Nepal's disaster diplomacy

Nepal's disaster diplomacy
US rescue team officials with a sniffer dog search for survivors at a collapsed house in Kathmandu May 12, 2015, after an earthquake struck.

The government of Nepal has scheduled the Post-Earthquake Donors' Conference on Reconstruction (PDCR) for June 25.

If we have no alternatives to accepting foreign assistance-which I believe we don't, particularly for post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation-the best strategy would be to rely on or develop our diplomatic strength to maximise support and optimise benefits.

Transparency and vision

There could be four basic sources of such a strength. First, at the political level, it lies in the credibility of Nepal as a democratic nation-state.

Such credibility is enhanced only when rule of law and transparency is ensured at the centre and democratic institutions at the grassroots are present and functional.

Needless to say, the more credible the state is, the larger the support it will attract from international development partners.

But the current political syndicate of so-called major political parties has deliberately, and with manifest mala fide intentions, evaded the election of local bodies for the last 15 years now.

Even now, instead of holding these eleactions first, this syndicate has agreed to re-activate the All Party Mechanism at the local level 'to facilitate relief and reconstruction works'.

This is not only unconstitutional, it has also earned notoriety for being a collaborative attempt at wholesale corruption.

But there is still time to redraw a credible political map before the nation wields its diplomatic muscle to garner international support for post-relief reconstruction phase.

Second, the objectives of the PDCR can only be met if Nepalis are able to define post-disaster needs for the short, medium, and long term, and articulate the same with convincing plans of implementation while demonstrating our capacity to absorb resources.

The government plans to provide its Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) to Nepal's development partners and the international donor community by June 10.

But in light of its inability to even compile credible data on quake damages, it would be unrealistic to expect a clear and all-encompassing roadmap in such a short period of time.

Besides, as Nepal needs at least $10 billion for reconstruction and resettlement, the government's plan to propose a meager sum of $2 billion is clearly an unrealistic and defensive approach.

The apprehension that donors might not respond positively to a 'very large' proposal is not entirely unfounded.

In any case, no support is likely to flow in without a feasible blueprint for enhancing the government's credibility and increasing the spending capacity of its systems.

The proposed $2 billion purse looks absurdly small if we think beyond the current devastation and begin to ponder a nationwide long-term disaster preparedness plan.

Discipline and practice

Third, the state should not just assuage the concerns of development partners with some tangible examples that prove that the assistance they provide will not be siphoned by corruption at every level of the administration.

Rather, it should develop a code of conduct, which would be applicable even for those who will be mobilised by the international community for earthquake-related reconstruction and rehabilitation. For example, such a code should spell out the limits of the aggregate emoluments that each international 'humanitarian worker' will be entitled to, which should commensurate with the amount the donor in question releases and which also must not be greatly higher than Nepali salary scales.

This is a sensitive issue linked to the performance of the domestic human resource in the longer run.

And fourth, the government's belief that effective economic diplomacy can generate much support from the international community is not enough; it should begin to put this belief into practice.

It is not difficult to conclude that had all ambassadorial positions at the Nepali missions abroad been duly filled, the response and support that Nepal received during this crisis would have increased.

Just as an example, Nepal's envoy to India, Deep Kumar Upadhyaya, had not even presented his credentials when the earthquake struck on April 25.

He could've served as a very crucial interlocutor in coordinating massive Nepal-bound relief efforts within hours of the quake.

More importantly, he had easy access to New Delhi power corridors due to his political clout, so he could've communicated the needs and expectations of the Nepali people.

Failed potential

In this context, our political leadership has badly failed on three distinct counts to effectively utilise the nation's diplomatic potential. First, there are no coordinated guidelines to operationalise our economic diplomacy.

Second, dozens of ambassadorial positions, including those in some very crucial stations, have remained vacant for years now. And third, the appointees are often not qualified to take up these important responsibilities, since they are the cronies and henchmen of some political bigwigs.

Lastly, Nepal has decided to host the PDCR in Kathmandu, "as per the wish of prime minister Sushil Koirala", despite the fact that development partners like India, Japan, and the World Bank were interested to organise it in New Delhi, Tokyo, and Paris, respectively.

Some of the prime minster's supporters portray his assertion as a 'nationalist' bid.

But, at this juncture, the outcome of the PDCR is more important than the venue.

A neutral venue would probably have attracted more generous support and Nepal would have had the opportunity to capitalise on the credibility of the hosting partner, who, in turn, would have been morally responsible to live up to any commitments made at the forum.

The writer is a former editor of Arthik Abhiyan, an economic weekly.

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