The nationals and the internationals
By Thomas Bell
19 August 2015
Nepal’s earthquake is testing the uncomfortable partnership between the government and international donor agencies.
(This article is a part of the web-exclusive series from our latest issue ‘Disaster Politics’. More from the print quarterly here.)
The earthquake in Nepal, which struck on 25 April 2015, created a new national context, replacing the peace process as the defining circumstance to which every secondary issue was drawn for almost a decade. If the current attempts to rapidly complete the constitution are successful, one of the earthquake’s first major consequences – beside the destruction it wrought – will be to formally end the transitional phase of national politics of the last nine years. And 2015 may come to be seen as a turning point in the country’s history, alongside 1951, 1960, 1990, and 2006.
Events unraveled more quickly than usual around each of those famous years, but the prevailing situation is not so easily altered. One thing that has been fairly constant through the several phases of Nepal’s modern history is the presence of foreign donors, seeking to support the country and its government in whatever the current challenge may be. After 2006, the donors, and the United Nations, lined up to support the creation of a lasting peace, and the inauguration of a ‘new Nepal’, through the implementation of the peace agreement. Their role was sometimes controversial and it is questionable whether they achieved their goals. Now, the donors and the Nepal government are warily entering another phase together, aiming to ‘build back better’ after the earthquake, not so much hand in hand as bound awkwardly together, like two men in a three-legged race.
Within a few days of the disaster, as relief material started to flood in and the government strove to regain its footing, great backlogs accumulated at the airport, and tonnes more were stuck at road crossings. Little was being released or distributed. This was alleged to be because the government was laboriously imposing customs duties on humanitarian aid, although the government denied this. These denials were mixed with the insistence that it was crucial to control ‘smugglers’. (It is significant that, like weak administrations elsewhere, customs duties are the largest component of the government’s revenue.) On 1 May, the UN Resident Coordinator publicly called upon the government to drop lengthy customs procedures in such an emergency. The government was furious, both in public and private, at this intervention, but the UN considered the fallout worth suffering, believing that supplies had started to flow better as a result.
The Nepal Army, with its appropriate resources and relative capacity for action, was inevitably at the forefront of aid operations, especially in the early weeks. Army doctors worked continuously for weeks, in extremely distressing circumstances. Two weeks after the disaster, one doctor said, “They’ve got maggots. These days everyone [who is reaching hospital] has got maggots.” Another was dreaming of limbless children after all the amputations she had performed.
Many victims were still receiving their first emergency treatment weeks after the disaster. Yet the influx of foreign military teams, which brought potentially valuable field hospitals and helicopters, created a ‘headache’ for the army. The army strove to keep the Indian, Chinese and American military contingents apart, while restricting the Pakistanis to Bhaktapur and blocking the entry of three British military helicopters altogether. According to a senior international official, the army received complaints from the Chinese, which were not publicised, of foreign military helicopters straying too close to the northern border, and there was a palpable sense of relief when the ‘rescue phase’ was declared over and the foreign militaries left, taking their choppers with them. A Chinese road-clearing team was also sent home early.
The civil administration, widely deemed to have got off to a slow start – the prime minister had made no public appearance for several days – was determined to put itself in full control, including of the international resources which were entering the country. The government was understandably concerned and felt the need to oversee and regulate the huge number of previously unknown organisations now flocking to the country. It instituted a ‘one door policy’, according to which all relief materials must be administered by the government, and all financial contributions to the bank accounts of NGOs created for earthquake relief must be channeled through the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. The resulting confusion discouraged donations and some humanitarian organisations resorted to smuggling bundles of cash through the airport. The Prime Minister’s Relief Fund did not attract many large contributions, either from foreign donors or Nepali philanthropists, who were unsure how promptly and appropriately their money would be spent.
As a member of the National Planning Commission (NPC) put it in mid-June, “Over $800m has been raised in the name of the Nepali people [by charitable appeals around the world]. We have a right to see how that money’s used.” Expressing dismay at the aspersions cast upon the probity of the rigorously administered Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, he ascribed them to “forty percent ignorance” and “sixty percent malign intent” on the part of a group of people in Kathmandu who, he believed, sought to bolster the donor sector for their own selfish reasons. Be that as it may, the government was not able to enforce its ‘one door policy’ upon the various international organisations. As the weeks passed, the nationals and the internationals worked together in an evolving, partly ad hoc, manner that was often chaotic, untimely and bad tempered.
These tensions may be read as arising from the compulsions of national sovereignty on the one hand and the urgency of humanitarian response on the other. It was necessary for the government to put itself in charge. However, the lack of capacity and planning made its efforts partly unsuccessful, and partly counterproductive from the point of view of making urgent relief available. Alternatively, the conflict may appear to be between the needs of victims and the political priorities of the state which attempts to control resources, manage geo-strategic sensitivities and counter the perception that political leaders had failed in their immediate response. However one sees it, it does not necessarily follow that an influx of international support after a natural disaster should be seen as a challenge to the country’s government, or sovereignty. In Nepal, it was.
The international agencies which were already in the country when the disaster struck also got off to a slow start. Their white jeeps, usually so ubiquitous in Kathmandu, were nowhere to be seen, neither in the city nor in the worst-hit district of Sindhupalchowk (only a few hours drive away), when I visited there a week after the earthquake. This was partly because many of their drivers did not come to work. But the internationals were themselves groping for response, and in the first instance, many donors looked inwards, even evacuating their foreign staff. At this stage, the internationals lacked transport (trucks, drivers and helicopters), sufficient relief materials, information and any workable plan. Yet many were keen to complain strongly, in private, at the conduct of the government; complaining, for instance, that medical helicopters, which were ready to leave at 6 am, were kept waiting until 9.30 am when the Home Ministry official whose permission was necessary for them to take off turned up for work.
It was under these circumstances that the acrimony between the international agencies and the government came into clear public view. Extensive domestic and international media coverage criticised the government’s slow response and, as the weeks passed, increasingly carried allegations of political interference and corruption in aid distribution, including the misdirection and disappearance of relief supplies. (An investigation by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee recently reported that there were widespread ‘irregularities’.) Some of these stories were sourced from international staff. Not long afterwards, and quite unusually in Nepal, there was widespread media criticism of the donor agencies. The initial reports were mostly on the extravagant fees paid to international consultants. However, following the World Food Programme’s (WFP) distribution of 120 sacks of damaged rice to a village in Gorkha (equivalent to 0.01 percent of the rice WFP had distributed), the focus shifted to an exaggerated campaign calling for ‘heads to roll’. Many internationals believed that these attacks were partly orchestrated by the government in retaliation for the criticism it had received, and certainly it had the effect of balancing the government’s bad press. It is also the case that while Nepali staff at international agencies are not usually prone to leaking embarrassing information to the national media, some were sufficiently outraged by the scale of payments to international consultants, and some of the leaked information was accurate.
By mid-June there were conflicting directives affecting the activities of independent and international relief efforts, from the ministries of Finance, Home and Foreign Affairs. The government, realising that it was impossible to distribute shelter materials to all affected households before the monsoon, had made a policy of giving NPR 15,000 to each household, so they could buy corrugated galvanised iron (CGI) sheets themselves. Yet CGI sheets had not been included on the list of relief materials exempt from customs duties. On 19 June 2015, when the monsoon had already begun, a small group of major INGOs claimed that a total of 139,000 CGI bundles (each of 9 sheets) that they had ordered were stuck in customs. Some were reluctantly preparing to pay the tax on the sheets. A large number of orders were also cancelled. Up to 43 percent tax was being levied on CGI sheets and other relief supplies. The government, meanwhile, was worried that the market price of CGI sheets was rising, which it attributed to profiteering.
There was a third important component to the humanitarian efforts: the large number of relatively small-scale voluntary initiatives, which sprang up immediately after the earthquake in an attempt to fill the gap left by the others. These groups and individuals are outside both the INGO and the government systems, but are still affected by them. For instance, the government’s attempt to impose control over their funds and supplies hindered their operations. The volunteers cumulatively appear to have provided as much, or perhaps even more relief in some areas, as did state institutions and foreign agencies whose job was relief distribution. The government asked that to avoid the duplication of efforts the volunteers’ relief materials be handed to the district authorities. The volunteers were reluctant to comply, fearing that their resources might be misused. The volunteers are also involved in developing and constructing short-term and permanent housing, and it is unfortunate they haven’t received more encouragement. Indeed, by late June there were reports of both INGOs and the government putting desperate villagers in an impossible position, telling them that they would not distribute relief to those families that had already accepted assistance from volunteers.
Quantifying the scale of the administrative problems within the international community and the government, and between them, and their impact on the volunteers, is not straightforward. Given the scale of the disaster, it is certain that many affected villages would still be in a dire condition even if all the efforts had gone well. Because the response was largely unplanned and chaotic, and was carried out in a variety of circumstances, there are significant variations in how it proceeded in different places. Some degree of confusion was of course inevitable. It is probably fair to say that while policy, planning and administration largely failed, or performed poorly, whatever has been achieved was mostly due to determined and dynamic individuals, on both the government and the international side, as well as among the volunteers.
More than three months after the earthquake, reliable data is still lacking. The National Planning Commission has conducted a Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA), which was applauded by many as a valiant effort. But even its authors concede that the figures are only estimates to be improved as time proceeds. Some, who have spent time in the affected districts, dispute the report’s contents and approach. Nevertheless, it is clear that hundreds of thousands of people are still homeless. Some have received no relief and many have received very little – typically amounting to few plastic sheets or a tarpaulin, and some rice. There are also concerns about equity in aid distribution at various locations as detailed in a number of reports. The distribution of ‘earthquake cards’ by the government to verify the identity of those affected, and entitle them to the payment for buying CGI sheets, is proceeding slowly, with widespread allegations against the integrity of the process. With the monsoon, landslides on the weakened slopes – or the fear of landslides – have forced an unknown number of people to move, often to places where little or no provision has been made for them. Many others remain in jeopardy in landslide threatened villages.
Despite the continuing desperation, on 22 June the ‘relief phase’ of the operation was officially deemed to be complete and the ‘reconstruction phase’ began. On 25 June, an International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction was held in Kathmandu, where foreign governments and multilateral organisations pledged a total of USD 4.4 billion in grants and soft loans to help finance the reconstruction, which is intended to be spent over a period of five to six years. By mid-July the situation in the villages had faded from the national news, to be replaced with reporting and arguments about the new draft constitution. The CEO of the government’s Reconstruction Authority was finally appointed 111 days after the disaster.
Just as the government is often in disagreement with itself, the international community is a disunited group generally understood in Nepal to include mostly Western donor governments and Japan, their bilateral development agencies, as well as multilaterals such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the United Nations. Nepal’s most important foreign relationships are with India and China, which are not only more politically and economically important but also increasingly outweigh the others as cash donors and sources of loans. However, the politics of these relations is thoroughly different from that with the rest of the international community.
The beginning of foreign aid in Nepal coincides almost exactly with its modern, intermittently democratic era. The first aid agreement with the United States was signed in 1951, a few weeks before the Rana family despotism was overthrown. It is no coincidence that the arrival of foreign aid in Kathmandu coincides quite closely with that moment, three and a half years earlier, when the power to the south ceased to be European imperialism. (It was Nehru, not the suddenly distant British, nor President Harry Truman’s aid apparatus, who helped remove the Ranas.) Since then, the foreign aid scene has greatly expanded, and there have been some undoubted achievements: the fields of community forestry and maternal health are most often cited. Yet the disappointments, many feel, have been more numerous. In 2014, foreign aid to Nepal stood at around USD 1 billion a year. In this context, USD 4.4 billon for earthquake reconstruction over five to six years may not seem such an extraordinarily large sum as it was initially greeted as being by the government, especially since it partly represents the ‘reprogramming’ of existing commitments.
In the years before the April 2015 earthquake, ‘earthquake preparedness’ had been a vogue issue for some donors. Foreign experts had concluded that Kathmandu was ‘the most at-risk city in the world’ to a major earthquake, with a lakh or more people liable to be killed by collapsing buildings. Several donors were therefore funding a programme to gradually retrofit schools and hospitals with structural reinforcements, and were working with the government to create plans and administrative mechanisms to respond to the disaster. Yet when the earthquake struck it devastated rural areas, the cities were spared the worst, and in the aftermath there were no contingency plans or structures in evidence. According to Dr Govinda Pokharel, the vice chairman of the National Planning Commission at the time we spoke (lately appointed the CEO Reconstruction Authority), this essentially donor-driven agenda “was not internalised in the government system. It’s not that that [agenda] was missing. It was not internalised. Preparedness was not there,” he said, “very little preparedness, whether it is an earthquake or a flood.” The foreign agencies were obliged to show their results, said Dr Pokharel, and they would conduct training sessions so that they could write in their reports, “‘This many people were trained, this many workshops were held, this many MPs were sensitized, and so on’.”
Much donor activity in Nepal has involved the internationals working with the national bureaucracy, attempting to influence it while partly funding its activities. This has been the case since the 1950s, when the Americans supported the development of the state education system. Many ministries evolved in the post-Rana period with international support. Today, ministries such as Health, Education, and Federal Affairs and Local Development – ministries that will be particularly involved in earthquake reconstruction – are already joint operations, implementing policies designed by foreign consultants and enduring training sessions provided by the donors, in exchange for substantial budgetary support. The area of ‘disaster risk reduction’ was a similar case.
Like disaster risk reduction, all of these areas are performing poorly. Village health posts, supported by international aid for decades, are infamously bad. “I am not expecting that villages which have never seen cetamol in all these years will see rescue teams,” a man from a remote village in Sindhupalachowk wrote in the aftermath of the earthquake, in a note widely circulated on social media. The SLC pass-rate in government schools is below fifty percent year after year, not even counting all the kids who dropped out of classes one to ten before the exam. Local development spending is administered through donor-ordained mechanisms associated with Local Governance and Community Development Programme (LGCDP), which funds local projects in exchange for dictating the system by which funds are administered. This has become one of the most notorious areas of public corruption in recent years. In all of these unhappy development ‘partnerships’, the nationals and the internationals frequently regard one another with distrust and dislike. To government officials, who receive modest salaries, the donors are overpaid, ill comprehending, wasteful and presumptuous. The donors think the bureaucrats (and politicians) are corrupt and incompetent, and suspect them of misogyny, casteism and other similar vices.
Some donors’ support for ‘social inclusion’ in recent years, and the fierce response this provoked from the bureaucracy and current ruling parties, forms a precedent of sorts for the strained relations which exist after the earthquake. Many in the government believe that the donors – through policies such as funding the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, and support for identity-based caucuses in the first Constituent Assembly – are guilty of stoking conflict by meddling in Nepali politics and society. Many donors believe that some in the government are unwilling to redress traditional iniquities, and are now fearful that reconstruction funds will be distributed in a discriminatory manner, as they believe assistance was after flooding in Bardia in 2014.
Exclusionary state policies do undermine the donors’ objectives. For example, one of the reasons that it is so difficult to efficiently identify and target households that have been affected by the earthquake (or indeed properly target any policy, or even register voters) is that over four million Nepalis do not have citizenship documents. However, after being stung by the issue of ‘inclusion’ before, the donors are now wary of emphasising concerns over discrimination.
While poor performance of donor-driven programmes is a result of many different factors, the donors general recourse is to ‘corruption’ as the explanation. Evidence given in March 2015 to the British House of Commons’ International Development Committee on the Department for International Development’s (DfID) work in Nepal gives a flavour of this attitude, and probably reflects to some extent the tenor of donor thinking in general:
Chairman [of the committee]: Corruption is a major problem. It is not the only country where it is, but it is endemic. We did hear of a number of initiatives that had been taken, such as e-procurement and reducing the number of accounts… Nevertheless, the general view is that it is pretty pervasive at all levels. What do you think can be done to improve the situation?
Minister [of State for International Development]: 400,000 people [have been] trained to hold what passes for local government or Government to account, to ensure that the local priorities are dealt with and to publish the accounts at the village level to show everyone what it cost, what was spent and where the money went [this] is a huge strength in addressing specifically the agenda to which you have rightly drawn attention: changing society at all levels by changing the expectations of ordinary people that money will be spent properly …
Chairman: … We also visited exactly the kind of community you are talking about. It is not evidence that there is not a problem, but we did ask more than once, “Have any of you felt you had to pay a bribe or what-have-you?” and they all categorically said “No” …
[a little later]
Minister: With respect to all our projects and all the people we work through and the capacity-building we do in Government by having our own technical-assistance people in the ministries – everywhere we work – we do spot checks, we do audits; we do all the things that you say.
[and later again]
Minister: The difficulty is in a corrupt society: as I say, somebody’s cousin gets appointed to the job rather than someone who can do it more effectively…
Many things could be said about these remarks. For example, beside the naïve reference to bribery and the glib description of nepotism, there is seemingly little sense of what is meant by the vague term corruption, much less by the unfortunate phrase ‘a corrupt society’, which occurs several times in the transcript. And, although the donors nevertheless consider overcoming corruption to be one of their primary difficulties, the measures which they have undertaken do not raise much expectation. After all, their strategies are not new, yet corruption is widely perceived to be as rife as it ever was, and impunity the norm.
There is a dilemma here, or perhaps merely an irony – since it’s not really a choice. The aid agencies are obliged by the fact that they are donors to continue providing money, especially now after the earthquake. Yet they also know that much of their contribution will be vulnerable to corruption, or ‘fiduciary risk’ in the jargon. It will be very difficult for them to ensure that an acceptable fraction reaches the intended beneficiaries. They can attempt to institute certain measures to prevent corruption, but in the past they haven’t been able to make these effective, or even more than merely rhetorical.
“You can quote me,” said Dr Pokharel of the NPC, “Our corruption indicators are not good. But what are your alternatives? Who do you want to run this country? NGOs and the army?… If you want to give money to the best government in the world, give it all to Norway.” Some sectors have been able to progress with international support, he insisted, but the problem is that “we have never invested in the capacity building of our bureaucracy”. This last part may surprise the donors, who believe that they have spent 60 years, untold millions, and hundreds of thousands of expert man-hours in ‘capacity building’. Anyway, it hasn’t worked.
The donors shouting corruption when their programmes fail is a part of their general tendency to blame local partners when things don’t work. But among Nepalis, they are often perceived as little better, or even worse, than state institutions. This was made clear by public commentary on the disputes following the earthquake, when it was commonly said that the government offers better value for money and more accountability than the donors. There have been no end of dismaying stories about how international development work goes, which not only implies theft with impunity somewhere along the line, but also moral corruption at the top; because a reasonable definition of corruption can extend to a person who makes a thousand dollars a day as a consultant, working in the name of the poor, without commensurate achievements. A Nepali employee at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was incensed at the arrival of high-priced consultants, who refused to visit earthquake affected areas because it was too uncomfortable. Another employee, at Save the Children, was furious at the purchase of four top-end Toyotas, apparently for NPR 2.7 crore each. “That’s nothing,” said someone at the UN. “Unicef’s buying nineteen.”
Scores of new international staff and consultants are still coming. There’s a recruitment frenzy. But the international agencies don’t publish full reports of their spending. UNICEF, for example, has apparently received an additional USD 100 to USD 120 million since the earthquake, raised by its national committees, outside their regular bugetary mechanisms. Showing how this is spent would reduce their wiggle room.
Corruption by itself is not a very meaningful term, which is why more nuanced observers try to break it down to describe it in greater detail, as extravagant wastefulness, overcharging, kickbacks, commissions, nepotism, naked theft and expenses scams, or try to capture the way the system works by describing it as rent-seeking, patronage and resource extraction.
In a recent column in the Nepali Times, the former senior bureaucrat Bihari Krishna Shrestha wrote:
Nepali society continues to remain feudalistic in nature and this manifests itself through ascriptive leadership with high caste accompanied by relative wealth being the main determinant. This entire superstructure is sustained and reinforced by extraction of resources without accountability… This system is often aided, abetted and propped up by donors.
The word ‘feudalism’ here takes a role similar to the donors’ conception of corruption – as a general description of all of Nepal’s ills, but unlike ‘corruption’ it implies a sense of how the process works. If corruption means “stealing money”, then feudalism means something like “an unfair distribution of power and resources enabled by social hierarchy”. It is a richer word than corruption, but people who use one or other term are often aiming at a description of more or less the same thing. Both suppose that there is no rule of law, or at least no equality before it.
The really topsy-turvy thing about Nepal’s under-development, and its donor relations, is that the government is neither short of money nor heavily in debt. The government ran a budget surplus in 2013 and only a small deficit in 2014. Since the end of the conflict in 2006 it has only been able to spend between 70 and 80 percent of its capital (as opposed to recurring) budget each year. Over the past five years, the disbursement rate for ADB and World Bank commitments has been only around 20 and 25 percent respectively. All donors see part of the money they commit to the government unspent each year, due to the government’s ‘weak administrative capacity’. What impact will the extra earthquake billions have, in this situation?
The difference between the nationals and the internationals is wide, especially in matters of perception – of one another, and of the country’s ills. Where government officials and international ‘experts’, and the national and international staff of foreign agencies are concerned, it is a difference that is quite rigorously policed; in terms of the money they are paid, the documents they are given access to, and the emails they are copied in on. They don’t socialise much. They look, act and think differently and have different language skills. But in final effect the distinction is also blurred, and they are usually quite willing to live with one another’s shortcomings. The donors occasionally come close to insulting the government, but nothing will make them stop their funding. And at times of strain the donors are criticised for many things by the government and its sympathisers, yet rarely for their chronic inefficacy. The rows that have blown up in recent years have been over the internationals’ support for inclusion, and their criticism of the government’s performance after the earthquake. These are only turf wars, over the proper limits of the donors’ role, and the red lines around the government’s interest, but in the end they are mutually reliant. The donors are obliged to deal with the government by their job description; and the government to deal with the donors by its policy of seeking resources for development. The donors are not even called donors any more, but ‘development partners’.
Except that the peace process seems to be over, and that a large number of already neglected people have lost everything, the new national context doesn’t look very different to the previous national context, or the national context before that. Quite soon there may be a new cabinet, and it is certain that – like in the current cabinet – many of its members will be twenty-five year ministerial veterans. There may be nobody at all – and certainly nobody I know, whatever corner they are coming from – who expects the results of the coming reconstruction effort to be profoundly different from the last phase, or the phase before that, or any earlier iteration, of the nationals’ and the internationals’ development partnership.
~Thomas Bell is the author of Kathmandu, a study of the Nepali capital, published by Random House India, and by Haus in the rest of the world in early 2016.