Fellows' Perspectives: Responding to Disaster in Nepal

A helpdesk volunteer trained by Accountability Lab assesses needs in a camp. Courtesy of Accountability Lab.

Blair Glencorse

The two earthquakes and aftershocks that occured in Nepal this spring comprise one of the worst disasters to strike the region since 1934. As the country moves forward into recovery and the world seeks to respond, many questions emerge about the funding and accountability of these relief efforts. Blair Glencorse and Ben Smilowitz are two Echoing Green Fellows who work to empower people with accountability information and tools to improve the efficacy of relief efforts and governance. We asked them to share their thoughts about what they believe will help the region emerge stronger post-recovery.

Mobilize Nepali Youth to Drive Recovery

The earthquake in Nepal last month displaced an estimated 2.8 million people – but when our team of volunteers visited shelters set up by the government for those made homeless, they found them empty. This is stark example of the need for a system to help earthquake victims understand the resources available to them and to help government and non-government actors make sure their relief efforts target those who need them most.

Recent experience after the earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti indicates that if disasters of this sort are not handled in a citizen-centric way, trust in government is eroded over time. This can entrench existing inequalities, exacerbate poverty and undermine stability. After a decade long civil war, that is the last thing Nepal needs.

I’m on the ground with the Accountability Lab and we’re already seeing these problems emerging. Citizens in many of the affected districts are unaware of the processes being set up to help them; some recovery efforts are misdirected or ineffective; and mismanagement of funds and supplies is a significant risk. Many relief organizations are unfamiliar with the local context, do not speak the language and often have very little information on or patience for getting their supplies to those most in need.

In response, we’ve deployed mobile citizen helpdesks – now rolling out across the fifteen worst-hit districts. There is incredible community resilience in rural parts of Nepal, and the helpdesks consist of trained student volunteers who provide citizens with the information they need to navigate the relief process and hold those in power accountable for decision-making during this critical period. Over time, we are going to use the mobile citizen helpdesks to provide the basis for local “follow the money” networks of citizens – who will track financial flows down to communities and make sure the billions of dollars pledged for the recovery process are used in transparent ways.

In the village of Sankhu, for example, twenty kilometers east of Kathmandu, we discovered that certain groups had hoarded enough relief supplies for six months, while their neighbors received nothing. The helpdesk volunteers connected aid groups to a community formed ‘Disaster Relief Council’ to minimize this misuse of supplies. These community councils are seen as fair and legitimate so are acting as a bulwark against the political influence of local leaders to direct relief supplies to their own electoral constituencies.

With our partners at Local Interventions Group and Sparrow SMS we’re also working within the Prime Minister’s office to help the government synthesize and map calls coming in (almost 25,000 calls to date) through its public 1234 helpline number and the free 6040 SMS short-code. This allows the team to better direct the mobile helpdesks to the areas in most need and point citizens towards the relevant local government units and relief agencies such as the Red Cross and the World Food Program.

The energy of the young volunteers is infectious- while there is no doubt that Nepal faces significant challenges as it seeks to rebuild after this earthquake, the development of a committed, socially conscious youth is certainly not one of them. With the mobile helpdesks they are solving problems and building accountability from the bottom up. In this there is real potential for this disaster to be turned by young Nepalis into an opportunity for a better future.

Empower Local Organizations to Lead

Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) recently surveyed about 80-100 groups (a mix of Nepali Civil Society, Nepali diaspora, and International NGOs) and the responses are trickling in. While it’s unclear how the strong aftershock of the earthquake will impact the international response to the disasters that have hit the region, some of these organizations may be slowing down their responses and others have yet to arrive to do the work.

It’s already clear that most of the groups soliciting donations from afar do not yet have capacity to deliver services on the ground. Some do, but most don’t. The donor public has been giving to organizations that are not explicit about whether the donations they are accepting will be used to help Nepal or “any future disaster elsewhere.”  In response to this lack of clarity, DAP is now producing a report about the mixed and/or unclear appeals and lack of earmarking for funds given for this particular disaster.

Our concern is making certain that in times such as these, where there is extended need across the board, that funds are used responsibly, and for the reasons donors expect. For example, we have learned that a big name group has already stopped “soliciting” donations for Nepal relief — yet people continue to donate, not knowing solicitations have ceased, and so those dollars raised are almost certainly not going to be earmarked for Nepal relief.  Donors who want to help Nepal need to be very careful that an organization is specifically earmarking donations for Nepal.

The local civil society organizations in Nepal should be empowered to lead this response. Ultimately, the Nepal military and outside military assets will have more capacity than most INGOs. Just because an organization did well after a disaster elsewhere does not mean they’ll do well in Nepal.

Accountability efforts like Disaster Accountability Project and Accountability Lab should not be overlooked for donations and support. The more we advocate for a more effective response, relief, and recovery, the better the overall outcome for all survivors.


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