Another Tragic Chapter in International Aid: Nepal’s Earthquake

After a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, a flood of international aid and pledges of support poured out from the international community. According to Time, there is no shortage of aid pledges: “$10 million from the U.S., $7.6 million from the UK, and $3.9 million from Australia, among others.” Search-and-rescue teams from around the world have been dispatched to Nepal to help with the relief effort – a 62-member team from China, 260 rescue experts and a 200-member medical team from Israel, and a 70-member disaster relief team from Japan. The US Marine Corps has similarly dispatched a rescue unit from Okinawa, which includes Ospreys, several UH-1 Huey helicopters, four Air Force C-17 Globemasters, and two Marine Corps KC-130s to ferry relief supplies and personnel to far-flung villages. Yet, in the absence of strong international coordination and leadership, Nepal, like countless humanitarian efforts before, will begin with the best of intentions and efforts, but ultimately end in long-term neglect and ineptitude.

The list of humanitarian failures is tragically long. The well-intended UN intervention to deliver food aid to a drought stricken Somalia in 1992 ended with American soldiers dragged through the streets during the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. In 2010, one of the worst earthquakes in history flattened Haiti, creating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. After five years and nearly 13.5 billion dollars, Haiti remains in ruins, suffering from a cholera outbreak, ironically started by Nepalese UN peacekeepers. Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) failed to manage the scale and severity of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2014. Senior WHO leaders, in a recent statement, admitted, “We can mount a highly effective response to small and medium-sized outbreaks, but when faced with an emergency of this scale, our current capacities and systems – national and international – simply have not coped.”

The fundamental failing in international humanitarian assistance is not incompetence or a scarcity of good intentions, but an absence of coordination and capabilities in the face of complex challenges. A shortage of paved roads has cut off some of the hardest hit regions of Nepal from humanitarian teams. Meanwhile, a series of bureaucratic hurdles has left the majority of relief and food aid in warehouses, waiting to pass customs inspections. To make things worse, the Nepalese government has a track record of corruption and ineptitude. After a bloody civil war from 1996 to 2006, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) trying to rebuild the country had to “pay ‘commissions’ of up to 50%” to receive grants, as politicians enjoyed “freedom to plunder with impunity.” Thus, despite the tremendous amount of aid devoted to the crisis, the Nepalese government continues to demonstrate it is ill-prepared to tackle the daunting task of coordinating the international effort.

Without strong coordination, each donor country is implementing a dozen different plans Nepal. Add in the myriad of private charities and foundations rushing onto the scene, and then the humanitarian landscape quickly grows crowded and disorderly. Therefore, regardless of the dollar amount, aid for aid’s sake will amount to very little. Take the lesson from Haiti – despite millions raised in response to the earthquake, reconstruction has been painfully slow, “and five years on, many sites in Port au Prince stand empty.” Humanitarian crises in the past have clearly shown throwing money at a problem isn’t a solution, and may even worsen a delicate situation.

Beyond the lack of coordination, current efforts serve as a temporary Band-Aid to a long-term socio-economic challenge. Reminiscent of Haiti, Nepal’s fragile economy, which relied heavily on tourism, is in tatters. The tourist industry centered on Mount Everest, contributing 8% of the country’s GDP and employing a million, is now shut down . Additionally, with planting season less than six weeks away, and monsoon season in roughly eight weeks, Nepal will need to rely on food aid for months, if not longer. And even if the international relief effort successfully clears the rubble, the country will remain in pieces. Thousands of Nepalese have no home to return to, forcing them to be homeless and displaced in their own country. Unemployment will also exacerbate the $1 billion to $10 billion dollars in damages in a country with a flimsy GDP of only $20 billion. The economic woes of Nepal will be harsh and enduring.

Although the situation is undoubtedly dire, there is a way forward in Nepal. First, the international community must establish a collaborative system of real-time coordination, building upon the 2005 UN cluster approach reform. Through a relief coordinator, the reform was designed to improve coordination and partnerships across various clusters like education, nutrition, and protection (UNHCRWFPUNICEF and UNDP). Nevertheless, the hierarchical system remains slow and ineffective in coordinating a constantly evolving humanitarian landscape. Thus, instead of a dozen countries roaming aimlessly in the Nepalese countryside or a bureaucratic centralized system, the UN needs to craft a communication system that allows decentralized collaboration and adaptability, where the strengths of each country and NGO can be fully leveraged. For instance, combining the legion of American air assets with the 70-member disaster relief team from Japan can produce greater results than two independent efforts. More than a centralized leader, quick, reliable, and networked communication and logistics system may prove the deciding factor in success.

The international community should also utilize emerging technology in innovative ways. Through crisis mapping, “digital humanitarians” around the world have “located 13,199 miles of roads and 110,681 buildings and added them to OpenStreetMap, an online, open global mapping platform that the United Nations, the Nepal Army and the Red Cross are using to pinpoint navigable routes into villages near the quake’s epicenter.” Used in various crises including West Africa and Syria, crisis mapping has proven invaluable in coordinating international aid. Similarly, drones, often associated with the US campaign against global terrorism, has been coopted by humanitarian firms like Skycap, senseFly, and Uplift Aeronautics. Humanitarian drones have assisted UN peacekeepers in the Congo and supported refugees in the Mediterranean. Thus, to solve the world’s hardest problems, innovation is absolutely necessary.

Most importantly, relief efforts must incorporate locals into the process. Far too often, the local population is excluded from international relief operations. Donors, both governments and NGOs, routinely bring standard aid packages without knowledge of a community’s specific needs. One village may need equipment to dig out survivors, while another needs blankets to endure freezing nights. Furthermore, understanding of “the context, culture, and internal dynamics of a disaster-affected community can help them enhance the relevance and appropriateness of the humanitarian response, including in areas such as identifying those most in need, or the resources already available within a community to help.” Additionally, local input is critical in shaping a long-term vision towards recovery and reconstruction. Relief efforts must be a convergence of local and international actors, combining insight with capability.

To successfully rebuild Nepal, the international community must fix the broken system of international aid.

Editor’s Note: To clarify and elaborate on the current UN system, changes have been added concerning the 2005 UN cluster reform.

Photo by VOA (Public Domain)

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