Building a new Nepal: Heed the Haiti lesson

Building a new Nepal: Heed the Haiti lesson

Experts and analysts are warning that the aid and rebuilding effort in post-earthquake Nepal should not go the way of Haiti.

Impoverished before a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck and killed more than 100,000 people in 2010, the Caribbean country has shown little improvement five years later, despite a massive infusion of aid.

"There were two disasters in Haiti: the earthquake and then the humanitarian crisis that followed," Haitian aid worker Nixon Boumba wrote recently in the Washington Post. "More than US$10 billion (S$13.2 billion) in foreign aid still hasn't enabled our country to recover from this disaster."

The key, experts say, is to involve local people and communities in decision-making or, better still, let them take their own decisions and simply facilitate them.

But the problem is that the aid industry had not changed, says Kunda Dixit, a prominent analyst and editor of the Nepali Times.

"There's always a danger of that. The aid industry works to certain formulas and there has been no structural change," he said on the phone from Kathmandu.

The funds pledged will go to either bilateral aid or international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which work with local NGOs. The money "will trickle down and by the time it gets to the grassroots, it will be just a few coins", he said.

In the case of Haiti, most aid projects promised "community participation", Mr Boumba noted, but they rarely include local people.

"Tragically, yesterday's temporary shelters have become today's permanent slums," he said.

Haiti is in really bad shape, according to Ms Lilianne Fan, a research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Britain-based Overseas Development Institute. She authored a study on recovery in Haiti in 2013.

"In Nepal, we need to ensure that from the very beginning, local institutions at all levels must be part of planning and managing, and the institutions must be built in the process. And there must be accountability," she said. "The government must lead in some capacity, but also enable local leadership.

That was done in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, and it worked." Even as Nepal continues to struggle to cope with the shocks of two earthquakes - which left nearly 10,000 dead and roughly twice that number injured or maimed for life, and destroyed an estimated 600,000 homes - the debate on how best to distribute and spend relief money has begun.

"The lesson from Haiti is not to have grandiose and expensive government housing projects," Mr Dixit wrote in the Nepali Times.

Local communities should be left to decide on how they would reconstruct, with the government only providing technical and financial help, he said.

Mr Boumba said Nepal would need support to rebuild broken infrastructure and prepare for future natural disasters. "'The decisions the international community makes now will reverberate into Nepal's future. I hope it won't look anything like Haiti's recent past."

This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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