In May 2015, an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 struck Nepal. Thousands were killed and injured, and close to a million people were rendered homeless. A year on from the earthquake Nepal is still struggling to rebuild. Why has the recovery process fallen short?
In the initial aftermath the response of relief operations was positive. Young Nepalis went out of their way to help others. Army, police and government institutions, such as Radio Nepal and Nepal Telecom, provided valuable help. The international community responded with overwhelming support, committing over US$4 billion in assistance. Nepal’s neighbours, China and India, each quickly made commitments and both played a major role in the relief process.
Then, the outlook changed. With US$4 billion to be spent, the mouths of vested interests and crony capitalists started to water. The National Reconstruction Authority saw a CEO appointed, removed and replaced. Politicians who had been absent during the relief process promulgated a controversial new constitution in September 2015, triggering another unexpected disaster.
Many Madhesis, an ethnic group native to the plains of Southern Nepal, felt that their political representation had been restricted by the new constitution’s changes to provincial boundaries. Protests near the India–Nepal border, based on Madhesi communities’ genuine demands for amendments to the constitution, brought about the border’s effective closure. Protests continued for 135 days, giving way in February.
Nepal is dependent on India for access to ports and supply of petroleum products. The resulting scarcity of petroleum products impacted all sectors, the biggest being reconstruction. Petrol shortages made it difficult to transport materials and provided the government with a new excuse for delays. The new government, formed after the promulgation of the constitution, allowed black market petroleum products to proliferate and ensured public sentiment against shortages did not threaten the government. The border blockade gave the government a further opportunity to whip up anti-Indian, Nepali nationalistic sentiments while turning a blind eye to internal corruption.
At the end of 2015, some of those in areas affected by the earthquake were still devoid of support from the government. People who could afford to simply went on with their lives; most Nepalis have low expectations of their government. Many Nepalis were similarly disappointed by the international relief effort. Some international agencies in Nepal, like those in other parts of the world, seemed more concerned with using the disaster to justify their programs and to capitalise on volunteer tourism than with finding the best method to help rebuild Nepal.
Since the end of 2015, the media presence has vanished, along with global interest. Nepal’s national Reconstruction Authority is still not yet functional. This is largely due to the politicisation of the Authority. The new government, for example, appointed a new CEO to replace the previous government’s pick. The newly appointed CEO has not been able to build an effective team as many bureaucrats have refused to join the new set up.
The politics of handling the US$4 billion donation stockpile have not changed, but another constraint has emerged. The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), Nepal’s apex anti-corruption body, has become more powerful. Their office location, Tangal, is now being referred to by national media in the same breath as Baluwatar, the official residence of the prime minister. The CIAA has undertaken numerous high-profile investigations, jailing and fining many former government bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the fear of such action from CIAA has become a good excuse for people to delay projects.
There are a few big lessons to take out of the earthquake’s aftermath.
One is that Nepalis expect very little from their government — it is ordinary people who take on the burden of rebuilding. In many areas, they are already doing so.
Another lesson is the importance of effective state management of international development assistance. In times of disaster, international development assistance comes from two sources: those who genuinely want to help and those who want to make ‘assistance’ a business. In some cases, it is impossible for governments to tell one from the other. Disasters breed opportunities to rent seek. For instance, some agencies have set up so-called ‘disaster relief’ programs that will essentially entail purchasing, renting or leasing vehicles for their offices. These programs do not provide any real benefits for those affected by the disaster. Steps must be taken to build resilience to this kind of activity and encourage entrepreneurial spirit in the wake of disasters.
India, as Nepal’s neighbour, was quick to help when the earthquake struck. But in the months that followed, its disruptive conduct on the border led to an economic disaster in itself.
Nepal has sadly demonstrated a case of what not to do when disaster strikes. Nepal’s political parties have used the disaster to perpetuate their grip on political power, while focusing on ways to funnel disaster relief primarily to their political supporters. Its story is, above all, one of state failure.