11-17 March 2016 #799

Deconstruction authority

The government should stop trying to be a control freak, and open up the space for earthquake survivors to easily rebuild their homes

Om Astha Rai

In just over a month, it will be one year since last April’s earthquake devastated central Nepal. The international media has started trickling back for the mandatory first anniversary story. You can already see their headlines: ‘One Year Later, Nepal Earthquake Survivors Still Await Aid’.

The government was ill-prepared for an earthquake everyone knew was coming. Some donor initiatives like the National Emergency Operation Centre were in place, but its protocols were inadequate to cope with the scale of the disaster. There was an almost complete absence of government in the first two weeks — politicians simply vanished.

But even in the absence of elected village and district councils and requisite resources, the local administration did a remarkable job in damage assessment and first response. Volunteers and relief groups self-organised spontaneously through social media and filled the gap left by the central government. There were other bright spots: the work of Armed Police and Nepal Army rescue teams, the Department of Health’s logistics office in delivering the right medical supplies and equipment to the right places, the state broadcasters in disseminating information. The much feared outbreaks of disease in the shelters did not happen.

But because no one was coordinating international relief, there was a lot of duplication, overlaps and inappropriate aid. Even though most destroyed buildings were mud and brick structures, we had emergency squads specialising in collapsed concrete structures. Rescue teams were stepping on each other’s toes in the capital, and were not where they were needed the most.

In the absence of accountability and leadership, the government produced one gaffe after another with ad hoc, confusing and contradictory directives that made us a laughing stock of the world. At a time when we needed all the help we could get, the government announced it would tax relief material. Then, it ordered all cash donations to go to the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund Fund. The Rastra Bank came out with the outrageous rule that individual donations would be ‘confiscated’ if it wasn’t sent through proper channels. The Nepal Army refused the Royal Air Force’s offer of Chinook helicopters when logistics was the main bottleneck for relief distribution. We didn’t even say thank you properly: the government abruptly and bluntly told relief teams to go home. One disaster was followed by another public relations disaster for the country.

Amidst all this, it was the National Planning Commission under the leadership of Govind Raj Pokhrel and Swarnim Wagle that stepped in to short circuit decision-making. It delegated authority and put together a comprehensive needs assessment report in record time for a successful donor conference in Kathmandu last June that pledged $4.1 billion.

But we became victims of our own success as politicians started drooling over the money. A bill to set up the authority was allowed to lapse in parliament, and Pokhrel found himself CEO of an agency that didn’t exist anymore. Six months after the earthquake, Prime Minister KP Oli of the UML finally brought his own man to head the Reconstruction Authority, Sushil Gyewali.

Despite his proven track record in the Town Development Fund, Gyewali has found it tough going because of his junior rank and UML tag. The Authority is short-staffed, and recently told relief agencies to stop reconstruction activities. It sowed more confusion by warning survivors they may not get the Rs 200,000 package if they rebuild without following guidelines.

Meanwhile, a government distracted by the crippling blockade did little to alleviate the misery of the 2.5 million survivors still living in temporary shelters. Major donors are also getting impatient with delays in their budget expenditure authorisation. About $860 million of donor aid from the World Bank, ADB, JICA and others has been committed and is waiting to be disbursed. But instead of expediting implementation, the Authority is working on a five-year reconstruction strategy, a logo competition and planning a second donor conference.

When it should be facilitating rehabilitation of homes and livelihoods, it is tangled with procedural issues and seems to be more interested in controlling the purse strings than in fast-tracking reconstruction. The Authority should not obstruct implementing agencies from moving ahead, and speed up the long-delayed cash disbursement for home reconstruction. Donors should also not insist on next-to-impossible procedures as a prerequisite.

As our reportage on page 14-15 shows, the need is too vast and relief is needed too urgently for the Authority and the government to tangle itself in red tape and politics. Soon, millions of families will have to hunker down for their second rainy season out in the open. The government must loosen its rules, stop trying to only control and regulate, widen the scope for rehabilitation, and make it as easy as possible for people to rebuild homes.

Read also:

No relief, Sahina Shrestha

Authority to reconstruct, Om Astha Rai

Deconstructing reconstruction, Sahina Shrestha

Reconstruction in ruins, Om Astha Rai and Sahina Shrestha

A more responsive state, David Seddon

Real story on PM Relief Fund

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