Tamang Family Emily Troutman Nepal Earthquake

One Year After the Nepal Quake and Zero Houses Rebuilt: Why I’m Not Surprised

1. Some international aid organizations are misleading donors to make it seem like they build houses. They don’t.

We saw it after Katrina, after Haiti and now after Nepal. When groups raise money after disasters they often implore donors to help “rebuild.” They mean it metaphorically. And it’s false advertising.

“The American Red Cross continues to help the people of Nepal rebuild their lives,” says their website.

It would take a savvy donor to read between the lines and realize they aren’t actually building houses. The American Red Cross did not issue a one year report on their activities, they issued a blanket report for all of the activities of the global Red Cross. But it’s clear from their six-month report that the money they raised, almost $40 million, is pretty much gone and they didn’t rebuild any houses.

2. If the government was capable of building safe houses, then the houses wouldn’t have collapsed in the first place.

Earthquakes don’t kill people. Poorly built houses kill people. Nepal didn’t have a safe housing code until 1994 and didn’t make it legally binding until 2003. The 500,000 houses that collapsed during the quake were constructed informally with mud and rocks. More than 8,000 people died in the quake, but every year in Nepal, more than 2,000 people die from landslides.

Aid groups can fill the gap between what people need and what governments can provide. But that means taking a more active role as ongoing advocates in at-risk countries. International organizations who fly in and fly out following a disaster have no financial incentive to stay after the emergency phase is over.

More money needs to go to local groups who will be still be there five, 10 and 15 years from now. My reporting on Nepal after the quake found that only 0.8% of funds from the UN Flash Appeal went directly to Nepali organizations. That is an unacceptably low number.

3. Governments almost never cooperate. But we always act surprised!

If a government is incapable of protecting people before a disaster, then chances are, they will do just as poorly after the disaster. Humanitarian response typically happens in the most corrupt places in the world because cities and countries with dysfunctional governments suffer more after a natural disaster. Nepal is no exception.

Nepal’s government did about ten things really, really wrong after the earthquake. They held up imports for political reasons, failed to resolve a fuel embargo, failed to initiate a reconstruction authority for almost a year, and slowed aid because of perceived political favoritism. They only got their Reconstruction Authority up and running a couple of months ago.

Given that Nepal has suffered from years of political turmoil, none of that should have come as a surprise. The window on politics-free aid is often brief. The aid community needs to anticipate that. And instead of spending precious weeks driving around and conducting “assessments,” they should make every effort to deliver durable solutions right away.

4. Emergency disaster response, as it is implemented now, is insanely expensive. And often unnecessary.

Aid organizations spent most of their donations on temporary measures. One of the things aid groups did after the quake was install a lot of tent and bucket latrines and teach people how to wash their hands. Many of these remote, mountain communities in Nepal didn’t have bathrooms to begin with. It was a known problem.

But the distinction between ongoing problems and emergency problems is often unclear and in the shadow of a natural disaster, everything can be reframed as an “emergency.” We end up spending emergency money on non-emergency needs. Aid groups with good intentions can raise lots of money to address issues that already existed. They spend millions of dollars really fast, count up the numbers of people they “helped,” take some pics, publish a nice report and then leave.

Why do so many organizations spend money on emergency solutions to non-emergency problems? Because it’s easier! They don’t know the country and they don’t have time to get to know it. In some cases, they are contractually obligated to spend money quickly. The UN Flash Appeal, a common financing mechanism, actually requires organizations submit proposals for projects that will be completed within three months.

We could avoid this outcome if more money went to local organizations and international organizations with long-term, ongoing community relationships. After the Nepal quake, millions of dollars went to high-profile global organizations with zero history in Nepal and no one on the ground. By giving more to the right groups, we could also avoid the excessive overhead expenses that come from subcontractors and duplication of effort.

5. Humanitarian aid groups need to make a sincere commitment to honoring both donor intent and the preferences of people in need.

The gap between what aid recipients say they need and what they actually get is unacceptable. Millions were spent in Nepal on Temporary Learning Centers, which are very expensive tents. When a school can be rebuilt for a few thousand dollars, why are we spending money on tents? If we truly need both, how can more emergency funds be put away, in trust, until local communities are ready to rebuild?

From a structural point of view, Secretary General Ban ki Moon calls this the “gap between humanitarian aid and development.” It is one of the key problems in disaster response. The UN reports that aid groups have spent about $331 million since the earthquake in Nepal. More money was probably spent but not tracked by the UN. “Where did the money go?” is an important question. But equally important is: “How can we give better next time?”

Suggestions to improve the response:

  • Aid groups need to stop using the word “rebuild.” Even if they think they will build houses, promising to do so isn’t fair when reality shows how unlikely it is. Tell us about it after it’s actually done.
  • The UN needs to change the Financial Tracking Service and require NGOs to identify the country where they are based when they apply for funding.
  • Aid groups need to make an ethical commitment to report their activities in clear, plain language. They should not report guestimates of how many people they “helped.” They need to tell donors exactly how many tarps or buckets they bought and delivered and what that activity actually cost per item.
  • Aid groups need to accurately identify what percentage of their costs go to plane tickets, rent, cars, salaries and other administrative expenses.
  • The international aid community needs to make clearer definitions of what constitutes an “emergency” in countries already suffering from extreme poverty.
  • Local aid groups need to be identified and vetted in disaster-prone countries before disasters happen.


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  1. A. Lyons

    First of all, many cheers to Emily Troutman for the insightful coverage of the outrageous situation in Nepal.

    Her piece sadly outlines major mistakes (in some cases willful conniving) of an aid industry motivated by high profits and high salaries with huge outlays of resources—the aid industry swooped in after the quakes and has irreversibly shaken Nepal by their mistakes (on top of decades of indefinite aid that has warped society).

    The Nepali people by and large know that they are being conned or rather used while they continue to suffer chronic poverty and marginalization and other ill-effects up to the ultimate cost of death for the unwitting (to give them the benefit of the doubt) crimes of an aid cohort in collusion with a dysfunctional status quo.

    The people are not blind to the malfeasance of the government and pampered, high-living, high-salaried aid entrepreneurs creating an aftershock of chaos Nepal. The aid industry and ruling class that they abet are benefiting off the weakened backs of a disenfranchised people who are basically on life-support.

    It is astonishing that after a valid critique and pointing out massive complications and dilemmas in the aid industry, Troutman then offers a list of suggestions….namely suggestions for giving a green light to the continued aid boondoggle that she has just revealed. That is, she admits deep troubles (troubles that have caused a prolonged suffering, in some cases lethal suffering, for the people), but rather than shut it down, she suggests moving ahead after the fixes.

    As far as I can tell, these suggestions are necessary but not implementable. They would require among other things
    a) transparency top to bottom from aid agents on the ground up to the decision makers behind the scenes and all people along a tortuous chain of implementation from ideas to implementation
    b) honest, Nepal-savvy aid agents and liaisons
    c) trustworthy local counterparts and liaisons
    d) omniscient oversight

    Without all of the above elements improbably in place, then intervention will not have a chance to be even remotely successful. In other words, the chances are still quite slim to nil given the difficulty in implementing the above, particularly proper oversight.

    Even if possible, even under the best case scenario of all of suggestions neatly and cleanly in place (which is a long, long way off from a great proportion of groups trying to effect change in Nepal) aid would have to operate through a dysfunctional status quo to be allowed the permission to attempt to change her—this should be an immediate red flag and show-stopper—that is, going through the very dysfunctional status quo underlying the problems means that aid will itself be distorted no matter how well-intentioned it might be.

    Perhaps this is the main concern and take away point that can neither be overlooked nor escaped while operating under a dysfunctional system: aid operates through the governing system now matter how dysfunctional and illegitimate.

    That is, by working with and going through a dysfunctional system in order to be given permission to be operational, the aid industry takes an inescapable and unacceptable risk of being part and parcel of the very system causing the problems. Thereby the aid industry becomes associated with those prolonging a deathly suffering as they necessarily abet and collude with (knowingly and most often unknowingly) the dysfunctional system that allows them to operate in Nepal.

    As 2015 Nobel Prizewinner in Economic Sciences Angus Deaton points out:
    “Aid undermines what poor people need most: an effective government that works with them for today and tomorrow.”

    In other words, “Poverty is not a matter of experts, it’s a matter of human rights”, according to Economics Professor W. Easterly of New York University. Unfortunately, aid violates both ends of Easterly’s vital message. Aid sends in so called experts (curiously, many are illiterate about local customs and language) and aid undermines human rights by working with the ruling gang brutalizing it’s own people–a double whammy that goes against the very poverty that the aid industry is striving to eliminate. The local people are more than capable and talented enough to take care of their own needs and follow their own dreams–if given the chance.

    With all due respect, I am a firm believer that the greatest and most important change and perhaps the only change that will ultimately start the momentum in the other direction is that the ruling class get out of the way, in other words, a change in governance. Anything short of that, anything else risks abetting and colluding with continued mal-governance causing the problems that aid attempts to solve. Anything less leads to more of the same and is harmful to the people under the yoke of unethical decision makers of the ruling class and a misguided aid paradigm… not to mention the devastating effects on a swiftly vanishing culture, too.

    I truly believe that the easiest (and paradoxically most difficult) answer might be extraordinarily simple. Would that these aid agents and think tanks simply quit Nepal–they up and left Nepal and Nepalis alone. As Troutman notes in her assessment, the signals are clear and present that quake aid has severe problems. Why isn’t the aid industry aware of and heeding the signals?

    Although even if the outsiders did pull out and stop interfering (as Troutman keenly points out, intervening with scant knowledge of the issues, people, language, culture and society that they are attempting to alter), even so, the elite, entitled and empowered ruling class isn’t about to cede any power. Still, at least a source of major external funding would dry up and that might be a watershed first step to make the ruling gangsters more answerable to internal forces and entities, namely the people, rather than external entities and forces.

    Unfortunately, there is too much money and leverage already woven into the warp and weft of the fabric of the power structure, and the quakes have allowed unethical players to weave an even more entangling pattern.

    When I last was in Nepal in April 2016, it was the worst that I have ever seen it there–from the spirit and morale of the people to infrastructure, state of political and economic activities, the web of political and foreign entanglements and money grubbing interplay…widespread disasters–perhaps the country needs to totally bottom out before going the other direction –dismally, that would mean more deathly suffering as collateral damage to a long suffering, long-disenfranchised people).

    The Nepalese people and culture are not forever immune…the cultural ethos may be soon lost if it hasn’t been already–the ‘bad guys’ are winning big at this point which means the people are losing big…not a few of them their health and lives.

    As Economist Dambisa Moyo from Zambia cries out “Let my people go!” in reference to the indefinite aid paradigm that has decimated countries it has touched in Africa. Her data-driven books Dead Aid and How the West Was Lost outline the incriminating evidence.

    At any rate, that’s the looking glass through which I peer. Perhaps I am a pessimist– that might be an entirely accurate label of my cloudy outlook. At least I hope to be somewhat of a realist, too. It is a pretty hard outlook regardless.

    Cheers for considering this response that is perhaps too long winded—too impassioned about the effects of aid, corruption and exploitation on a country and people whom I love and admire.

    More reading about this topic can be found at Nepal’s Lost Horizon (http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2016/07/22/post-quake-nepal-is-still-reeling-1-year-later-for-all-the-wrong-reasons/)

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