Without warning, I felt a subtle trembling beneath my feet, as if the entire earth were shivering from cold. Then my body started to sway — I was an involuntary trapeze artist, thrown into motion by the third story of a building with questionable construction history. A child screamed in the adjacent room.
I was in Kathmandu, Nepal on a humanitarian engineering trip to support earthquake relief efforts and had just experienced a magnitude 4.3 earthquake — a drop in the bucket compared to the gargantuan tremors that rocked the nation in April and May 2015. It is easy to lose hope when considering the impacts of those temblors: entire villages flattened, centuries-old cultural heritage sites destroyed, nearly ten thousand people dead, and hundreds of thousands homeless.
Classified as a Least Developed Country by the United Nations, Nepal’s infrastructure and economy are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. This dire situation echoes the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which left the country in ruins. International aid poured in, but haphazard involvement of ineffective NGOs and lack of engagement with locals turned the relief effort into a disaster unto itself.
Fortunately, Nepalis are resilient. They don’t need the pity of foreigners, but I believe they can benefit from having partners in the rebuilding process. Now that the initial relief period is over and many aid organizations have left the country, there is an opportunity to create sustainable solutions to support Nepalis’ perennial struggle to improve their quality of life. However, those wishing to help must be cognizant of potential pitfalls and exercise extreme caution to avoid repeating the mistakes of Haiti 2010.
General Challenges of Humanitarian Aid
Foreign aid efforts around the globe have been largely criticized as failures (for one scathing polemic, read Dead Aid by economist Dambisa Moyo). Aid often creates a culture of dependence, with the recipient communities becoming overly reliant on donors and oftentimes unable or unwilling to determine the course of their own destiny. Such paternalistic top-down aid suppresses local voices and perpetuates cultural imperialism.
Outsiders may find it difficult to empathize with local communities, ensuring that any “solution” will invariably violate some cultural norm. I once worked on a humanitarian engineering project at a rural Filipino village and a volunteer from the partnering NGO started a recycling program. He became frustrated when the villagers refused to help and called them “lazy.” What he failed to consider was that the villagers already worked full time jobs and had families to care for, and that scavenging waste is a socially unacceptable activity in their community. He did not properly understand the context.
The Situation in Nepal
Beyond general aid challenges, obstacles to effective rebuilding in Nepal abound. Most striking is the political instability, epitomized by the frequent bandhs, in which opposing political parties organize nationwide strikes and protests, bringing the entire economy to a halt. These protests often turn violent, and in one incident during my visit, rioters slaughtered seventeen police officers before pouring gasoline over the police chief and burning him alive.
There is also widespread mistrust of government institutions amidst accusations of inefficiency and corruption. I asked rural villagers in Sindhupalchok — one of the hardest hit districts — if the government had provided any aid. I was informed that because the villagers had constructed makeshift shelters out of corrugated tin sheets and tarps, the government did not consider them earthquake victims. However, the government did provide funding to rebuild the ravaged village school — a whopping total of US$40.
What aid is promised often cannot reach its intended destination due to rugged terrain and poor infrastructure. During the rainy season, many roads become impassable to all vehicular traffic. One village I am working with can only be reached by a 3-hour car ride along harsh, unforgiving roads followed by a 3-hour hike with 4,000 feet of elevation gain. No foreign aid has reached the village at all. Unfortunately, the most difficult to reach locations are the ones most in need.
Some communities have already started rebuilding, but the same processes and techniques are being used that allowed so many structures to collapse during the April and May earthquakes. Most survivors cannot even begin to think about shelter — obtaining food is a more pressing concern. Many staple crops, such as rice and corn, could not be planted according to typical schedules this year due to a change in weather and climate patterns.
However, there is social resilience. The Nepali people are extremely hospitable, sharing their homes and food with strangers like myself even when they have so little. They possess a positive attitude, a strong work ethic, and impressive resourcefulness. Many rural villagers have built temporary shelters that adequately protect from the monsoon rains, and they are willing to learn the skills necessary to rebuild their communities. There is no shortage of hope for a better future.
What Can We Do?
I believe we have a moral imperative to ensure all fellow humans have the opportunity to lead healthy, dignified lives while maintaining vitality of the natural environment. Here are a few guidelines for effective and sustainable humanitarian action in Nepal (some of which can be applied more broadly):
1. Take a history lesson from Haiti
To avoid another botched response like that following the Haiti 2010 earthquake, look to the successes and failures of relief and rebuilding in Haiti to see how lessons learned can be adapted to Nepal (such as earthquake-resistant housing designs)
2. Adopt a “searcher” mindset
William Easterly describes two types of development workers: planners and searchers. Planners try to plan everything from the top without knowing the realities on the ground. Searchers situate themselves within a community and seek local solutions to problems identified by community members. Be a searcher.
3. Empower local communities
Given Nepal’s weak national government, endeavor to empower at the community level. Focus on building the capacities of people rather than building things. Support development of small and medium enterprises, as decentralization is key for economic development amidst the challenges of trans-country transport.
4. Leverage the knowledge and skills of locals
There are already many talented and skilled farmers, artisans, designers, fabricators, entrepreneurs, etc., in Nepal. Many of them will have wonderful ideas about how they can improve their lives. Besides, nobody knows the local conditions better than the locals.
5. Support and partner with effective local NGOs
Support and partner with small, reputable NGOs that understand the local context and have close ties to local communities, such as One Step. Huge NGOs may be inefficient (the Red Cross has been accused of losing $500 million in aid for Haiti). Well-intentioned yet small NGOs that popped up in direct response to the earthquake may be gone in a year or two.
6. Consider the context
Identify cultural and political constraints, utilize local materials, and price solutions for the existing market. Treadle pumps offer an example of the consequences of ignoring cultural context. They resemble an elliptical exercise machine and improve productivity over hand pumps in developing regions, but in some areas the movement of women’s hips during operation was deemed too provocative and the pumps were abandoned.
7. Visit Nepal
Tourism will bolster the economy, and spending time with local communities will provide those wishing to help a better understanding of the current situation. Yes, there are some risks, but the Nepali people must brave these risks every single day. I am confident you will find, as I have, that Nepal is a beautiful and inspiring place.
Please join me in supporting Nepal’s rebuilding efforts. There are many ways to help, but if we fail to take informed action now, Nepal may suffer the same tragic post-earthquake fate as Haiti.