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Huge Donations, Large-scale Quake Relief Challenge Red Cross

China's century-old Red Cross Society (RCSC) is facing a tough test of its effectiveness in relief and rehabilitation work after the May 12 earthquake.

The non-governmental organization, with 31 provincial, 334 city and 2,781 county-level branches, has been in the spotlight as a major force to deliver relief material and handle donations.

Since Wang Haijing, the RCSC secretary-general, felt the slight tremors in his office in Beijing on May 12, work flooded in and seemed not to come to an end. In the following two weeks, he had to work 21 hours a day.

"We received donations from more than 100,000 donors daily after the quake. It was beyond the capability of our six accountants and several dozens of volunteers," Wang said.

His 17 colleagues of the RCSC branch in Sichuan, which suffered most in the quake, were close to the edge a month after the quake.

More than 1 billion yuan (US$143 million) arrived in quake-hit zones 20 days after the quake, enough work for two accountants for five years, said Zhang Bo, RCSC Sichuan branch's executive vice president.

At the same time, thousands of tons of relief material were waiting to be collected and distributed every day. "At the peak, sixty wagons and 30 freight flights a day. Railway stations and airports had a deadline for claiming the goods. You felt like you were being pressed to death," she said.

And the branch office did not have any drivers nor warehouses of its own.

Struggle to be clean

As the organization has at least 4.12 billion yuan (US$597 million) worth of donations, media and donors are questioning whether they will really go to quake survivors.

Three departments are in charge of the work. The relief department creates a purchase plan for relief material, the purchasing department finds contractors and the accounting department examines the deals and then pays, according to Wang Ping, RCSC official in charge of the emergency aid division under the relief department.

"The three departments are supervising among one another," Wang said.

The RCSC national council would examine the society's financial report annually and the National Audit Office has been engaged in auditing the RCSC work since the quake relief started, said Wang Haijing.

A detailed list of donors and the amount of their donations is updated at the RCSC headquarters and Sichuan branch websites but delayed due to lack of personnel to input data.

On the headquarters website, the latest donation information was on June 5, released on June 11. On Sichuan website, the report on distributing donations was updated up until June 12.

The relief material and fund are sent by the RCSC headquarters in Beijing to local branches and then quake-affected people. An RCSC source admitted possible problems in this system as the national headquarters might not be able to fully control what its branches did.

The RCSC has never handled such huge donations before, said Jiang Yiman, the RCSC executive vice president. "It challenged the management and technical support of the RCSC as well as the capability of our staff."

Hard working staff and volunteers

But the society has devoted staff and volunteers.

At 11:00 PM on May 12, nine hours after the quake, RCSC Sichuan branch Secretary General Wu Qiongying and Zhang Bo were en route to severely ravaged places near the epicenter.

Despite heavy rain and broken mountain roads, they managed to deliver 2,500 quilts and 557 tents by early next morning.

Qiu Mianshan, chairman of the RCSC branch in worst-hit Deyang City, did not sleep for three days and nights after the quake.

"It almost drove me mad that so many people were bleeding on the square (where people took shelter), in the hospital and tents, water and medicine were in dire need but the phone connection only worked once in a while," he said.

When relief material arrived, it was even harder for Qiu to get any sleep. As the only publicized contact of the RCSC branch there, he answered countless phone calls day and night from people who carried relief material from outside to Deyang but got lost on the way.

Qiu was just one of many RCSC officers who worked round the clock during the first days of quake relief.

"It was indeed a battle. We have some staff who worked too long and fainted in the bathroom. But they came back to work immediately when they felt better," Zhang Bo said.

The RCSC Sichuan branch office in a narrow alley of the provincial capital Chengdu was holding about 1,000 volunteers on those busy days, collecting and distributing donations.

On May 13, about 1,320 volunteers set off to quake areas.

A 28-member volunteer rescue team had successfully saved 260 lives from under the rubble thanks to previous training in the society.

A large number of drivers joined the transportation team to deliver goods to quake-hit areas.

Feng Zengjun, an entrepreneur running a construction material company in east China's Shandong Province, joined the RCSC with eight of his employees. He offered construction material and helped build a clinic in a village of Anxian County, one of the worst-hit places.

He is planning to build ten more in the villages nearby and even set up a factory there to produce construction material for relief and rehabilitation.

More volunteered professionals needed

An assistance team from Red Cross in Spain made local RCSC officers reflect on themselves. The Spanish sent only five technicians but installed a 25-ton-daily-output water purifying system to benefit 3,900 residents in Mianzhu City.

When they were working, few Chinese staff were able to help.

"We should improve trainings on volunteers and recruit more professionals to cope with disasters of this kind," said Prof. Wei Gang, from Shandong University and an RCSC volunteer, "Many volunteers don't know much about disaster relief, though they have loving hearts."

Chen Xu, a volunteer from RCSC Hunan branch, voiced her worry over psychological aid.

"Some psychologists stayed for a short time and left and others came and said the same thing to survivors. It will not work," she said, "A psychological therapy will work only when psychologists spend enough time with quake-affected people and gain their full trust."

(Xinhua News Agency June 18, 2008)

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