Who Is Really Putting Nepal Back Together?
Half a year after Nepal's devastating earthquake, its the smaller community organizations that are helping the country rebuild, while the giants of disaster relief lag behind.
More than seven months after a devastating earthquake in Nepal killed almost 9,000 people and left millions in need of food, shelter, and basic medical care, most of the $4 billion committed by international donors has not reached its intended recipients. Children cannot go to school, buildings remain unsafe and harsh winter weather is fast approaching. One need only drive through the Nepali countryside to see that many people in rural areas are still living under makeshift shelters using tarpaulin and sticks. Only the fortunate have tin roofs to help keep out the rain and, soon, the cold winter weather. The situation has only worsened in the past three months due to a nation-wide fuel crisis and political unrest along Nepal’s border with India.
Meanwhile, even the most respected international humanitarian organizations are under scrutiny for the percentage of charitable donations intended for earthquake relief that instead go to pay for overhead. Nepalis see fleets of new SUVs showcasing the logos of international NGOs on the streets of Kathmandu — visible proof of the aid operations that have set up shop in Nepal since the earthquake — but know that most areas of the country are still seeing little to no assistance. To be sure, there are legitimate reasons for global humanitarian organizations to maintain their critical global infrastructure and these important organizations must find ways to pay those costs. However, in the wake of an urgent humanitarian disaster like the Nepal earthquake, frustration with expensive models of aid delivery continues to mount, particularly when the needs of so many earthquake victims still go unmet.
Fortunately, there are both alternatives and complements to traditional models of disaster relief — approaches that can get aid to those in need quickly and do so at lower cost. And perhaps surprisingly, they can come from within relatively poor nations that experience large-scale natural disasters.
Poor communities themselves, it turns out, can play a quick and significant role in disaster relief if they have an existing foundation of community organization and trust on which to build. In Nepal community-led development efforts show what is possible when strong organizations are already in place. These models also offer a blueprint of how to build the resilience of communities around the world to respond rapidly and cost-effectively in the event of major natural disasters while addressing the ongoing needs of local communities related to literacy and education, workforce training, women’s empowerment, and civic participation.
Consider the following examples:
READ Global (led by the co-author of this article, Tina Sciabica) saw its network of community-own and managed Community Library and Resource Centers (“READ Centers”) jump into action within days — and in some cases hours — of the earthquakes. Operating in Nepal for more than 20 years, READ Centers are community-owned and managed, and offer educational resources and programs to improve literacy. Community members volunteer their time to serve on locally elected committees that manage the centers, and these committees determine how each center can best serve the people that live there. Because of their deep roots, they were a trusted resource after the quakes: The centers were places where villagers could recharge their mobile phones using the center’s solar power, receive relief supplies distributed by the centers, and for some, a safe place to sleep because their homes had been destroyed. Six of READ’s 59 Centers in Nepal suffered serious damage from the earthquakes with the majority of homes being destroyed in these communities, yet amazingly the centers mobilized more than 1,000 volunteers as providers of disaster relief in the days and weeks after the quakes.
Because the centers were able to move into disaster-relief mode so quickly, they were able to help other communities in Nepal, not just their own. With power and cell phone towers down for many days in some areas, it was impossible for those in Kathmandu to establish contact with many communities, let alone assess damage or help. Though helicopters were deployed to rescue (mainly foreign) mountaineers attempting to summit Everest, thousands of remote villages waited days for anyone to show up with supplies. But using READ facilities, local leaders were able to take stock across Nepal to find out who needed help. They organized groups of volunteers to collect food, clothing, medicine and funds to distribute to areas that were hard-hit by the quakes – driving several hours to deliver supplies and often providing the first relief to reach these communities. What READ Centers offered rural Nepali communities was the means to organize themselves to raise money and volunteer labor to build much-needed infrastructure where the community could gather safely.
The story is much bigger than what happened with the centers, however. Other community-based organizations witnessed similar results.
The dZi Foundation, another Nepali NGO that utilizes a community-driven approach, did much the same. The foundation is one of the only organizations working in some of the hard-to-reach rural areas near Everest (where some communities are a three-day walk from the nearest road), and were the only organization bringing relief to these communities in the weeks following the earthquakes. Because of the long-standing relationship in these communities, the dZi Foundation was able to hold 69 discussions with communities to assess damage and let the community decide what first needed to be addressed. The community groups decided that the most important priority was to get their children to get back to school, so dZi worked with volunteers from the communities to build several temporary learning centers. Although infrastructure and countless homes were destroyed, the communities themselves decided to prioritize the rebuilding of schools and have committed to volunteer their labor to that effort. Because education is their own priority, they have shown a great willingness to donate both money and time to ensure that need is met.
Practical Action, a UK-based INGO that works in a number of rural communities in Ghorka and Dhading districts, was able to provide disaster relief to several Village Development Committees (VDCs) through its 30 partner organizations that already had deep ties to these communities. Though Practical Action is not a disaster relief organization and did not launch a separate fundraising campaign for this effort, its relationships with local organizations meant that community members were willing to volunteer their time to help with relief efforts. The handling of logistics by local people rather than outsiders saved both money and time.
All of this happened against the backdrop of larger disaster relief organizations struggling to gain a foothold. For example in some areas, community members complained about large relief organizations failing to ask what communities needed before delivering large quantities of nonperishable food (dried noodles, etc.) that the community had no use for because they had large stocks of stored grain that would last for months.
Other organizations failed to engage local communities in their efforts, producing low-quality infrastructure that communities don’t value. For example, UNICEF gave many grants to INGOs to establish temporary learning centers, but foreign organizations with no prior connection in communities couldn’t mobilize volunteers to help with construction nor could they raise matching funds. These organizations resorted to using tarps or tents to create their structures — a solution that only works for a few months, and will falter once winter arrives.
The lesson in all of these smaller successes is that an existing social infrastructure and a trusted community hub can empower local citizens to organize and act nimbly. This is not something that happens overnight, particularly in countries where people have many unmet needs and governments have a long history of being unable — or in some cases uninterested — in meeting them.
Addressing community needs effectively — and building the sense of civic engagement that is necessary to sustain such activities over time — is time-consuming. But it also creates enduring community support and a sense of community agency. More pointedly, sustained commitment can do more than large amounts of money: For example, the dZi Foundation makes a minimum commitment of 10 years when it decides to works with a community in Nepal, and invests the necessary time in ensuring that the community is set up to continue programs and services after dZi’s financial commitment ends. READ Centers have existed in Nepal since 1991 and no centers have closed during that time. This level of commitment is unusual in traditional development agencies — it is difficult to implement given those agencies’ typical focus on the execution of discrete projects for a finite time-period, fixed at the outset — but its impact can be deeper.
The advantage of these community-driven efforts, however, is that they are relatively inexpensive and can even become financially self-sustaining. Each READ Center, for instance, creates sustaining enterprises that pay the ongoing costs of operating the centers (librarian salaries and Internet access, cost of publications, etc.). READ builds the capacity of the community to form their own partnerships with local NGOs and government agencies to ensure ongoing programs on women’s empowerment, livelihoods training, and literacy classes. Centers are sustained by renting tractors or storefronts, selling honey, providing ambulance services for a fee, or other products or services in demand by the local market. When compared with the costs of providing external disaster relief, let alone the effectiveness, the up-front costs to this approach are minimal. And, as an added and equally important incentive, such centers provide important support to people in rural and marginalized communities at times when there are not disasters as well.
At a time when governments and aid agencies worldwide are scrambling to figure out how to pay for both the surging costs of humanitarian and natural disasters, which totaled an estimated $24.5 billion in 2014 (up nearly a fifth from the previous year) according to the 2015 Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, as well as the costs of achieving the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals intended to alleviate poverty around the world, it is useful to examine models that advance both agendas at once. It is even more useful to highlight sustainable, low-cost, community-led models that come from within nations in need — and help them understand that they have more power to transform their own communities than they or the rest of the world had realized.
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Kristin Lord is president and CEO of IREX, an international education and development nongovernmental organization, and co-chair of the Alliance for International Youth Development. The views expressed here are her own. Follow her on Twitter at @kristin_lord.