| June 25, 2018

Building back better

Building back better
The dust from a series of aftershocks of the Great Earthquake has started to settle but our mental scars will take longer to heal. Some probably never will. But no catastrophe has ever succeeded in slowing down or reversing advances of mankind. We have collectively managed to build back quicker, better and smarter.

The earthquakes took more than 8,000 lives, wounded over twice as many, destroyed properties worth billions, and shattered our heritage as well as our sense of invincibility. Much of this must be attributed to complacency borne of a false sense of security as we aspired to build bigger without trying to understand what was happening under our feet.
Our wisdom asks us to rise from the dust, beyond this cataclysmic destruction to build back better. We will need will, desire and confidence but these alone will not be sufficient. We also require well-defined roadmaps comprising of appropriate policies, plans and designs. We need financial resources to provide the fuel, and also a strong institutional set up that has the capacity to handle the aftermath.

The temblor's impact in economy is deep-rooted. It may take years to understand what has been lost and how much money we will require to build back. We will have this data after the Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA), being undertaken by the National Planning Commission, is completed by early June; but we will still not have an estimate of what we will require unless we define a national reconstruction policy upon which sector plans, programs and designs will be based.

Demands to quickly reinstate public buildings, schools and health posts are rising. Agencies are offering immediate support, which government line agencies are tempted to accept. We want to quickly return to status quo. But if we reinstate every house, school, road and market, how will we build better? Will we reinstate Khokana or Sankhu with narrow streets or rebuild them as safe, clean and disaster resilient townships with affordable modern amenities?

Settlements in villages can be made denser, to the extent that they do not compromise livelihood of people, and cities can be de-concentrated to provide better service, safety, natural environment and to promote growth. All-round pressure to quickly restore what we had before will only compromise our safety in the long run.

The overlap between relief and recovery is creating confusion among state actors on their roles and responsibilities. It is the right time to move towards "management by logic" rather than continuing with "management by reaction".

Importance of an effective and efficient institutional mechanism to drive the process ahead cannot be undermined. But since we already have so many institutions why do we need a new one? A responsible person from a prominent funding agency said to Nepal government, "Given your track record of low disbursement efficiency, how do you reassure us you will use the money you are requesting for reconstruction wisely?"

Ideas about reconstruction and recovery are being floated from all quarters. There should be a central institution to asses those ideas on the basis of suitability for implementation and to guide recovery and reconstruction.

Provision of an Extra Ordinary Mechanism (EOM) or a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to handle reconstruction and recovery is a global norm. Some successful examples are mechanisms created to address the reconstruction after Maharashtra earthquake (1993), Gujarat earthquake (2001), Pakistan earthquake (2005) and Wenzhou town earthquake in Wenchuan County, China (2008).

This critical issue of appropriate institutional mechanism to drive a complex reconstruction and recovery program has not received as much attention as it should. There is also a belief that existing disaster coordination mechanisms are sufficient. But once again confusion between relief and reconstruction phases, which call for entirely different set of skills, compounded by no previous experience in handling a disaster of this scale, as well as fear of losing individual institutional turfs, are contributing to institutional status quo.

Those against EOM suggest a new agency will be susceptible to rivalry with existing agencies; they fear of a lengthy process required to set up such an organization; and creation of yet more communication channels resulting in unwieldy coordination mechanisms.

But the alternatives are worse. Existing institutional mechanisms are marred by sluggish decision making, long process-oriented delivery systems leading to frustratingly slow implementation, sub-optimal procurement efficiency, serious lack of horizontal coordination, unmotivated staff and their frequent turnover, and trade unionism, to name a few.

Experiences show that successful reconstruction and recovery are achieved by countries which are able to address governance issues and move out of normal bureaucratic procedures. Those who missed this opportunity often failed.

A third model, which is a hybrid of the two, looks more suitable for Nepal. Access limitations due to geographical challenges will seriously impair the capacity of a standalone EOM at the center entrusted with the mandate for reconstruction and recovery. Hence, a strong central agency of about 25 to 30 people, with an experienced executive supported by multidisciplinary experts, and headed by a strong political leadership, must be established to formulate and coordinate programs, monitor implementation, and manage fund flow. Program implementation must be entrusted to line ministries and their respective units, through the funds made available by the central agency. It is imperative to keep this reconstruction agency above line ministries in hierarchy in order to avoid intersecting communication lines.

Building back better is possible as we have goodwill and support of both national and international community. Internal resources can be raised. But we need a strong roadmap, a strong institutional set up and courage to do away with lethargic and inept implementation. A powerful central agency, devoid of current inefficiencies must guide and monitor the entire process under the purview of a Reconstruction Policy and a Reconstruction Act.

The Reconstruction Act must allow a fast-track process of procurement, streamline environmental compliance measures, ease land management and human resources management issues and ring-fence the agency and its staff from day to day interferences. "Trust" must be established so that people can have confidence to make decisions, before they can rebuild what has been lost. Allow imaginations to fly, knowledge to take shape, implementation to gain strength and efficiency to be the norm. Only with such environment, can we build back better.

The author is Secretary, Ministry of Finance. Views are personal.
Suman Prasad Sharma

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