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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