When I look at a government directive issued a month after the April 25 earthquake, my faith that Nepal won’t turn into Haiti is badly shaken. The 15,000 rupees per family that was supposed to be distributed as immediate relief for constructing temporary shelters still hasn’t reached the majority of people affected.

Such sloth won’t help at a time of crisis; it will only create resentment toward the state. The monsoon is nearly upon us. It will become very difficult to bring food to remote villages. Yet no information has been made public regarding where and how food is being stored. If the attitude of bureaucrats and cadres who run the state remains unchanged, perhaps we won’t be able to save Nepal from turning into Haiti. (Billions of dollars in aid money poured into Haiti after the earthquake there, but reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts failed. The mismanagement of the American Red Cross is a pertinent example of inefficiency and waste.)

On the other hand, the spontaneous and proactive participation by youth in social service groups—in spite of being discouraged by the government—fortifies my faith that Nepal will never turn into Haiti. The entire world can learn from the selfless dedication, sacrifice, and thoughtfulness shown by the hundreds of thousands of volunteers across this country.    

Spontaneous volunteers

Although the security forces were involved in rescue efforts, other sections of the state were frozen into helpless inaction after the destruction wrought by the earthquake. Large INGOs were busy formulating strategies to raise funds by using the Nepal quakes. But thousands of young volunteers grabbed whatever they could and jumped into action to assist the affected. In other countries, too, volunteer groups mobilized to collect relief materials and funds. Young people who had grown up in the cities and returned after studying abroad lied to their parents to risk their lives and rush to places like Barpak in Gorkha or a remote village in Sindhupalchowk—places they wouldn’t have ventured to under normal circumstances. If such youth volunteer groups and the small local and international social organizations that helped them with material assistance didn’t exist, the situation immediately after the earthquake would have been unimaginably dire. It would have been impossible to distribute food and tarps to the affected. It would have taken at least a month to accomplish what they did in a week. The government hasn’t managed to distribute in a month the 15,000 rupees it said it would distribute immediately. Let’s not even mention other forms of assistance.

If the security forces had been tasked with all the responsibility of distributing assistance, they too would have been overwhelmed. Most civil servants appeared very busy trying to make the distribution of relief material more complicated and difficult. The initiative shown by political cadres in building temporary sheds should be appreciated, but they too are making the distribution of relief supplies more difficult by demanding their share of the loot. The attitude of political cadres to rent-seek the moment they enter the process, and of the bureaucrats to give more importance to petty rules than to the lives of the citizens, has made the process of distributing relief material difficult.

Identification papers and 15,000 rupees

Examine the process of distributing the 15,000 rupees that the government said it would disburse to people affected by the earthquakes and you realize that the government is in fact not even aware that there have been devastating earthquakes. These are the steps the process requires before people can receive the money: An assessment mechanism will be created; the damage caused by the quakes will be assessed and verified; the head of the household for each family will be identified; a photo-ID will be distributed; and then, finally, after ascertaining that the family doesn’t have another house elsewhere, 15,000 rupees will be provided. 

Very likely, those affected will have to go to the village development committee (VDC) or ward office of the municipality to have identification papers made and to collect the money. Likely, the affected will have to get photographs taken for the ID themselves. Among them, the disabled and injured, and those incapacitated in other ways, will not be able to reach the VDC office or the ward office. Who created such an inhumane and impractical process? The money still has not been distributed successfully because this is such a lengthy and complicated process. Many of these formalities could have been completed during on-site inspections to collect data on damage caused by the quake. It could have been possible to use a single record to collect all the personal information about an affected person and immediately hand over the allocated 15,000 rupees. If this process had been established, in nine days at the most the money could have been distributed to all the wards of a VDC. Photographs could have been taken while handing over the 15,000 rupees, and identification papers with photographs could have been printed upon returning to the office.

If the intention were not malicious, it shouldn’t have taken this long to distribute the money. If anybody loses their life because they are deprived of a shelter due to delay in distributing this money, the moral responsibility for that lost life will be with those who are leading this government. If such a day comes, they will no longer have the moral right to continue leading the government.

The weak get bullied

We’ve heard already that the UN has collected more funds in the name of the quakes than the Government of Nepal. But the Government of Nepal has issued a directive that discourages smaller organizations and volunteer groups that work with minimal costs to serve people affected by the quakes.

The daily alert from Google titled “Nepal in News” contains news about numerous small groups that are raising funds for Nepal. If it is the intention of the government to stop all such groups, it should issue a formal declaration. But to do so would not be in the interest of the people affected by the quakes. If the government’s intention is to coordinate in order to ensure that assistance reaches everywhere uniformly or reaches places that have greater needs, then it should show better sense about it. It should prioritize the good of those affected above all else. And it should encourage those who raise funds or bring funds to direct them toward areas that have been prioritized by the government. If the government insists on being high-handed or if it thinks it can persuade through illogical stubbornness, it will find that nobody will help where the government wants. If it creates more obstacles, either the generous donors around the world will stop donating or they will have to find ways to circumvent the government. And, in Nepal, government ministers often instruct and assist in circumventing government scrutiny. Those who want to avoid both of these situations will donate to large organizations. If that happens, the funds that should have reached those affected by the quakes will be spent in paying for the salaries and privileges of foreign employees. If the government really wants to coordinate the relief effort, it must adopt a process that is acceptable to everybody.

What needs to be done?

First, determine what rebuilding means in the context of the VDC or municipality ward. How many houses have to be built? If relocation is necessary, where will the settlement be relocated? How have schools, health posts, and other social services and structures been affected? What needs to be done for rehabilitation? How much funding will be necessary? How much of that is available as personal and government resources and labor? Find answers to these questions as best as possible.

What are the needs in terms of food and other requirements in places where it is difficult to restart normal routines? Are there people with special needs, such as people with disabilities, new mothers, pregnant women, people with chronic illness, elderly, etc.? What are their particular needs? How can they be addressed?

Determining priorities and criteria

What needs to be done first? If clear priorities are formulated regarding rehabilitation and rebuilding, it will not be necessary for CGI sheets to languish to the point of rusting. CGI sheets rust quickly if they’re left in the open collecting rainwater. If new mothers and pregnant women, people with disabilities, widows and divorced women, and incapacitated individuals are given priority, even a small amount of assistance may be sufficient.

Assistance and facilitation

Provide clear information on how the government will facilitate processes for people and institutions wanting to support such projects. Taxes could be waived on funds, and money deposited in appointed accounts could be channeled to the local government to be used in the specific locality and for the specific purpose designated by the donor. Necessary technical assistance could be provided for construction. If the government is committing only a part of the funds required, supporting institutions could pledge to provide the remaining amount. All these practices provide encouragement and motivation to the donors.

If the flow of information and facilitation is well coordinated, no individual or institution will need to come to Nepal to help. They can just send money. If possible, civil servants can be appointed as contact people for implementing specific projects, and their contact details can be posted on government websites. The Social Welfare Council is the appropriate institution for this: it has the required legal jurisdiction, and it has practical expertise. Donors could be asked to deposit money in an account with the Council, and the Council, at the recommendation of a local body, could transfer the money to the account of the local committee formed to implement specific projects. The local bodies could supervise and monitor the implementation on the ground. In most VDCs, all of this could be done online. In VDCs where this isn’t possible, civil servants with necessary skills could be deployed and an internet connection could be set up. Nepal Telecom can easily manage this process.

If the government lacks enough skilled workers to accomplish these objectives, young volunteers could be deployed. Four young volunteers deployed to an affected VDC with a laptop can prepare a basic database in two days. People leading the government have to have imagination! But as long as everything is directed by civil servants schooled in the Rana-era dictum that governing means the control over individual citizens, and is executed by political cadres who believe that politics is a glamorous profession that affords them access to wealth, position, and influence, neither policies nor attitudes will become people-oriented. And if policies and attitudes aren’t people-oriented, it won’t serve the interest of democracy or the nation.   

Favoring big fish

Just when large INGOs are busy amassing funds, the government is set to create rules and regulations to make things easier for them. Smaller organizations and volunteers have been busy procuring and providing relief right from April 25. Even if all the small organizations and volunteer groups across the world embezzle all the funds they have collected for Nepal, the amount will pale in comparison to the overhead costs of UN organizations, bilateral and multilateral donors, and large INGOs. 

If we examine the efficacy of their work, if we compare the cost and benefit of the work they have done against the funds they have spent, it will be clear how little small volunteer groups need in operational funds, and how effective they have been. I’ve never read anywhere that small and volunteer organizations embezzled the funds raised for Haiti. But reports about the funds wasted by large INGOs—especially the American Red Cross and UN organizations—are available widely online.

Wrong directive

The Directive for Mobilization of National and International Aid, 2015 issued by the Government of Nepal’s Ministry of Finance is wrong both in principle and in practice. Neither principles nor pragmatism allow for national and international non-governmental organizations to be put in the same category.   

When local organizations are barred from raising funds, large INGOs and UN organizations receive more funds. But these large organizations deputize their jobs to local organizations anyway. Apart from bilateral donors, no other organization procures funds from its own resources. Everybody else collects government aid or personal donations. The government’s directive doesn’t bar INGOs from appropriating for themselves the funds allocated for Nepal. The intention of the directive might be to stop local NGOs from appropriating funds intended for Nepal, but the wording of the directive doesn’t help clarify that intention. Nor does it stop bilateral donors from allocating such funds to large INGOs. It is ironic that the directive gives free rein to multilateral and bilateral aid agencies, which are rife with corruption and misuse of funds.

This shows that the people who formulated the directive are blithely unaware of the trends in aid collection and spending this time around. Small volunteer organizations all across the world want to avoid red tape and immediately accomplish their relief objectives by relying upon friends and trusted partners on the ground. This directive creates obstacles for them.

This directive mandates that organizations enter separate agreements with a different entity if they want to assist people affected by the quakes. What are the benefits of entering such an agreement? If, at the local level, social organizations have to facilitate all coordination, what is the utility of entering an agreement with the government? The Social Welfare Council is just such an entity, already established according to the laws of the land. If the Council has been ineffective, then change the laws or change the people in charge of the organization. But to circumscribe established laws isn’t appropriate in principle or in practice. It certainly isn’t democratic in any sense.

Which established law of the land gives the cabinet of ministers the right to issue this directive, which directly contradicts established laws? Under the rule of the law, everything must adhere to established laws. The Finance Ministry and the Home Ministry aren’t “super ministries,” and they shouldn’t attempt to be such either. Until and unless the Social Welfare Act, 2049 is annulled, any attempt to supersede it, as has been done here, is totalitarian. Totalitarianism doesn’t always announce its arrival aloud; it grows incremental roots through practices like this. 

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This article originally appeared on June 8, 2015 in the Nepali language newspaper, Nagarik. It was translated by Prawin Adhikari and Thakur Amgain.

Cover photo: A woman sits beside the tempoary shelter she built after being forced to leave her home in Laprak, Gorkha. Gyanu Adhikari/The Record