sichuan earthquake, SVG sent our staff to the field zone to assess which groups were still working in the area and what the outstanding needs were (click here for the report). Over and over we heard from those on the ground the phrase "economic development." The quake victims needed jobs and other business opportunities to lift them out of the cycle of poverty. Given that those in the Yushu area were already mostly living in poverty and mainly as ethnic minorities, the need will be even more pressing. A year after the quake and beyond, will there be assistance to help the residents of Yushu get back on their feet again?
Viewing giving or involvement from the short, medium and long-term lens is not meant to put everyone on the hook for every stage of recovery, but it does help create thoughtful engagement. In this day and age when donors can respond with SMS and Tweeting to respond to disasters like the Haiti earthquake in massive amounts of donations and news-sharing, often it is both easier to find information on how to give, and yet harder to fight a sense of giving fatigue. We are already watching the responses from Chinese corporations towards the quake; will there be a public reckoning as in 2008 about who gave and who didn't? Several companies have already made public statements and donations already. Yet for the rest of us, it is possible to take a deep breath, consider a longer view, and then make a decision.