Monday, May 18, 2015

Aid anomalies

This appeared on May 19, 2015 in Republica.

The unmanaged relief delivery in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake has exposed faults of both national and international aid organizations.These organizations have largely focused on short-term measures and victims' real needs have been ignored.

Recently I visited Chhap village in Rasuwa district that was severely affected by the quake. None of the houses was fit to live in. The villagers are staying in community hall of a local cooperative, which has several cracks. They rush out in panic after each tremor. Several governmental and non-governmental organizations have visited the village with sacks of rice. Not all of it is healthy to eat. For example, the rice provided by the Nepal Food Corporation and distributed through the Village Development Committee office had crossed expiry date. NFC is notorious for hoarding rice sacks in its go-downs and failing to deliver it to the needy on time. Similar was the case with World Food Program's rice. Even the tarpaulins were substandard. The black tarps were brittle. Since villagers have been cooking food under those tarps, they melt by the heat. During rainfall, these tarps are useless.
Despite living in such adverse conditions, the villagers have kept their spirits high. Their lands are intact and they are ready to toil in the fields. When asked of their demands, they told us that they needed zinc sheets so that they could prepare temporary shelters, and then they would build their own homes. They asked relief organizations and private volunteers to provide them zinc sheet or sturdy tents, like the ones used by the International Red Cross as they don't want to live under tarp forever, but those organizations would not listen.Voluntary donors that arrive at the village bring with them cheap noodles, biscuits and beaten rice. Volunteers who love showing off in social media have visited affected villages with cheap food and have rubbed on victims' wounds.

This village is not far from highway;that is why relief workers reached there in big hordes. But inhabitants of remote villages in this and other districts haven't yet seen any visitors with relief materials. The foreign donors have been reluctant to coordinate with local disaster management authorities and are distributing relief on their own. This has led to duplication of relief at settlements near highway while villagers in remote parts have got nothing. The National Human Rights Commission had raised concern about this.There are cases of desperate locals wielding khukuris and looting relief material. Donors prefer to go to accessible villages about which their local contact informs them.

The reluctance of foreign organizations to work with government authorities has raised concerns about their motive.It has been found that most money allocated to relief efforts goes back to donor countries in the form of exorbitant consultant fees and other overhead costs. Not all of the extraordinary amounts pledged translate into relief.Dubious practice of putting Bibles among relief materials and the surge in the number of roaming proselytizers have strengthened people's fear that these donors might be culturally invading their territory. The rapid opening of job vacancies for disaster management in international volunteer organizations based in Nepal makes one question whether they are trying to "projectize" to prolong their stay here.

Their focus on distributing sanitary pads and wash kits rather than seeds and fertilizers along with homemaking materials feeds the commoners' fear.

Fears of Nepal meeting Haiti's fate are not unfounded. Due to flooding of aid organizations in the aftermath of Haiti earthquake in 2010, the locals became lazy. Rather than working in the fields, they looked to aid materials to meet their needs, which they got in plenty. Many of them never bothered to build their own houses. The result is that around 250,000 people are still living in temporary camps. In several quake-affected districts in Nepal, it has been found that people rush to the streets abandoning work in the fields whenever they see vehicles carrying relief materials.

But at the same time many other victims have stopped looking for relief and started to work on their own.Even when relief materials are not enough for the displaced, they distribute these materials among themselves equitably. Even the children have learnt from elders to judiciously distribute things and keep them safe.Many victims have realized that it would be foolish to look up to government to take care of them forever. A large number of people have lost everything and the poor state cannot heed everyone. That is why survivors have started taking relief materials as well as making full use of undamaged local crops and woods.

To keep the spirit of the commoners alive, the need of a strong government is sorely felt. Despite the experts' warning that the "Big One" could strike the country any time, our government didn't prepare. This lack of preparation hampered timely delivery of relief. Since local elections have not been held for the last 15 years, there were no local elected representatives who would have known every house in the ward or the village and coordinated with relevant stakeholders to deliver relief to the needy.

However, all is not lost. There is plenty to learn from this disaster. The government can coordinate with all stakeholders to immediately deliver necessary materials like tarpaulins, tents, edible foods, clean water, and medicines to the needy. This will restore victims' faith in the government and help stop foreign elements from meddling.

Foreign donors didn't want to donate their money in the Prime Minister Disaster Relief Fund citing that it would be misused;and slow delivery, given Nepal's ponderous bureaucracy and red tapism. To alleviate such fears, the government should make all transactions transparent and cut red tape.Unnecessary expenditure in the form of overhead costs must be minimized.

Almost 30 percent of annual development budget remains unspent every year. All that unspent money can be used for reconstruction. PM Sushil Koirala has requested all countries to open their tills for rehabilitation and reconstruction. He should also ensure that this money would be used judiciously. The survivors need encouragement to build their homes and till their own lands. They don't want to live under tents and look for relief, forever.

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