Relief in Nepal; an uphill struggle

On the 25th April, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale struck Nepal, in the nation’s deadliest natural disaster since 1934. Subsequent aftershocks and another major quake 18 days later has brought the death toll to nearly 9,000.  Katie Wand asks if, after millions of dollars worth of international aid has entered the country, has it been well spent?

Nepal is the second poorest country in Asia, with annual GDP per capita standing at less than 2,000USD. With a heavy reliance on remittances and tourism, the economy is fragile. The government lacks resources, generating internal challenges that hinder the effectiveness of aid distribution.

Recent weeks have been testament to this; large quantities of supplies have been resting in Kathmandu airport since the initial disastrous earthquake, as the Nepali government  failed to mobilise resources. Government regulation and administrative issues have prevented aid workers from putting international relief resources into use, whilst thousands remain homeless and desolate.

Asian Development Bank

©Asian Development Bank/Creative Commons License

Of the supplies that have escaped the confines of the airport, evidence suggests that much of it has not been received by those most in need. Roughly 80% of Nepal’s 28 million residents live in rural areas. This makes for a sporadically dispersed, and highly inaccessible population, with few areas of densely concentrated populations. The poor quality roads wind through the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas, and many villages are unreachable by vehicle. It is these isolated villages that are not seeing aid, as the challenge of its delivery is simply too great for most relief-distributing agencies. With a large part of central Nepal requiring supplies of some kind at this time, it is easy for aid agencies to distribute to those that are most accessible, rather than to those most in need.

In addition to a lack of government resources and poor infrastructure, Nepal’s relief effort is further obstructed by political barriers that restrain the effective and egalitarian distribution of aid. A civil war lasting 10 years ended in 2006 in Nepal, leaving the country both politically divided and deeply anguished by corruption, as fractured political parties compete for hegemony on the tense political stage.  Over the past 3 weeks, political tensions have spilled over into the relief effort, and aid has become politicized. We have seen an elitist bias for aid distribution, whereby politically influential communities are favoured, and marginalised communities are excluded.

Nepal’s inability to respond to the needs of its people in crisis has rendered it highly dependent on international aid at this time. As honourable as the intentions of international donors may be, the subordinated role that the Nepali government has adopted in its own relief effort has led to a lack of coordination between local and international agendas, and supplies received do not always match the desires or needs of the affected people.

So what can be done to actually help the Nepali people? Firstly we need to start thinking about recovery, instead of relief. Relief serves to aid a situation in times of immediate danger- for example, the provision of rice in the week following the earthquake was vital, as food supplies were cut by the devastation. However, a month has passed and we need to look at more sustainable and long-term approaches. In supplying food to those who already have access to such items may be welcomed by impoverished locals, but actually serves to restrict trade within communities, taking away the livelihood of, for example, the local rice seller. Provision of food and water may seem all good and well but in the longer term has negative social and economic implications for its recipients.

©International Organization for Migration/Creative Commons License

©International Organization for Migration/Creative Commons License

The recovery of Nepal will very much depend on whether the government is able to overcome the hurdles that have restricted its effectiveness in relief. The current government initiative to give compensatory payouts to the families of the deceased is both inconsequential and extremely shortsighted. Rather than temporarily paying off families with a small lump of cash, the government should provide jobs to stimulate the economy and allow people to actively make a sustainable living rather than further inducing reliance upon a highly unreliable source. Infrastructure will be needed before any real gains are made; if this wasn’t a priority before the earthquake, it certainly should be now. However, all the above is highly dependent on the government’s capacity to mobilise its resources and channel them into sustained growth and development.

The question remains as to how individuals from around the globe can help in the clear up. Well, it is evident that without financial backing Nepal will be unable to rejuvenate itself any time soon. Donations are always welcome and have played an important role in the clear up thus far, although individuals should be aware of administrative costs that can set large organizations back by more than 70% of their funding. Smaller organisations are more accountable, but the reach of their works is naturally limited by limited budgets. Whichever organization you do choose, be careful to select one that was established before the earthquake, to prevent the donation going directly in to the pockets of a few corrupt government officials. What Nepal really needs is to regain its tourism industry, which accounted for 10% of jobs prior to the earthquake. The same mountains, flora and fauna remain, and the country is now safe to visit. Tourism is a sure way of providing income to those who most desperately need it, and I urge you all to come to this amazing country.

In the short-term, aid is required to rebuild houses, roads and schools. However, more long-term solutions to the disaster require careful planning and organic economic growth. This is largely the responsibility of the Nepali government, but it is our job as the international community to put pressure on governing institutions to ensure that this happens.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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