China's humanitarian aid has recently been subject to much criticism – both international and domestically. But the signs are positive for some reforms.

Last week I was in Beijing for a workshop on humanitarian aid (or 'foreign disaster assistance', as the Chinese prefer to call it) hosted by the Asia Foundation and CAITEC, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce's influential think tank. The purpose was to discuss how different donors deliver humanitarian aid. It brought together representatives from the US, Japan, Australia, international organisations, as well as the Chinese government and Chinese NGOs and GONGOs (government-organised NGOs).

Three things struck me about the event.

First, there was a clear recognition by the Chinese that there are many challenges facing China's foreign disaster assistance program. Although politics will inevitably continue to play a key role (as China's response to Typhoon Haiyan so aptly demonstrates), there is a strong desire to improve the planning and implementation of assistance to make it more efficient and effective. This includes engaging more directly with affected governments to assess needs, improving coordination among China's agencies, and increasing coordination with donors and international agencies. All important steps.

Second, China's domestic disaster response organisations are increasingly involved in international crises. China is one of the most natural-disaster-affected countries in the world, so organisations like the Chinese Red Cross and China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation have extensive experience working in China. They are now expanding their activities internationally.

This presents a number of challenges and opportunities.

While countries like Australia have standing agreements with NGOs regarding funding and partnerships, in China this is more ad hoc. As one NGO representative exclaimed (in comments directed at Chinese government representatives), when a disaster strikes the NGO's first concern is not what help the country requires but what red tape needs to be cut. This leads to delays and other inefficiencies.

Legitimate questions can be asked about the risks of fragmentation and duplication that come with the involvement of more actors in foreign disaster assistance. But since the trend is already toward more Chinese NGO involvement, efforts should focus on improving coordination and decision-making. The Chinese government recognises a need to engage with non-government and private sector actors as well.

Third, as China's humanitarian aid continues to increase (in part due to international pressure), the imperative to explain this to the Chinese people is also increasing. Both the Chinese government and GONGOs/NGOs are grappling with how to do this.

One interesting and I think helpful idea the Chinese government is toying with is to increase information about the way other countries helped China, so that the public can understand why China helps others. There was also an admission that China's foreign aid program in general is too secretive and that it should be explained better. The second foreign aid white paper (still in the pipeline) and its associated press coverage will be important indicators of how serious the government is about this.

No doubt challenges remain concerning the planning and implementation of China's humanitarian assistance. But recognition of this fact, and a willingness to learn how other donors operate, is an important step.