Natural disasters can cause extreme devastation in terms of loss of life and property, but can also provide opportunities for local governments and NGOs to take on new roles and to rebuild in more sustainable ways.

The National Committee, in partnership with the Institute for Sustainable Communities and with funding from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, sponsored an exchange of emerging leaders from earthquake-affected areas of Sichuan and post-Katrina areas of the Gulf Coast designed to exchange ideas about sustainability in long-term post-disaster recovery.

As the first part of the program, in April and May 2010, an eight-member delegation of emerging leaders from local governments and NGOs working in the earthquake-affected areas of Sichuan visited the United States for two weeks. The trip began with two days in Washington, D.C., during which the group met with federal government agencies and larger NGOs active in long-term recovery efforts. Delegation members concluded the trip with two days in San Francisco, where they met with organizations formed in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to better understand how they had adapted to continue serving their communities 20 years later.

The bulk of the time was spent on the Gulf Coast in New Orleans and Mississippi (Gulfport, Biloxi, and Moss Point), where the Chinese delegation met with smaller NGOs and local government officials to discuss integrating sustainability into long-term disaster recovery, the work of NGOs in the recovery process, collaboration between government and civil society, management methods for NGOs, integration of economic and environmental goals, and useful government policies. Particular attention was paid to building the capacity of grassroots NGOs and local government agencies that have the potential to play pivotal roles in environmentally sustainable reconstruction.

In October and November 2010, an American delegation that included the executive directors of NGOs and a foundation, a community planner, and a government official from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, among others, participated in a return trip to China. The delegation was joined by scholar-escort Helen McCabe, a National Committee Public Intellectuals Program fellow.

The Beijing portion of the program was designed to provide an introduction to the workings of civil society groups in China and the Sichuan Earthquake. The delegation members met with some of the most qualified people in Beijing to speak about these topics, including the former director of the Office of National Disaster Reduction during the Wenchuan earthquake; the director of the Institute for Civil Society, a leading organization that conducts research on and trainings for civil society groups in southern China; the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, which has extensive programming in earthquake-affected areas of Sichuan; and staff at the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University. The group also had an excellent introduction to philanthropy in China during a meeting with the Narada Foundation.

The delegation members spent most of their time visiting project sites in rural Sichuan and Chengdu, including a micro-credit project, a green planning program, and an “incubator” for small NGOs. The delegation also had the opportunity to sit down with a deputy mayor and other municipal staff members to discuss the reconstruction process. The visit culminated with a two-day conference in Chengdu that was attended by the American and Chinese delegation members. Each Chinese delegation member also invited a colleague to attend the meeting, thus increasing the program’s outreach.