What Happened to the Aid? Nepal Earthquake Response Echoes Haiti
You feel your throat close up. You feel the blood drain from your face. You feel sick. You hear the low growl of the buildings moving from their roots. You hear the clicks and clacks of small things falling; you keep your eyes open for the big things. You look up. You want to run. You are frozen.
It seems to get worse. The ground’s shaking turns into a deep churning. You grab onto the person next to you, the shopkeeper, whom you suddenly love. It’s much easier to love a stranger than you imagined it would be. You cling to each other in the doorframe. He whispers in a language you don’t understand. He is praying.
When the earthquake subsides, you move quickly but with caution. You want to see if the people you know are okay. You want to see their faces and look into their eyes. For a little while afterwards, the people on the streets are nicer to each other. They forget, for a minute, about all the things that separated them.
Then the shaking starts again. You feel the earth does not belong to you. You feel you never understood it at all. You are fully conscious. You are awake to what is. There are all the things you think you know. And then this.
A SAD CYCLE THAT IS REPEATING
I was in Kathmandu last month when the second earthquake struck. It was a 7.3 quake and the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. It shocked me. From 2010 to 2012, I lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and reported on the aftermath of the earthquake there. I wasn’t in that country when Haiti’s earthquake struck, but I shared in the trauma of grief.
Like many journalists and witnesses to Haiti’s recovery, the experience left me angry and perplexed. I spent months in the camps, writing about Haiti’s pain. I saw so much work done, so much money raised and so little achieved.
Last week, with a saddened heart, I read ProPublica and NPR’s story about the Red Cross in Haiti. The organization raised $500 million, the writer found, but only built six houses. It wasn’t just the Red Cross that faced problems building in Haiti, as I’ve reported here and elsewhere over the years. And this level of inefficiency isn’t isolated to that particular disaster.
For the past five years, I’ve been traveling to areas struck by earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters, all around the world, listening and seeing if the world has lessons for Haiti—if there is an answer we missed or a solution nearly in sight. In Nepal, I was shaken. I learned that Haiti’s experience will repeat. It will repeat in every disaster until donors demand change.
SIGNS OF DEFORESTATION, A CHANGED LANDSCAPE
In Nepal, I spent most days visiting the district of Sindhupalchouk, where the majority of earthquake victims live. To find the most impacted villages, I drove four hours to the end of the paved road. Then drove farther. Then I hiked. Families live on hillsides and in valleys.
The country wasn’t beautiful in the way I thought it would be. It wasn’t the Nepal I’d imagined. The mountains, once lush, have been deforested for decades. Below 13,000 feet, almost all of mountain lands in Nepal were once forested. But for centuries, the elite rulers of Nepal funded their exploits with the sale of timber and elephants.
Timber is still an important resource, particularly for the poor, who use wood to fuel their fires and build houses. Outside Kathmandu, the hills looked ravaged, like a flood or a landslide waiting to happen. But I could see how the region appealed to some. The houses glowed orange and umber from paint made of clay. Many people painted their doors bright blue.
Along the Indrawati River and its tributaries, the laddered terraces were neon green with young rice. Trails crisscrossed the horizon. On one afternoon, I watched the clouds crawl into a narrow, green valley and rest on top of the small stream down below. In the mist, the dust settled, the smell of sweetgrass lingered. Two women walked over a swinging bridge.
DANGER LURKS IN THE REMAINING BEAUTY
It was pretty and serene, in its way. But if I sound reluctant to love Nepal, it’s because I find it difficult to see the beauty in unsafe places. I see the danger, first. I see the neglect. I see poor people that everyone knows are there, who pose for pictures with tourists, that are essential to the nation’s image of itself, but are still invisible.
In the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, the invisible people live in grass shacks on seaside cliffs. In Haiti, they live in shantytowns painted lively colors. In Nepal, they live in the mountains. Though the whole world is focused on them now, each year in Nepal, more than 2,000 people die from floods and landslides.
Near the village of Jalkeni, I met Asaman Tamang, whose extended family of 23 is sleeping outside under metal sheeting that was once their roof. They live on the terraced edge of a steep ravine. The tiny village of Jalkeni was completely destroyed by the quake. The town used to have about ten roadside stores and houses, perched on the top of a narrow mountain pass. When the earthquake hit, the buildings simply tumbled downhill. The Tamang family lost five stone houses and two latrines. To build back better, Asaman estimates it would take 200 to 250 bags of cement per house.
The total cost to rebuild everything, including the latrines, would be about $12,000. Asaman knows the costs because they have one cement house now and it survived the quake intact. What have they received from the relief effort so far? They have received two tarps. Asaman tells me he is looking forward to when the “big help” arrives. The villages like his, the ones that are most in need, will be hardest to reach.
REMOTE AREAS MOST IMPACTED
Although Nepal’s disaster differed in many ways from Haiti’s, the world responded as if it were the same. Under the impression that the Nepal earthquake was an urban disaster, countries sent 53 Urban Search and Rescue teams into Kathmandu, including 1,872 personnel and 177 search dogs from 23 countries. They were only able to rescue 16 people.
The majority of deaths happened in far-off villages and given the remoteness of the region, the teams didn’t stand a chance of responding in time. The earthquake-impacted area is 8,744 square miles, a size equivalent to the state of New Jersey. It includes some of the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains.
Isolated from gathering places and dependent on the food they grow, millions of victims, like the Tamangs, are “dispersed,” living next to the rubble of their former homes. Satellite imagery indicates more than 500,000 buildings collapsed. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 2.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Nepal and 864,000 are in hard to reach areas.
It seems like a problem made for helicopters. But today in Nepal, the U.N. has only three helicopters available to distribute aid, which is far too few for the size of the disaster and the demand. Helicopters are also vulnerable to the mountain conditions. On May 12, a U.S. military helicopter crashed, killing six U.S. Marines. On June 2, a commercial helicopter crash took the lives of four aid workers, three of whom worked for Doctors Without Borders.
A CHALLENGE TO REACH VICTIMS
The initial focus on foreign medical teams and urban search and rescue delayed the rest of the humanitarian response. Determined to find earthquake victims to treat, the teams dominated the use of planes and helicopters. The government was overwhelmed with the logistical demands of the teams and three days after the quake, they asked foreign medical and search and rescue teams heading to Nepal to change their plans.
But the sign-in sheet at the airport shows that no one listened. An additional 1,309 foreign medical and 152 search and rescue personnel arrived after the government asked them not to. Beginning on May 1, the search and rescue teams were directed to recover dead bodies, work that didn’t require their level of expertise. In total, the world deployed 117 rescuers for every 1 person rescued.
On May 5, the government finally asked medical and search and rescue teams to leave. Nepal was widely panned for this directive. But humanitarian updates from the World Health Organization show that many foreign medical teams couldn’t take care of themselves and often expected food, water and transportation to be provided to them.
In a weekly meeting in May, Dr. Khem Karki, representing Nepal’s Ministry of Health, admonished medical teams for not reporting where they were going or what they were doing. Most of the foreign medical teams left without reporting what they did in Nepal. Nine foreign medical teams came and went without talking to anyone. For aid organizations, the delays pushed them closer to the dangerous monsoon season. For earthquake victims, it means aid is unlikely to arrive.
AN INITIAL LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
What is most likely, as in Haiti, is that people will get tired of waiting and will rebuild the same houses that killed people. In Haiti, billions in aid dollars were donated but only about 9,000 houses were ever built. Most of the money never got to the people in need.
Where does the money go? If you donated a dollar to Nepal, your money may or may not even go to Nepal. The Disaster Accountability Project recently conducted a survey of organizations soliciting donations for Nepal and found that one in ten organizations won’t guarantee where the money will go. For example, the appeal for donations from ShelterBox, a charity based in Cornwall, England, includes a lot of photos of Nepal, but the donations don’t necessarily go to there.
In the fine print on their donation page, ShelterBox tells donors that all donations will go to a general fund―to be spent any way the organization sees fit. This is the same strategy that has plagued the American Red Cross over the years, with debates erupting after every disaster about how much money actually went where donors intended, most notably after 9/11.
The best-case scenario is that if you give a dollar to Nepal, 90 cents actually goes to the country itself. Most organizations identify at least 10% for other purposes. For example, Save the Children and CARE International clearly say 10% of all donations will be used fundraising, on administrative costs or preparing for another disaster.
REAL COSTS HIDDEN BY COLLABORATIONS
Even when 90 cents gets to Nepal, it’s hard to tell what it achieved. Multiple organizations often take credit for the same activity, leading people to believe the response is more robust than it really is. One organization pays for the helicopter, another organization hires people to drive the truck, and then a final organization pays for the tarp. All three organizations take credit for “providing shelter.”
For example in Nepal, Medair and Mission East are working together to deliver humanitarian aid. They have a complex relationship in which Medair takes on technical leadership and Mission East handles local civil society and procurement. Medair gets funding for shelter. Mission East gets funding for water and sanitation.
On their websites, they both take credit for the same activities. Highlighting their efforts to deliver tarps, water and food, Medair notes that by June 1, “we had provided items to more than 15,000 isolated people.” In Danish, Mission East writes the same thing, “Mission East has distributed emergency aid to about 15,000 people.”
There is no way for donors to know how many organizations are taking credit for the same activity. To date in Nepal, shelter coordination officials indicate that 762,000 people have received shelter of some sort, either a tent or a tarp. I added up the claims on the websites and press releases of 45 major organizations operating in Nepal. They claim to have reached 3 million people with tarps. The industry is essentially quadruple-counting the same aid.
QUADRUPLE-COUNTING THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
There is ample financial motivation to double- or triple-count aid. As long as each organization along the chain took “ownership” or provided direction for the aid materials, the IRS says they can claim the “fair market value” of the goods as part of their program activities. For years, this has been a known problem in non-profit accounting in the U.S. It is sometimes called the “pretend middleman problem” or the “monkey in the middle.”
Even where the tax write-off isn’t an issue, organizations often use vague language to pump up their profile. For example, ACTED, a French organization, reports on their website that they “distributed shelter material to over 57,110 people” in Nepal. While technically correct, most people would interpret this to mean that ACTED paid for the materials, as well. But the tarps were actually given to ACTED by multiple organizations, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Meanwhile, the IOM’s website says their shelter activities have benefitted “over 40,000 vulnerable families.” Once again, it was another organization that provided most of the shelter materials they distributed… The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) writes, “To date, USAID has delivered 6,200 rolls of plastic sheeting, providing much needed shelter and protection for up to 310,000 Nepalis.” Did USAID actually deliver tarps into the hands of 300,000 people in need? No, not really.
From the looks of things, these three organizations were responsible for almost all of the humanitarian response. Add up their claims and they’ve reached 570,000 people. But here’s what actually happened: The U.S. Agency for International Development donated 6,200 rolls of plastic sheeting. They “delivered” it to the airport. The materials were then given to IOM. IOM gave 350 rolls to ACTED. ACTED worked with local groups to give the materials out. They are all taking credit for the same activity. That means the delivery of one tarp actually costs at least three times what people think it does.
LOCAL GOVERNMENTS TAKE A CUT
The 6,200 rolls of plastic sheeting were likely “consigned to” IOM because it is much easier to get materials into a disaster zone when they are delivered in one fell swoop. A comparison could be ordering four books from Amazon.com and receiving them in four separate deliveries. From a logistics and cost perspective, it just doesn’t make sense.
“Consigning” deliveries and working in partnership also makes it possible for organizations to skirt local regulations. In Nepal, the list of registered foreign charities reveals that many American organizations raising money for Nepal are not registered. For example, Samaritan’s Purse and Americares. Without legal registration, it is illegal to operate in the country and it is very difficult to import goods.
Corruption and poor governance can make it impossible to get registered after a disaster hits. In Haiti, many organizations spent years trying to get approved and never did. Organizations with money end up “partnering” with organizations that already have their paperwork in order. If paperwork isn’t in order, local government officials can delay aid at customs and charge exorbitant fees to “store” materials. Aid organizations spent millions on this problem in Haiti. In Nepal, logistics experts are already warning organizations that this might happen.
Beginning on May 26, the government stopped allowing humanitarian goods to come in duty-free. The government of Nepal is now charging taxes on almost all of the incoming humanitarian aid that is not medicine. Only a few items, like tarps, are exempt and only for approved organizations with pre-approved distribution plans. Some essential items, like rope to hold the tarps, are subject to a 20% tax.
NEPALI ORGANIZATIONS LEFT OUT OF DIRECT FUNDING
Where the money goes after that is even more difficult to discern. Through an in-depth study of the United Nations Flash Appeal, I’ve discovered patterns that persist throughout disaster response. The Flash Appeal is the primary way for international organizations to raise money from government donors. It happens after every disaster. Some organizations, like Doctors Without Borders, don’t apply for this money. But most of the big organizations do.
In the Flash Appeal for Nepal, 78 organizations proposed 183 projects with a total funding request of $422 million. So far, they have received $123 million of their request. The 328-page funding request is an important learning tool because it includes project proposals and budget outlines, two items that charities rarely share with the public until after the money has already been spent.
In order to apply, aid organizations do not have to indicate the country where they are based. My analysis shows that only eight Nepali organizations applied for funding. Their request is a mere $3.5 million or 0.8% of the total.
LOCALS WILL BE SUPERVISED BY INTERNATIONAL AID WORKERS
Since 99.2% of the funds are going to international groups, the impact of these aid dollars will not be felt as directly in Nepal. The money will pay international employees and then trickle down to locals in much smaller amounts.
Despite the funding patterns, foreign groups simply cannot deliver aid without the help of locals. From speaking the language to navigating the terrain, locals are essential. International aid workers are expensive, so local aid workers paid local rates will end up doing most of the work. International aid workers will supervise.
In their proposals to the Flash Appeal, international organizations listed 83 local NGOs they will “partner” with to implement their plans. I looked them all up individually. Only a few applied directly for funds. Added together, the local organizations have more than 1,560 years of experience working in their own country. Nonetheless, in Nepal, as in Haiti, they are relegated to the role of subcontractor.
ADMINISTRATIVE COSTS ARE ACTUALLY HIGHER THAN 10%
Humanitarian organizations routinely say that administrative costs are no more than 10% of their spending, but the budgets in the Flash Appeal tell a different story. Humanitarian projects in Nepal will have anywhere from 10% to 50% administrative costs, plus the administrative costs of the subcontractors. Many projects list multiple subcontractors.
For one project, implemented by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), administrative costs are half of the budget. In the example from ADRA, the “Temporary Learning Centers,” which are actually just tents, are indicated to cost $76,174. Their plans state that they will erect 26 tents, at an estimated cost of $2929 for each. This amount could build a permanent classroom, but the plan is for tents instead.
Save the Children shows 30% administrative costs on a project to help small Nepali stores get back in business. Eight organizations are identified as implementing partners. Save the Children’s promotional materials promise that their projects spend no more than 10.6% on administration. I asked Save the Children about the discrepancy between what their website claims and what they actually spend on administration.
In an email, David Hartmann, Save the Children’s Media and Communications Officer in Nepal told me, “The 10.4% number is an average of all of Save the Children’s programs, including development which make up the bulk of our programming.”
He explained, “Emergencies always have higher support costs than development programs and this one in particular given the geographical/climatic challenges of delivering aid.”
SHELTER DOESN’T MEAN “HOUSES”
If you gave a dollar for Nepal’s earthquake recovery, you can guess 90 cents made it to the country, then 20 cents went to Nepal government taxes. A further 25 cents, optimistically, went to administrative costs for the main contractor. Then, perhaps, 15 cents or more for the administrative costs of the subcontractor. Best case scenario: you have 30 cents left.
If the grand total of the UN’s Flash Appeal is $422 million, the 30 cents scenario means that there’s still a lot of money left over. It’s $127 million. So how will that money be directed? The funding is split several ways. Food aid will receive the majority of the funds. Shelter will receive only 23% of the total funds raised. In essence, just seven cents out of the dollar you gave. The money will not be used to build houses.
Despite millions of dollars being earmarked for “shelter and non-food items,” shelter is defined very narrowly in this context and overall it doesn’t mean houses. In an online news release, the organization ACF writes, “Our teams are on the ground helping rebuild earthquake-affected communities.” But the phrase is meant figuratively, not literally. ACF has provided emergency shelter materials, psychosocial counseling and food aid. They are not laying down bricks.
The idea of houses is so far off that the Shelter Cluster, which coordinates the activities of the international community, isn’t tracking or counting the rebuilding of houses at all. Organizations that operate outside the norm are not invited to apply for group funds. For the Flash Appeal, organizations were required to submit short-term plans that could be completed within three months.
REPAINTING THE BRIDGE
In humanitarian relief, tarps are considered a first line of action, even though it will take months and hundreds of millions of dollars just to get this done. The problem for Nepal, like Haiti, is that while the first round of funding is still being raised, the emergency nature of the disaster will deepen. Monsoon season has arrived, threatening more sanitation problems and the need for more tarps. Right now, less than half of the people who need tarps have them.
But like the maxim about the Golden Gate Bridge, once you finish painting, you have to start all over again. Because before the first funding cycle is over, the initial set of tarps will wear out and still more money will be needed to replace them. That’s what happened in Haiti and it happens in almost every disaster.
Nepal is trapped in a cycle Haiti knows well. Just this week in Nepal, the humanitarian community decided to extend their deadlines for emergency aid from three months to five months. This begs the question: If it takes five months for the aid to get there, was it really an emergency?
Meanwhile, the extreme poor get poorer and the “emergency,” to them, becomes everyday life. I have an impoverished uncle with badly managed diabetes and he often ends up in the ER for care. Going to the hospital for a chronic condition is expensive, and also ineffective. International disasters are no different. Emergency dollars cost more and do less than prevention.
FOR THE LACK OF CEMENT
The 8,000 plus deaths that happened in the Nepal earthquake were 100 percent preventable. Entirely, totally, completely, utterly preventable. Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings do. A little bit of cement could have solved the whole thing. Almost all of the people who died in Nepal were living in houses made of mud and rocks.
People like to say the earthquake victims’ houses were “traditional.” But they weren’t. Nepali people traditionally made houses using two kinds of bricks. Both were specially crafted with methods forgotten by the masses. For beams, they used strong wood, custom cut. These days no one can even afford bricks. Instead, they build their houses like they build their lives, with whatever they can find. They take rocks out of the ground, they make a paste out of mud and then they stack the rocks up. They hope for the best.
UNESCO studied traditional buildings in Nepal in 2003. Researchers found that the adobe homes in the hills of Nepal weren’t even safe enough to test for earthquake resistance. The roofs weren’t connected to the walls. The walls weren’t connected to the floors. The floors were made of dirt.
The REACH Initiative, a project of ACTED, surveyed the earthquake-hit areas of Nepal this month and found the same results. More than 65% of the houses in the impacted districts were made without cement. Of those, 99% were either destroyed completely or very badly. Of the houses made with cement, only 3% collapsed.
CAPABLE OF MORE?
Nepal’s startling numbers about the inequality of earthquake safety reflect the global reality. GeoHazards International, a group that tracks earthquake preparedness, has found that each year the number of deaths from earthquakes in industrialized countries goes down. Meanwhile, in the developing world, the death rate stays the same.
Do the Nepali need tarps? Perhaps, yes. If I were living outdoors in a monsoon season, I think I would want a tarp too. But what if they had a choice between tarps or cement, then what would they choose? If I had to decide for myself, I’m not sure what I would do. It doesn’t matter anyway because recipients don’t get to decide, foreigners do.
Last week I talked to my friend Peter, from the village of Takara in Vanuatu. His village was destroyed by a hurricane in March. Just last month, he said, the villagers got a long-awaited voucher from Oxfam to buy seeds and building materials. Many villagers live in little more than shacks.
“People started to recover very slowly,” he told me. “They will harvest their first garden crops in two months’ time. But the main help that we never receive was housing.”
I already knew. Building houses isn’t something these charities do. In a few months, I guess, Asaman Tamang will call me with the same bad news. I actually tried to tell him that the houses would never come, but he didn’t believe me. He imagines, like I did once, the world is capable of more.
After experiencing last month’s earthquake in Nepal, my sister asked me if I was reconsidering my life choices at all. Maybe it was a sign that it’s time to take a break, she suggested. I know other people hear this from their friends and family, too. When a disaster strikes, people often say, “Next time, it could be you.”
But it won’t be.
If I learned anything from Nepal or Haiti, it’s that the invisible people die first. When the next hurricane or tornado or earthquake hits, it will be the Asaman Tamangs and Peter Alberts of the world who end up dead. It will be the people still waiting for help from the last “emergency.” The families who never got a real house. The kids who never got a school.
For a little while after an earthquake hits, the people on the streets are nicer to each other. They forget, for a minute, about all the things that separated them. If only we could feel that way all the time. I felt the shaking, yes. I felt the fear. But I was safe. I cried because I was safe.