The international response to last month’s earthquake must not undermine the role of the Nepalese government.
The media narrative played out the devastating effects of the earthquake alongside the magnanimity of international donors. Report cards were soon published detailing the relief efforts of the most generous countries. Social media accounts of humanitarian organizations were abuzz with pictures of experts being dispatched to Nepal. Appeals for funds followed shortly thereafter.
In contrast, the Nepalese government came in for immediate scorn. Reports emerged of disgruntled Nepalese lamenting the government’s lethargic efforts to mobilize relief, while expressing gratitude for the international aid swarming the country. This frustration is clearly not without justification. The scale of the destruction caused by the earthquake is massive. More than eight million people have been severely affected and around one million are in need of urgent food assistance, according to the UN. And as reports emerge of the damage caused in remote regions, needs and tempers are only set to rise.
The efforts of the Nepalese government, however, should not be underestimated. To begin with, the openness the country has displayed in welcoming international assistance is remarkable. Compare that to Myanmar’s response in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when that country refused any outside help despite evidence of its enormous needs, which the government was unable to meet. In contrast, the willingness of the Nepalese authorities to accept international aid clearly demonstrated their intent to ensure that assistance quickly reached those most in need.
Poor and landlocked, Nepal is still coming to grips with a brutal civil war, which ended only in 2006. The end of the war paved the way for the establishment of a federal republic, after decades of monarchy. The country has, however, yet to finalize a constitution, as political parties bicker over key issues including whether the administrative regions should be carved along ethnic lines.
Despite these impediments, the government had taken steps, within its capacity, to prepare the country for an inevitable earthquake. International donors supported these efforts. Nepal developed a new national strategy, in 2009, to manage the risks arising from disasters. In fact, disaster relief legislation, which provided for the formation of relief committees at all levels of the government, has been in place since 1982. While the legislation focused on response mechanisms, the new strategy prioritized preparedness.
The exhaustive 2009 strategy clearly identifies the poor quality of construction as a key factor in exacerbating vulnerabilities and proposes stronger building codes. It also provides for training of engineers, architects and masons in constructing disaster-resilient buildings. References are also made to setting up teams of emergency responders.
Based on the new strategy, Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium was launched by the government of Nepal in 2011. The consortium brought together international development and humanitarian partners along with multilateral financial institutions to support Nepal’s disaster preparedness efforts. Among a host of activities carried out by the consortium was the adapting of hospital and school infrastructure to withstand the effects of earthquakes.
While these measures are clearly not sufficient, especially in hindsight of a disaster of such magnitude, it is misleading to suggest that Nepal was not prepared. Political impasse and corruption has certainly contributed to a lack of vigorousness in preparedness measures. But the disproportionate focus on Nepal’s inefficiency to manage the situation diverts from a more fundamental problem: lack of resources.
International aid, however, has reinforced Nepal’s development work. It constitutes almost one-fourth of the country’s national budget, according to the government’s 2013 figures. The United Nations and the European Union have played an instrumental role in promoting disaster preparedness. But critics say that aid for reducing disaster risks has largely circumvented the government, and has instead been funneled through international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Proponents, on the other hand, claim that the government lacks the capacity to absorb the assistance and its interventions are largely ineffective.
Samantha Jones and her colleagues, in a paper written for Northumbria University in 2013, noted that the proliferation of international NGO’s was creating a coordination problem for the Nepalese authorities. More fundamentally though, they claimed that the usurpation of disaster preparedness work by international actors was further undermining the government’s capacity. Moreover, they observed that many national NGO’s complained of donors favoring international organizations. While donors have reasons to be wary of the government’s effectiveness, the more they drive the disaster risk reduction agenda, the less the authorities will be impelled to own it.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, this problem will most likely worsen. As organizations swamp Nepal to provide relief and as the pressure to reach people in need escalates, government agencies risk being alienated in the process. This may imperil the already fraught relations between the government and its citizens and does not auger well for the stability of the country. In the emergency phase, where lifesaving assistance is desperately needed, humanitarian organizations must coordinate their activities with government agencies. In the long term, donors must work towards reinforcing the government’s capacity and supporting national civil society organizations working on disaster preparedness.
Despite all the criticism, the Nepalese government has taken some positive steps in recent days, including waiving custom duties for relief materials and facilitating humanitarian access. Recent reports suggest, however, that custom officials are delaying the clearance of relief goods. A reasonable amount of scrutiny is required to ensure that substandard or superfluous materials do not flood the country. But the government must ease bureaucratic restrictions, and in the long term, continue to lead efforts on disaster management.
Arjun Claire is a humanitarian worker, who has worked for the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department and Médecins Sans Frontières in South Asia. He is presently a research student at the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action. This article has been originally posted in THE DIPLOMAT on May 5, 2015.