By Rune Bennike
26 May 2015
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Negotiating aid amidst village politics in post-earthquake Nepal.
It is distribution day in Bihi. Tarps, noodles, rice and daal are piled outside the local mill in this village in northern Gorkha. The mill has now been turned into a storage for relief supplies. A ledger with household names has been prepared and the Bihi residents, from children to elders, crowd around. A name is called, then a walk down the line: one mana (a unit of volume for cereals, little over half-a-litre) of daal, one bag of biscuits, eights packs of noodles, a roll of rope, one tarp, one guak (another local measurement, about 1.5 litres) of rice, and a plateful of chiura (beaten rice). The straightforward nature of the scene betrays the work needed to organise this affair: the intense manoeuvring required to ensure a reasonably fair distribution of relief materials, as the influx of donations meets Nepal’s local politics.
Just when Tsering, a local representative, is about to call the name of the first household, the now familiar sound of a helicopter rings through the valley. As the helicopter sweeps into the neighbouring field, some try to protect the food from the dust while others move closer to see who is coming. It is the World Food Program (WFP). They have come to assess the situation, 16 days after the quake. How many people live in the area? How many houses destroyed? Have stored food been lost? What do they need? Questions follow in quick succession to the circle of people quickly formed around the WFP representative. Five minutes later, the helicopter departs. Left behind is the promise of large quantities of rice – 10 kg per household – arriving soon.
With the dust settled, some confusion arises. Is the distribution still on? Or should we wait for further relief materials? And will they really arrive? We continue. Even at the best of times, it is tricky to plan relief distribution. Should households or individuals be the basic unit to work with when giving aid? Should it be based on needs or should the materials be distributed evenly? And who decides what needs are gravest? When uncertainties about future relief are added to the equation, the complexities are compounded, stretching calculations beyond the edges of your notebooks.
On top of this, Bihi – like many other Village Development Committees (VDCs) in Nepal – presents a heavily politicised environment. Rumours of corruption surround the VDC head, a man whose position has not been legitimised by the public; the last local elections in Nepal were 17 years ago. Hospitalised in Kathmandu, he is not present in Bihi at the moment. In his absence, a committee has been formed to oversee the distribution, which includes members from the local youth club. For several of them, their fathers are or were members of the opposition party, and have been in sharp conflict with the VDC administration. In the past, the conflict has been expressed in death threats and vandalism. Now, rumors of people ‘eating’ the relief materials thrive.
The distribution proceeds. After much discussion, the committee divided the VDC into three groups, each representing three of the total nine wards in the VDC. In the group that looked at the first three wards, which included the Bihi village, things are moving ahead smoothly, and as the distribution comes to an end, people sit around in the sun smiling and joking. Here, the distribution of material supplies has helped instill a sense of relief in the community, bringing them closer. A few houses down, in the group working on the southern ward, the story is different. Rumours about insufficient tarps and rice circulate quite early in the process. Men are yelling at each other while the nuns from the nearby gompa look on. The tarps run out and tension escalates. Later, the ward representatives are found to have been hiding portions of relief materials, claiming there was not enough to go around.
Every VDC has its own unique constellation of needs, concerns and political forces. In Bihi, medium-term semi-permanent shelter is not a big issue as in other places. The Tibetan-style stacked stone houses collapse easily, but are also quickly rebuilt. With collaborative effort, many villages could have most houses inhabitable before monsoon sets in. Rather, the main problem is access and communication. With multiple landslides blocking the main trail through the area, people are stuck and goods cannot come in from the southern hills. The few goods available in the only shop open are sold at twice the normal price. People can survive for a while on tsampa and corn, but rice, daal, salt and oil will have to be flown in until the trail is open for porters and mule trains again. This is a clear priority – opening the trail will allow people to help themselves rather than be swamped in aid involving little local initiative.
Bihi, however, is still subject to issues prevalent in the VDCs even before the earthquakes. As evident with the Bihi VDC head, local government is problematic when representatives have not been voted in by their constituencies for almost two decades. This calls for a cautious approach when providing relief. Distribution is, inevitably, a political issue, and as in Bihi, a fair and transparent engagement with local people can bring about a legitimacy that resides outside formal structures. At this time, when big organisations are ramping up their efforts, one hopes that they will listen to and learn from the informal, clandestine, networked initiatives that have so far been providing relief across the affected areas in Nepal, and to those who know the particulars of each VDC. Combining their much larger relief capacity with the deep knowledge that has been built over the intense last three weeks, we might just be able to avoid another disaster.
~Rune Bennike is a post-doctoral scholar from Copenhagen University studying the impact of increasing tourism on land relations and local politics in the Manaslu area.
~‘Notes from the field’ is a reporting initiative, where we bring stories of the people and places that have been affected by the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal.