29 May - 5 June 2015 #760

Rock and a hard place

It doesn’t help that the Nepali state is intolerant, and the international community is oozing with arrogance
Bidushi Dhungel

Cartoon: Diwakar Chettri

Nepalis are squeezed: between boulders, revolutionary leftists and oppressive rightists, between tradition and modernity, and as we’ve recently realised, between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.

If you think about it, we are also sandwiched between seamlessly corrupt, inefficient governments and arrogant less-than-transparent donors. Which is probably why, when the earthquake hit on 25 April, most people didn’t turn to the government or donors for help, they turned to each other. People want to give directly to survivors through volunteers on the ground.

The lack of a better alternative is probably what spurred on the ‘resilient’ Nepali nature in all the relief work as well. It’s a rubbish place to be as a people, unable to trust our own government and bureaucracy and to be equally suspicious of other governments and foreign organisations here to ‘help’.

For many years now, those who work for the government and bureaucracy have been almost unanimously considered corrupt, greedy, and inefficient by Nepalis, and also by foreign aid organisations and governments. Increasingly, however, the latter bunch – the donors—are also considered opaque and inefficient in a classier and less-obvious way.

As Nepalis, we pour our frustrations rightly on this government and bureaucracy, considering any corruption and inefficiency on part of this state is paid by our tax money. And to think that our money supports red tape is infuriating. But none of this is ‘new’ news, and the lack of state presence long predates the earthquake. Not only have we known this, but well-meaning foreigners have spent millions of dollars in efforts to create an ‘accountable’ state for us. But, surely, accountability would be best learnt if the donors implementing the programs led by example. That way, the beneficiaries might actually take the lesson seriously, instead of signing up just for the free ride.

The holier-than-thou position of much of Nepal’s aid regime is the real problem. That wouldn’t be the case were our government more capable, but it isn’t. The donor argument is that working through the government invites dealing with corruption and delays. Unfortunately, instead of trying to strengthen the government and make it accountable, many donors are quick to bypass it, deepening the accountability crisis.  So when the Nepali government says, for example, that not giving directly to the PM Relief Fund is a way to profit from Nepal’s disaster, one can’t help but feel there is an ounce of weight to the argument.

For example, one wonders why the PM’s Relief Fund has collected a mere $39 million even as individuals like Joanna Lumley raised $50 million for Nepal. That money went to the Disasters Emergency Committee, a coalition of 13 UK charities working on relief in Nepal. Granted if that money came into the PM Relief Fund perhaps some of it would be siphoned off, against which we may have been able to rally. But can we guarantee that all the $50 million which Ms Lumley has selflessly worked to raise will even make it to Nepal? The answer is probably not. And we probably won’t be able to say a thing about it, either.

Donor-government tension during this crisis was exemplified by Chinook helicopters that Britain offered, but was declined by the Nepal Army. The official government stance was ‘technical’: they are loud, heavy, came too late, and could ‘blow off roofs’. Unsurprisingly, the burden of Nepal’s dysfunctional politics, fuelled by a controversy-obsessed media, did not spare this justification and instead dragged into an otherwise logistical question, our geopolitics, issues of sovereignty and nationalism. Because, surely, nothing in Nepal can be spared of these obsessions — not even an earthquake.

One government official said about the Chinook fiasco, “There is some politics involved.” It is ever more apparent that the ‘politics’ here is merely an attempt to politicise what should have been understood as a logistic mishap on the giving and receiving end. It diverted attention away from the real crisis, and offered room to widen mistrust among and between various state and non-state actors. This case is almost emblematic of the business as usual mindset that Nepal and some concerned outsiders continue to harbour at the expense of relief efforts on the ground. It doesn’t help when the state machinery and political parties are intolerant, and the international community is oozing with arrogance.

The ghosts of Haiti’s post-earthquake aid disaster seem to be haunting our political class more than is necessary, especially considering that this free-for-all aid regime in Nepal is certainly not a new phenomenon. It seems both the state, political parties and their leaders, along with some members of the international community and NGOs are putting their interests ahead of the crisis at hand. As for the Nepali state, on whose shoulder the greatest burden of rebuilding trust (and Nepal) lies, now is certainly not the time to be focusing on other countries and organisations overstepping their boundaries.    While Nepalis continue to fund our own less-than-satisfactory government, citizens from countries afar continue to fund a more powerful and resource-rich parallel government in Nepal. And in times of crisis, it is difficult for Nepalis to rely on any one over the other.  The great task is to create a system that is accountable to the people. But for this, it is not only the government which will need to be pinched and prodded.


Read Also:

Earning back the people's trust, Tsering Dolker Gurung

A state in aftershock, Victor Rana

A more responsive state, David Sheddon

The four-fold path, Pradumna B Rana

Needed: A Marshall Plan, Kunda Dixit

Haiti on our minds, Stéphane Huët

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