26 June - 2 July 2015 #764

Rebuilding ourselves

More than aid, we need help to boost tourism, investment, trade and to create jobs in reconstruction

The headlines in the media about this week’s International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction were scripted: donors pledges fell short of assistance needed for long-term rehabilitation because they are concerned about accountability and delivery in distribution. Aid agencies and governments have reason to be worried, given reports of emergency supplies piling up in warehouses, the politicisation of relief and government disarray. Despite billions pledged, hundreds of thousands of survivors haven't even received the Rs 15,000 emergency grants yet.

But, as Emily Troutman argues in this edition a lot of the money raised for disasters around the world is also heavily skewed in favour of the donor. The colossal mismanagement of aid after Haiti’s earthquake has become the stuff of legend. Seeing the way Nepal relief is going, it doesn’t look like the aid industry has learnt its lesson. ‘In Nepal, I found patterns in the humanitarian response that persist in every disaster,’ Troutman writes. ‘Money will be wasted, aid will arrive too late. As in Haiti, local organisations with the expertise and commitment to really make a difference will be left out.’

A disaster is an opportunity for humanitarian organisations to replenish their coffers and cover overheads. Lot of the bilateral aid pledged on Thursday is already earmarked for donor agencies. A recent investigation by the group Disaster Accountability also confirms that charities often fudge where donations go, hide overheads, and even blatantly misrepresent the actual assistance they provide.

To be sure, the destruction from the earthquake has been overwhelming, and the monsoon is set to move the mountains again. Nepal’s need for long-term reconstruction is so enormous that the country cannot go at it alone. There is need for funding, logistics and the human resource to manage it all efficiently. Now is the time for targeted interventions, to do things less wastefully so that beneficiaries benefit.

We have argued in this space before that relying on crowdsourced funding for private relief work has filled the gap left by the state’s delayed and patchy response. But such aid lets the government off the hook and allows it to abdicate its responsibility. Piecemeal relief can never match the scale of operation needed, which only a national government has at its disposal. The Nepal government’s concern about aid dependency among survivors in parts of some districts is, however, valid. While farmers in remote areas will need help with food for the medium term, many living near roads who have paddy seeds are not planting them this season because there is so much free rice being doled out. We should be careful emergency food aid doesn't crowd out long-term food security.

Nepal has been labeled ‘aid dependent’ because about three-quarters of our annual budget for health, education and infrastructure comes from overseas development assistance even at the best of times. This has given foreigners and Nepalis alike the impression that this country will grind to a halt if aid was stopped. This may be the right time, then, for us to look beyond aid to trade, tourism, investment and job creation as better alternatives for self-sustained growth, and to build a prosperous future.

For the kind of natural and cultural assets Nepal posseses, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of tourism’s true potential for revenue and employment. Visitors who choose to visit Nepal do so because our mountains, heritage and biodiversity are such powerful draws, not because there has been any strategic marketing. We seem to excel at making it as difficult as possible for tourists to visit. Nepal should scrap visas, revamp our national airline, streamline entry points, encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more (Destination Nepal).

If they really want to help, donor governments should drop their inaccurate and outdated travel advisories, and the irrational ban on domestic air travel for nationals. High insurance costs are also dissuading tourists from visiting Nepal, especially after the earthquake. Distorted international media coverage that only shows destruction, and alarmist fundraising billboards of aid agencies in public places in Europe have frightened off potential visitors.

Instead of more aid, we should ask donor governments to facilitate more trade. For this we don't have to look beyond our immediate neighbours. India and China are the locomotives that Nepal should hitch its wagon to. Europe and the United States can help by lifting tariffs, redeploying aid agencies to help promote Nepali products in their countries, as GIZ has done with Nepali tea. Nepal's private sector is more than capable of stepping in if governments open their doors.

The path ahead for Nepal is clear: we need to invest in infrastructure and encourage post-quake reconstruction through grants and soft credit for massive job creation. The only obstacles are weak political willpower, poor delivery, and a culture of aid dependency.

Read also:

Subcontracting kindness, Emily Troutman

The disaster is not over, David Seddon

Carving out a niche, Sonia Awale

An opportunity for all: Nepal is open to visitors

25 June Donor Summit, Om Astha Rai

Moving out of darkness together, Sanduk Ruit

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