| February 24, 2018

Lessons from diaspora

Few feelings are worse than helplessness. The persistent earthquake aftershocks in Nepal that has our loved ones scampering for shelter have left us helpless 8,000 miles away from home. The collective voice from the Nepali diaspora, although I do not claim to represent anyone other than myself, appears to be that they are willing to do what it takes to get out of this state. Most of the "doing" is occurring in the form of fund-raising efforts. But desperate times usually lead to emotional decisions and misguided action. My goal here is going to be to encourage those wanting to help from abroad to start thinking about a new way of getting involved by promoting what I call self-mobilizing entities.

I am no expert in disaster management, but I am educated enough to know that priorities during relief efforts are time-sensitive. The immediate concern at this point (when the chances of saving people trapped in rubbles is minimal) should be to lower preventable deaths by giving people access to basic necessities (tents, food, etc.) so that they can sustain themselves for the next week or two. Most affected areas outside Kathmandu have not had access to these basic needs, even after almost a hundred million dollars have been disbursed in aid. People are still living in open ground in persistent rain and are surviving by eating grass and scrub. Large organizations, and by extension their aid, comes with bureaucratic contingencies and things consequently move slowly. I do not intend to bash their intention, nor belittle the terrific work they are doing in the field currently, but they will perhaps agree that what is being done is not enough, not for the timeline we are operating under. In a de facto plutocracy like Nepal, even aid goes to the rich and connected first.

But what I have also observed is the emergence of highly efficient self-mobilizing entities that operate effectively under a targeted scope. These entities (individuals or groups of 3-4) have taken it upon themselves to provide relief efforts to areas the government has not been able to reach. It is worth mentioning here that Nepal does not really have a government that has been elected for the purpose of governance by the people. So, instead of unfairly expecting leadership from people who perhaps do not possess the requisite attributes, the self-mobilizing entities have started identifying the areas of need and acting accordingly. I will start off with a personal example.

My family in Kathmandu was fortunate enough to be unharmed by the earthquake, bar the trauma. Once the dust settled, literally, my father realized that a district roughly three hours away from Kathmandu (called Sindhupalchowk) was almost obliterated and has seen no organizational relief. After conversation with locals in the area, he figured that the immediate concern was shelter for the displaced. Tents are very scarce in Nepal right now, and even large aid organizations are unsure of how to arrange a consistent supply of tents. The few commercially available tents are being sold at 5-7 times the original price. My father connected with a sack manufacturer on the Nepal-India border, and convinced him to start making tents. The manufacturer agreed to supply 100 tents per day at the cost of roughly seven dollars per tent. My father and my brother started taking turns grabbing the 100 tents each day and going to Sindhupalchowk to distribute them.

After a couple of days, another self-mobilizing entity (a group of gentlemen who requested not to be identified) started partnering with them and sending biscuits and beaten-rice along with the tents. The point of this story is that neither my father nor my brother knows anything about tents or disaster relief. If two untrained people can provide shelter to a 1,000 people a day, the question begs itself: Why donate to a behemoth institution that is waiting for some foreign country's directive before a helicopter can be dispatched so an expert can go and assess the damage? Why not put the money where it can be used immediately and productively?

My personal story is not an exception. I have seen countless examples of self-mobilizing entities each working to solve a very specific but very important problem. Regardless of their expertise, no one will know the realities on the ground more than people who are facing them right now. When given the right resources they will find creative ways to solve the problems they face, in ways that no expert can conceive of. Sometimes these entities fuse together to form synergistic partnerships, creating a self-mobilizing network. But what they need is a supply of resources.

That is where I think we, the diaspora and people wanting to help, can contribute in the most effective way. I am aware that I am not the first person to come to this conclusion; I just want it publicized in a formal way. Roughly 48 hours ago, I started a crowd-funding campaign to support the tent-relief effort in Sindhupalchowk. Including my own money, the campaign has raised enough to provide shelter for 7,500 people. This money has no overhead cost associated. It comes with a simple equation, every seven dollars gives ten people shelter for the next month or two (and probably longer). I sent over half the money within 24 hours, and was able to report back to the donors that tents had reached the ground already. I know first-hand examples of other such efforts where people are sending money for solar-powered lights, food items, and medical equipment to support self-mobilizing entities.

This is not meant to discourage you from donating to larger organizations. In fact, for days since the earthquake, I have been working (as part of a group) full time on collecting funds for large medical organizations. These large organizations are essential, because in the long term, rehabilitation requires planning and expertise that only larger organizations can provide. But in the short term, we need a more agile strategy.

So, my suggestion to those wanting to help is to start identifying self-mobilizing entities within your network. If there are none, start encouraging them to be, sometimes all they need is a little nudge. You can also find your friends who have identified them and support their cause. Start crowdfunding campaigns for them or collect whatever resources they need. Keep it personal. Send your plea to your close network and tell them to help your efforts because they trust you, and by extension, your cause. Tell your close network to then forward it to 2-3 people in their circle. In this case, your credibility to your immediate network is what people are donating to. Before you know, you'll have enough resources to keep a village alive until the government finally arrives.

The author holds a PhD in engineering from Carnegie Mellon University
Suman Giri

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