A little over a year after the April and May 2015 earthquakes that struck Nepal, the country is still struggling to rebuild. We spoke to Sara Rodriguez, Resident in Nepal at Accountability Lab, about the particular challenges that survivors still face, the important work her team is doing, and how donors can help.
Media coverage around the one-year anniversary highlighted an overall lack of progress in rebuilding efforts, despite an outpouring of international aid. Why is this?
Although sincere efforts are being made by different humanitarian agencies and organizations to assist in more remote areas, we believe that more should be done to reach all those who have been affected.
Our work has uncovered the varying degrees to which relief and recovery aid is being distributed. Accountability Lab conducts monthly Community Perception Surveys, listening to people’s needs and opinions and providing this information to the humanitarian community and the government. For example, when our February 2016 survey asked “Are your main problems being addressed?,” answers ranged from only a 1 percent positive response in the district of Kavrepalanchowk to 45 percent and 73 percent positive in Kathmandu (Nepal’s capital) and Gorkha (epicenter of the first earthquake), respectively.
Perception of fairness, however, has improved. Sixty-one percent of respondents to our first survey in June 2015 felt that aid was not being distributed fairly. That number shrank to 28 percent by February 2016. Surveys further revealed that those who still perceive distribution as unfair believe that aid is provided on first come, first served basis through networks (e.g., castes, political affiliations) and based on convenience, such as a village’s proximity to a main road.
Where is Nepal currently in its rebuilding, and what are the main challenges involved?
The post-earthquake reconstruction phase started formally at the end of January 2016, one month after the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was established and nine months after the first massive earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015. Until that date, little to no progress was made towards long-term recovery by either the Nepalese government or humanitarian NGOs. In mid-March the NRA started signing housing reconstruction grants with displaced families from a few villages in one of the 14 more affected districts as part of its final preparation to distribute the government-announced funds.
The NRA is gradually expanding its presence in these districts, but there is still a lot to be done. As of now (three quarters into the current fiscal year), the NRA has spent just 9.34 percent of its total budget. Today, more than 200,000 families are still internally displaced.
Recovery and reconstruction has been largely affected by the lack of concrete government policy, and exacerbated by several external factors, such as a lack of access to banking and difficult geography, which have impeded progress in the distribution of allocated funds.
What has been Accountability Lab’s focus in Nepal in the past year?
Our work has centered on the Mobile Citizen Helpdesks (MCHD) project, which works to improve earthquake survivors’ access to information and raise their voices against inaction and corruption in Nepal. One of MCHD’s goals is to help survivors monitor the recovery and reconstruction process (including funding) so they can be included in the projects affecting them. To achieve this goal, we work in several different ways.
- In the 14 districts most affected by the earthquake, 70 Community Frontline Associates are gathering informationon conditions of the survivors and documenting the progress and the challenges of recovery. We also collect rumours and concerns on the ground and provide reliable information to eliminate information gaps between the media, humanitarian agencies, and survivors.
- We have created citizen task forces specialized by area and empowering survivors to advocate for themselves on issues ranging from water, sanitation and hygiene to entitlements and preparation for monsoons.
- We track the flow of financial aid from the central level down to the citizens at the last mile in communities to help ensure that affected people are receiving the support they have been promised and to identify hotspots for funding discrepancies.
Our teams in the field are from the communities in which they work. During the past year, they have built trust with citizens, local government officials, NGOs and donors in a way that allows them to mobilize networks and fix problems much more quickly than many other organizations on the ground. To date, Accountability Lab has reached over 850 communities, providing earthquake related information to more than 60,000 citizens. At the moment, more than 50 NGOs, INGOs and humanitarian agencies, as well as government bodies, are using the information, materials and content generated by the MCHD.
Beyond short-term earthquake response, the Mobile Citizen Helpdesks are establishing the foundation for social change in a country where corruption is an endemic problem. We believe that public participation is essential to improving public accountability and thus, to achieving good governance.
What is your main message to donors who want to support Nepal?
Because NGOs vary widely in their effectiveness at helping those most in need, potential donors should carefully investigate the organizations they are considering. Thorough diligence can also increase pressure on NGOs to have greater impact.
Funders should continue to seek out reliable data on the status of the recovery. Some organizations have not updated their appeals to reflect the progress that has been made, highlighting problems and issues that have already been addressed.
In addition, donors should think as critically as possible about the types of projects they support. Activities that improve livelihoods and long-term capacity building are crucial for sustained development. For example, after a year working on earthquake relief and recovery, we have realized how important training and technologies are in being able to respond efficiently.
As someone who is familiar with local conditions in Nepal, what are some other organizations that you recommend to donors?
Young Innovations (Open Nepal initiative), Local Interventions Group, and Kathmandu Living Labs are promoting the use of data and information to rebuild responsibly and effectively. Association of Youth Organizations Nepal is encouraging youth organizations to collaborate on the issues affecting Nepal. Building Resilience, a joint film project between Onion Films and Accountability Lab, is capturing stories about recovery, and Maiti Nepal is working to stop trafficking of women and girls in Nepal. Global Giving also has a helpful list of funds and organizations for Nepal.