Rebuilding Nepal, from the Government Up

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that wreaked havoc in Kathmandu has opened up an opportunity for the reform the country so desperately needs.


The tragic destruction that struck Nepal on April 25 — the thousands killed and millions left without shelter and water by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake — is the product of not one, but two disastrous shifts. Indeed, before the lurch of tectonic plates collapsed city neighborhoods and flattened villages, Nepal suffered 20 years of social upheaval that stunted the government’s ability to meet its people’s needs. Years of civil war, which ended the country’s 240-year-old monarchy in 2008, has produced an incomplete peace and a series of weak governments headed by seven prime ministers in nine years.

Nepal’s earthquake is just the latest disaster to have its force multiplied by the fragility of a state; it follows the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that affected multiple countries, Haiti’s 2010 quake, and the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. And while a determined relief effort is obviously the most urgent concern, rebuilding is also an opportunity — and Nepal and its international partners should use the shock of this disaster to forge a fuller national reconciliation that might underpin more resilient, inclusive, and effective governance. Aid donors should design their programs to work across Nepal’s political divides and push Nepalese factions to complete the critical, unfinished tasks of passing a constitution and empowering local governments.

This earthquake was long anticipated. For more than a decade, Nepali activist Amod Mani Dixit evangelized about the danger, leading “earthquake walks” on the narrow streets that snake through Kathmandu’s poorest neighborhoods, pointing out the accumulating risk from poorly constructed buildings and tangled knots of power lines. International donors, the Nepali government, and civil society groups worked together to reduce such risks and increase preparedness for earthquakes. Programs run or funded by the U.N. and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) focused on training first responders, improving construction, and strengthening traditional mud-brick building techniques, especially in schools.

The recent years’ efforts may have saved lives. But progress was limited against the enormity of Nepal’s challenges: widespread poverty, formidable terrain, and the effects of civil war. A special, additional constraint was corruption, for which Nepal is ranked in the bottom third of the world by the monitoring group Transparency International.

Not for the first time, Nepal’s earthquake reinforces truths that the world knows but has been too slow to confront. Fragile states — those that lack accountable, inclusive, effective governments — are unable to develop their economies, manage their conflicts, or be resilient in the face of disaster. And every bit of human development achieved in such places remains fragile, too, at increased risk of being swept away.

From 1990 to 2010, the global anti-poverty campaign under the U.N. Millennium Development Goals halved the global population that lives in the most extreme poverty (on less than $1.25 a day). But poverty is now concentrating in the most fragile states, the overwhelming majority of which are fighting or recovering from civil war or similar violence. Fifty states identified as fragile by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are home to 1.2 billion people and 43 percent of the world’s extremely impoverished people, according to a report issued last month. That concentration could rise to 62 percent by 2030, the report noted. This nexus of poverty, conflict, and state fragility also coincides with deep vulnerability to natural disasters. Consider the following disparity: A 6.9-magnitude earthquake that struck at San Francisco in 1989 killed 63 people, while the 7.0-magnitude Haiti quake killed more than 100,000.

In Nepal, as in many countries, the fragility of governance is linked to conflict. More than eight years after signing a peace accord, Nepal’s political leaders have been unable to implement it. In November 2013, an election for a new Constituent Assembly that would act as parliament and write a federal constitution drew more than 70 percent of eligible voters. The massive turnout illustrated popular hopes for a more democratic rule — and a deep disconnect between this national aspiration and the narrower, political goals that appear to be driving much of Nepal’s political class. In the 17 months since the vote, Nepal’s political parties have remained deadlocked, failing to meet their own deadline in January for agreeing on a constitution to shape a new, federalized republic. A particular obstacle to responsive governance, and now to recovery from the earthquake, is “the absence of elected local government,” notes senior Nepali publisher and editor Kanak Mani Dixit in the Times of India.

The sudden international focus on Nepal, including funding, offers an opportunity to help build reconciliation and resilience in the country. It will be important to apply lessons learned from past disasters. The relief work of distributing goods should shift as quickly as possible to helping families regain livelihoods and restore their communities. As infrastructure and homes are rebuilt to more earthquake-resistant standards, donors should allow a percentage of the relief funds to be used specifically for reducing the risk of future disasters. Donors should let their funds be spent over several years, to avoid pressures to spend hastily and inefficiently. People are donating now, but the needs will endure for a long time.

Relief and recovery programs can be designed to gather together local government officials and community members to plan the rebuilding of their districts. Transparent accounting of expenditures through regular reporting — via social media or even billboards — can help rebuild people’s trust in their government. A joint national commission for recovery could gather Nepalis from across the political divides, alongside civil society and private-sector actors, to create joint problem-solving approaches that build bridges, both literally and figuratively. And funding pledged directly to the government should be contingent on the passage of a constitution and the granting of greater authority to local governments. Otherwise, everything will remain highly vulnerable to the next round of disaster or conflict.

Nepal’s recovery from conflict and now a devastating earthquake will take decades. The World Bank notes that recent civil wars typically have stripped away 30 years of economic growth from medium-sized developing countries; the Nepalese have now lost immeasurably more from this earthquake. My two decades of disaster relief experience with Mercy Corps and USAID, plus several years living in Nepal in the 1980s, underscore to me the depth of the emotions that Nepalis must feel about their sudden losses and those still accruing — human, cultural, economic, and spiritual.

At times, a shattering event can pull a country together with a new sense of common purpose. After the 2004 tsunami killed 160,000 people in the conflict-wracked Indonesian province of Aceh, the government and rebels there signed a peace accord that let reconstruction accelerate. Committed leaders dedicated to recovery helped propel Aceh into a new, more peaceful future.

Nepal has the chance to use this terrible tragedy for some positive gain.

Now is the time for international donors to double down on embedding resilience and conflict management at the heart of development efforts. And now is the time for leadership in Nepal to listen to the aspirations that voters expressed just 17 months ago for a more effective, responsive government that can help the country to weather the inevitable shocks ahead.


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