That Nepal was struck by an earthquake was no surprise, but one month after the disaster the situation in the affected areas is an unimagined nightmare.
A few days ago, an investigation by members of parliament found that 70 Village Development Committees (VDCs) have received no relief, although most or all the houses there have been destroyed. These VDCs are administrative units, each covering several square kilometres and including perhaps 1,000 households, and many thousands of people. They have very little food or shelter.
On May 24, a hillside, which had been weakened by the earthquake and constant aftershocks, collapsed to block the Kaligandaki River, creating a rapidly expanding lake which threatens downstream settlements should the dam collapse.
The monsoon rains, which are due in a few weeks, will bring added misery to those without shelter, and are likely to trigger many more massive landslides, threatening destroyed villages with complete obliteration, and possibly blocking more rivers, with the risk of catastrophic floods.
Existing problems, magnified to crisis levels
In trying to understand what’s going on, and what could be done about it, it’s important to recognise that this emergency has, among other things, cruelly exposed the mess that Nepal was already living with.
Many of the worst affected areas received little, or almost nothing, in terms of government or donor-driven support even before the earthquake. Health, education and other provisions (such as transport infrastructure) were minimal. In a mundane way, life was already pretty desperate there, making people more vulnerable to calamity.
There has always been an incompetent administration and political class, which is obsessed with control of resources, but callous in its lack of urgency in providing for needy rural people. Many ordinary members of the security forces have been untiring in their relief efforts. But the army’s top leadership has displayed its undue power over the civilian government, and its chauvinism, by blocking the deployment of British Chinook helicopters which would have been invaluable to the relief effort.
While the donors behave like they have all the answers, they’ve never been able to deliver on their rhetoric.
In normal times, Nepal has prickly relations with its neighbours, who are perceived to threaten its national sovereignty; as well as with Western donors, who are perceived to want to undermine the status of the dominant sections of society.
The donors were providing over $1bn a year to Nepal before the disaster, around 70 percent of it channelled through the government system. But, while the donors behave like they have all the answers, they’ve never been able to deliver on their rhetoric.
They are, in fact, as deeply entangled in the dysfunction, and as much a part of the mess as everyone else. The complete failure of the multimillion dollar “earthquake preparedness” schemes of recent years is only one obvious and topical example.
This is not to say that nothing is new. Besides the unprecedented humanitarian disaster, there has been an unprecedented surge in voluntary initiatives. These are an important component of whatever relief has been delivered.
Clearly policymakers cannot expect to adequately address this crisis by offering more of the same tried and failed approaches.
Nepal was in the midst of a protracted constitution-writing project, which was supposed to deliver political and institutional reform. That was stalled before the earthquake struck, and it is a matter for the Nepali people alone how to complete it.
Where Nepal’s foreign allies can help is in recalibrating their dysfunctional and frequently counterproductive donor relationships.
This doesn’t mean that the international community shouldn’t send money, or shouldn’t work with the government. It should. But development experts have already started producing “lessons learnt” policy documents, which make no reference to Nepal’s 60 years of poorly performing international development interventions.
The government is seeking $10bn in reconstruction funds. It is the duty of the donors to study this country’s very specific history. Especially, they must learn from the mistakes that were made with the influx of aid money supposed to support the peace process after 2006.
What didn’t work before?
One major scheme of the past decade – designed to fund infrastructure construction – was called the Local Government and Community Development Programme. This delivered hundreds of millions of dollars through complex, donor-designed systems.
In the absence of an elected local government, committees of unelected politicians called “All Party Mechanisms” misused vast sums intended for the poor, for the benefit of themselves and their cronies. There is once again talk of reviving All Party Mechanisms now.
A few days before the earthquake, several donors withdrew from another major funding mechanism of the last decade called the Nepal Peace Trust Fund. It was never very clear how money from the NPTF was used, and the donors didn’t explain their withdrawal.
One of the NPTF’s programmes was intended to provide compensation to victims of Nepal’s conflict. In practice, many genuine victims received nothing, while district-level politicians and administrators gave the money to local supporters. This is worth remembering now when it comes to earthquake victims.
Give funds directly to the victims
Again and again, elaborate development schemes designed to improve targeting and mitigate corruption have stood between the poor and the funds, facilitating the abuses they were supposed to prevent. Frequently they’ve been so complicated that no one understands where the money goes.
The answer might be to make a substantial payment to every household whose house has been destroyed, and trust that they will spend it better than officials or others who claim to represent them would. Probably they would spend the money in the way households already spend remittances from overseas workers – on housing, health, and education.
The government and other agencies must develop suitable building regulations, and make sure appropriate technologies are available.
Giving reconstruction funds directly to survivors could cut out a great deal of corruption and administrative waste, and give true meaning to the rhetoric of “transparency” and “empowering beneficiaries”, which has often meant so little in the past.
Thomas Bell has reported on Nepal for over a decade. His new book of history and reportage is ‘Kathmandu’.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.