After the quake
By Danny Coyle
2 May 2016
The confessions of a conflicted aid worker, a year after the earthquake.
Before the earthquake I knew international development and humanitarian work by its face – I could argue around its contours, while I sipped cappuccinos and smoked rolled cigarettes. Now, since the earthquake, I find myself feeling uncomfortable as I make my way through its digestive tract, listening to the base sounds and awkward fidgets – a fundamentally more intimate and close up perspective.
In this rush, I find myself sparse on time to question the development agenda and often feel swept away in the ceaseless operation of it all. The pace of things means that relief work is hard enough and leaves little time for me to consider my new role as an aid worker, let alone challenge my place within it. I find myself internalising and accepting ideas and approaches I once was hesitant towards or even resistant to. Within this new milieu, I struggle with the reality that a crisis has occurred and people are in need. I find myself asking the question – am I really going to be the one to hold up the process? If so, perhaps it is best to get out of the way entirely and not become a bottleneck. If you want to stay, you best keep up with the pace and, most optimistically, you can have some small role in shaping the course of things to come.
But let’s be more concrete – the time for reflection is short no matter how long it’s been since things were shaken up. Poverty is what it is all about, no? After all, rich countries don’t get humanitarians or UN cluster coordination meetings. While Nepal’s villages hold endless charm for travellers and outsiders, I long ago cast aside the notion that rural Nepal was an idyllic place where people weren’t crying out for all sorts of changes. It doesn’t take long to realise that having to walk hours for even the most rudimentary and basic of public services, like education and healthcare, can rarely if ever translate into an ‘easy life’. That being said, when the humanitarians’ boots were on the ground I was surprised to hear the common sentiment that the affected people were “very poor.” For people who know Nepal, there is perhaps an irony in this. The areas that were most affected by the earthquake are far from being Nepal’s ‘poorest’ or most ‘remote’ districts, but even these 14 most affected, but relatively well-off districts, no doubt, left much to be desired by their residents.
Perhaps it’s better to stand even further back when examining Nepal’s poverty and look at its progress towards graduating out of the ‘least developed country’ category by 2022. To me, the situation doesn’t look optimistic. Since I first came to Nepal, the country has made begrudged progress towards becoming ‘developed’, but it seems to have come at a high cost, borne by the country’s most poor and vulnerable who are willing to trade their kidneys, bodies, and labour for a better living or better status for their families. Now after a year of earthquakes, aftershocks, and blockades, Nepal sits at the brink of economic and political precarity – to what extent is unclear. This precariousness is no doubt also a part of the problem.
The earthquake itself affected the livelihoods and assets of over 600,000 households, many of which have spent the year unable to recover from the impact of the earthquake. It is still uncertain as to what effect the fuel crisis has had on livelihoods on earthquake victims beyond delaying the humanitarian response, further driving inflation, and hampering the self-recovery of markets and households. There are estimates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Nepal that show that the overall damage to the economy has reduced growth to 0.5 percent in 2015. The political ramifications of these occurrences have encouraged decisions like Prime Minister KP Oli’s recent agreement to open up Nepal to China via rail. Plans for new roads through the Himalaya, down through the ‘roof of the world’ are being discussed as well.
What is more interesting to me is to what extent the earthquake and blockade have intensified the social changes that Nepal was already undergoing. Before the earthquake I was researching sexuality and gender in the country and the people I worked with seemed to share a story where hopes and dreams of individuality, development and self-determination were a sort of currency that were socially discussed and negotiated but were also dissonant within the socio-economic reality of Nepal. People’s desire for social freedom, liberation, and self-expression seemed to be intrinsically bound up in an idea of ‘modernity’, with all its urban excesses, that is out of the immediate reach for most of the country’s population. And while so many of my acquaintances and friends imagined a solution to their problems through the realisation of a ‘modern life’, I couldn’t help but feel this to be a sign of a larger poverty of imagination in and of itself. Perhaps this is because I myself came from a ‘modern life’ that I came to reject because I found it confining, short-sighted, heteronormative, profit-driven and limiting in so many respects, even while it equipped and provided me with the means and opportunities to reject it.
It’s a contrast to the earthquake relief work I am doing now – trying to not only in some sense ‘rewind’ the damage done but also make things better than before. In particular, I find myself struggling to confront a poverty that I am in some sense familiar with – that of remote and earthquake-affected villages along the Tibetan border. I say ‘remote’ but whenever I have spent any significant period of time in these areas, I am usually impressed by the interconnectedness of the people to the surrounding communities and the land itself. This knowledge may or may not extend very far but I am yet to be in a community that I would feel comfortable describing as ‘disconnected’ or ‘remote’. Remote, even as I define it in my daily work, is usually conceptualised as ‘hard to reach’ – a village that is several hours away from a road head at the very least. But if this is to be our benchmark for ‘remoteness’, we are actually talking about our ability to reach such places – to sell them things, to buy things from them, to go there ourselves. ‘Remoteness’ is really just a conceptualisation of places that are distant or disconnected from global markets in a way that we tacitly assume is linked to their poverty. It says more about us and our disconnectedness from the realities of the people than the communities themselves.
It is perhaps an interesting contradiction on one hand to realise that while we think of these remote spaces as disconnected from global markets, Nepal’s economy and many of these villages are increasingly supported through the seemingly ever-expanding, global remittance economy. Over the past decade remittances have made tremendous changes to Nepal’s urban and rural landscapes – often pumping cash into rural areas and helping facilitate access to and creation of better services. In other words, the riches and dreams of ‘modernity’ have begun to reach ‘remote’ places even as the people themselves, often young men and women, are pulled out of Nepal’s close-knit families and communities. Some of the money they send back is no doubt invested within the communities themselves, but we also know from the trade deficit that most of the money leaves the country and is exchanged for flat screen TV’s and symbols of modernity that is now so sought after, worked for, and brought back as treasures from ‘videsh’.
This entire process is approached differently within my current development and humanitarian milieu – often queried in terms such as ‘market access’, ‘value chains’, ‘vocational trainings and livelihood interventions’. A community’s ‘lack’ of capacities and modern materials are broken down by sector or cluster and attacked in a piecemeal fashion. Toilets one year; a new micro-hydro plant the next; someday, hopefully, a road – begrudged progress that seems to occur in the background of never ending instability and uncertainty. Within this thinking, the solution for these communities is to ‘produce more’ for the market and in some way resolve their ‘remoteness’ by connecting themselves to our urbanised and international markets – not the other way around. I don’t mean to suggest that such an approach cannot be pragmatic or, as a result, popular.
After all, communities which were several days from a road-head, when I first came to Nepal in 2008, now have seasonal roads, along with toilets, electricity and flat-screen TVs. In one village, before the earthquake, women made small carpets for taxi’s in China, earning upwards to NPR 15,000 (USD 1500) for fulltime work – something appreciated and vital for a community where the young men in their 20s and 30s are missing because they are in Malaysia or Qatar working in menial positions to send back cash. In this respect and with full acknowledgement of the privilege that I and anyone who would critique these changes must have, it is hard for me to present these changes as entirely positive or unproblematic. The immediate gains and improvements that the community cherished so much – the new toilets, the new cement monastery, and the seasonable road – however do outweigh any collective consideration for what such a process or life would cost them.
After all, who knows the future? When I was there, one month before the earthquake, there was certainly no one who guessed that the immediate future held an earthquake; an earthquake that took all the treasures of videsh away from them and more. So is it time to bring these things back? It must be time to stimulate markets and regenerate lost industries. Even as I commit myself and the resources at my disposal to this endeavour – to helping communities rebuild what was lost and most optimistically forge farther ahead. Even as I advocate for this approach, I feel it is necessary to ask a year on, when so many programmes like this are being planned and started, to just stop a moment and ask what lies at the end of this path and where such an endeavour is taking us. The earthquake has and can be presented as an opportunity for building back better, for improving services and strengthening the resilience of communities. I have framed and conceptualised the earthquake this way myself in my discussions on how to address the needs of these communities and perhaps even improve on what existed before. People affected by the earthquake in these areas also often feel and say as much – how can stronger and better roads, houses, and infrastructure be a bad thing after all? I don’t think these aspirations are a bad thing, but perhaps let us consider the destination before setting off.
I remember when I was among the first to reach a highly remote Village Development Committee (VDC) in upper Gorkha, off the tourist trails, after the earthquake. The nearest markets were days away, even while there was still regular flow of people, goods, and gossip between this place and the surrounding areas. People’s houses here suffered the same damage as many of the more accessible places. The main difference I noticed was that within weeks of the earthquake, people were taking turns repairing the damage to each other’s houses – they would have time to meet with me in the evening they said, only after they had finished working on their family homes. In my interactions, I even had the strong impression that they were surprised that someone like me had come to check on them and had offered help. Their attitude towards assistance was a mixture of surprise, gratitude and cooperation. Perhaps they were unused to being reached by an outsider – wasn’t this after all their responsibility to fix their own ‘remoteness’? While there was criticism that the houses were being rebuilt in the same style, recreating all the same structural instabilities that made them vulnerable to earthquakes in the first place, what is ignored is the resilience that exists in these social networks and communities because of their remoteness. I wonder to what extent does setting these communities down on the path of modern, market-driven capitalism also recreates the same set of structural global instabilities that developed countries are increasingly conflicted over?
Once again I feel the need to remind myself in this reflection that I would never dare to present this community as idyllic – my visit also found that people were walking 40 minutes away to fetch water, that open defecation and related health problems were rampant, and a new-born had even passed away during childbirth just several days prior to my arrival. After meetings, butter teas, and discussions, these are all problems the community and I agreed that should be addressed. Vocational trainings, market access, and employment opportunities would probably do wonders for this community if such interventions were well designed and successful. Recently, I was thinking about how to make such programmes work as I sat in a small tea shop in Gorkha – a dimly lit family establishment. Over the course of several hours, as I sat drinking sweet tea, I watched a small child refuse to eat dal-bhat until his parents relented and served him processed, wheat flour noodles served in individually-wrapped colourful packets made from non-biodegradable plastic, and I couldn’t help but begin to wonder if I was merely helping people trade dysentery caused from open door defecation for heart disease and diabetes. The “added vitamins” advertised on the shiny plastic cover were not enough to persuade me otherwise. Even as I launch myself down this path, I can’t help but overcome the nagging question that I am helping someone trade a set of issues I have never experienced for a set of issues endemic and ever prevalent in my own upbringing.
Let’s be honest though – this critique comes from someone who was offered and enjoyed the full fruits of what modernity can bring. I struggle though with what cost that came at and who paid the price for these fruits. How could I even question these things given my privilege when the very people I am working with and seeking to support have no such questions or considerations; when the short-term benefits of such developments surely do outweigh the challenges and issues they currently live and experience on a daily basis. I recently returned from a tour of Europe where I revelled in the hot showers, infrastructure, and electricity; in the burgeoning free market that catered to my interests, boredoms, and assorted needs. It’s also a system I know I would struggle to return to for a longer period of time because it’s a place in which I feel objectified and disconnected – where I am assessed and appraised in terms of what I can produce for the market and at what level I can consume as a functioning part of it. It’s a place where the same set of heteronormative, sexist and ethno-centrist principles that Nepal struggles with will play out, but by different means and different extents. Nepal’s struggles are just easier for me to swallow because I was never subject to them as an insider in the same way I was while growing up in Europe and the US.
It’s perhaps futile for me to continue to compare such dissonant contexts with the hopes of extracting anything beyond vague generalisations. Yet, if we are really going to reflect, let’s at least do so in such a way where we question not only where we have been the past year but also where we are really headed. Let’s consider what path these communities and Nepal have already come down in their quest for ‘bikas’ and where such a project will, in our most optimistic hopes and dreams, lead Nepal and its people. Is our goal really to open these communities to global market forces, where they will continue to be objectified and forced to become ‘subjects’ to forces far removed from their immediate control? Where a recession in China or the US will ripple into every corner of the globe and communities in the Himalaya? Is it really even our right to decide either way?
I would like to say I have a middle path; a golden path; a solution to some sort of balanced and sustainable change that would convince me and perhaps even you. No doubt there are those who are less poor in imagination than me, who might have such an answer, but they don’t have too long. The food is being prepared and people have already waited for a year to begin to do something more than try and get by. I don’t think I should keep them waiting any longer. A half-cooked solution is probably as good as a half-cooked meal, but I have to let go of the privilege of being a connoisseur and get back to taking orders – I am not sure though from whom.
~ Danny Coyle was a Kathmandu-based researcher and now works in humanitarian relief and recovery projects. He is also the assistant editor of the anthology of Pride Climbing Higher.