May 12, 2015 Sujeev Shakya

Looking Ahead

The politicians are back making statements. Some words that had a two-week hiatus are back again. Political debates are back on social media. We know Nepal is limping back to normal after two weeks. While the elected coalition government was rightly lambasted for its lack of coordination, various government mechanisms worked tirelessly. The Army, Police, and Air Traffic Control displayed their potential; the government telecom and power companies worked relentlessly; and even bureaucrats worked tirelessly round the clock. The quake, thus, provided an opportunity to introspect into what had happened and what is required to get Nepal back on track.

New Age Volunteerism

There were scores of selfless volunteer groups that worked tirelessly. It was really interesting to see volunteers purchase their own food and water, fill up their fuel tanks with their own money, and make zero overhead relief work possible. While there were banner hosting people who were busy taking #Relfies (selfies during relief distribution), most of the volunteerism was a spontaneous networking to get through to the supply chain, demand identification, and get zero overhead delivery right. The processes were transparent, as most of the demand and supply was broadcasted over social media, taking accountability and transparency to the next level.

This really sets the stage for international organisations that have the global expertise of fund raising and delivery to take relief and rebuilding to the next level. Like these volunteer groups active on social media, it will be an opportunity for international organisations to deliver with new levels of transparency and accountability. While everyone understands zero overhead is quite impossible in large-scale operations, the competition will be to see who can deliver the best at the best overhead. Gone are the days where 70 paisa was used to deliver 30 paisa of aid. There will be voluntary groups emerging that will surely keep everyone on their toes. This will also help the government, as it is wary of a post-Haiti-like experience, where a lot was wasted due to a lack of coordination.

New Institutional Mechanism

Despite assurances from key people in government and the bureaucracy on the utilization of the funds from Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, the dismal past experience and the glaring criticism of All-Party Mechanisms (APM) makes people wary of contributing to the fund. International funds are being routed through bilateral and multilateral agencies or international NGOs. If the government wants to break the jinx, then the time is right for an institutional arrangement to be made where independence, continuity, and transparency will be the tablestakes.

There is a leaf of learning from the creation of the Investment Board. A similar institution could be created to manage the funds and engage in rebuilding. This institution’s chief should not change with a change in government.

If the political parties are really serious about rebuilding Nepal and not their party coffers, then they must really push for a mechanism that will last the next 10 years. The private sector, civil society, and international organizations can help through selfless service in this mechanism. This will not only bring in more support to Nepal, but also the investments that are required to accelerate economic growth and development. Prior to the earthquake, it had been identified that $120 to $150 billion is required as investment in Nepal till 2030. Rebuilding efforts will only expedite building a foundation for such future investments.

An Entrepreneurship Focus

Natural calamities bring in a wave of handouts and many a time, countries get complacent and look for more free money, rather than investments. People do not want to learn how to fish and are satisfied with the dole of fish they get from competing agencies. Nepal is a country where a state that can finance smartcard-based driver’s licences through revenues will wait for years for an aid agency to develop and execute a similar project.

It is, thus, time to take entrepreneurship development and creation of jobs more seriously. Heritage site restoration will require thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers who can be paid salaries at par with what they earn in the Middle East. There is also an opportunity here to create institutions that will train these people. Similarly, people need money to restart their lives, be it for building their livestock inventory or a seed bank and agricultural inputs.

Rather than free handouts, there has to be a facilitation of quick and very low interest loans and other funding tools. Similarly, the government can provide tax breaks and investment incentives for large private sector companies willing to invest in industrial facilities in affected areas. These would create jobs that will help people earn and repay the loans they will have to take to rebuild their homes and lives.

The biggest lesson from the quake has been that of unsung heroes. A majority of volunteers did not want a photo-op; they did not sponsor ads on social media on the work they were doing and we don’t know the names of a vast majority of them. The next phase of rebuilding will have to be done in a similar manner. Our obsession with banners and stickers on vehicles while prioritizing media face time may not provide desired results. The new Nepali generation is ready to deliver; we just need to provide them with the framework to feel encouraged to contribute.

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