| November 21, 2017

Awkward moment

Awkward moment
As donor and government representatives meet in the Donor Conference on Thursday, they will most likely face some awkward moments: the host expecting the guests to pledge big grants for reconstruction, the guests responding with suppressed misgivings. It will be like two 'not-so-honest' persons meeting face to face, pledging to act honestly, each knowing full well the other is not sincere enough. This will be true about at least some donors like UN, and agencies through which foreign countries spend money in Nepal. Events that unfolded after the April 25 tragedy and the trust deficit that is building up between government and donor community have set the stage for such moments. A short review of post-earthquake development will be necessary to set the context.

The government proved to be sluggish in earthquake response. International agencies reached ravaged villages with relief materials much before the government. This shaped public perception in their favor. Alarmed, government came up with a single-door policy and asked all international agencies to channelize relief aids through Prime Minister's Disaster Relief Fund. They did not comply. By then, foreign agencies were able to impress that they were more efficient than government machinery on relief distribution. The war of words began.
International agencies sought unhindered access to victims citing "heavy" bureaucratic procedures. Jamie McGoldrick, UN resident coordinator in Nepal, spoke to The International New York Times, a sister publication of Republica, about the government in a rather condescending tone: "So many layers of government and so many departments involved, so many different line ministries... We don't need goods sitting in Kathmandu warehouses... We need them up in the affected areas." Government spokesperson Minendra Rijal quickly retaliated: "It would be better if the UN involved itself more in its duties rather than engaging in criticizing the government," he said. Bitterness did not stop here.

Chief Secretary Leelamani Paudyal made a public appeal through Republica: "Glorifying outsiders or non-governmental sector and belittling national system only strengthens outsiders and weakens the country," he warned, "If you mistrust your elected government... it breeds frustration among those who are giving their all to help those in need." Each was trying to prove itself more efficient than the other.

The trust deficit and the 'holier than thou' attitude of both the government and donors are far from spent. Nepal's Ministry of Home Affairs has been releasing reports clarifying why donors do not want to give to the government (because they want to spend the money as they please), why very little trickles down to the grassroots (because nearly all of the pledged money is spent on overhead costs, salaries and consultant fees). The donor agencies claim the government is doing this to cover up their weaknesses. Government tells the donors: Practice what you preach; you are not transparent and accountable; you announce big sums but take almost all of it back home. Donors counter: Your bureaucracy is corrupt and inefficient; your government ministers are unreliable; your spending far from transparent. This tug of war does not inspire hope among earthquake victims. Both look like emperors without clothes—thanks to a series of media revelations.

Most victims are yet to receive Rs 15, 000 in aid money needed to build temporary shelters, even after two months of earthquake, and even while they are forced to spend nights under rickety tents in the monsoon. Victim identification has not been completed yet. Government relief distribution has been marred by corruption scandals. It had no record of five million kilos of rice and about 57, 000 blankets sent by Bangladesh. The National Vigilance Center has confirmed embezzlement in purchase of tarpaulin by Ministry of Urban Development. There is no sign of government holding them to account. Sushil Koirala's vow of zero tolerance on aid misuse has proved to be empty.

Then there are donor agencies whose efficiency has been heavily debated in national and international media. Ugly secrets of how they gobble up all money pledged in aid have also become public. ProPublica has reported on how Red Cross in Haiti raised US $500 million but only built six houses. UN bodies are under scanner. Emily Troutman, who once served as Citizen Ambassador to UN, offers a compelling analysis of how very little of donor money reaches the ground in her essay What Happened to the Aid? Nepal Earthquake Response Echoes Haiti (http://aid.works/2015/06/nepal-haiti/).

"If you gave a dollar for Nepal's earthquake recovery," she writes, "you can guess 90 cents made it to the country, and then 20 cents went to Nepal government taxes. A further 25 cents, optimistically, went to administrative costs for the main contractor. Then, perhaps, 15 cents or more for the administrative costs of the subcontractor. Best case scenario: you have 30 cents left."

CARE Nepal, Oxfam and Save the Children's spending in Dhading supports Troutman's example. According to a report in Kantipur daily, they are spending money like water—they pay as much as Rs 60, 000 in monthly rent for a house that was earlier rented for Rs 8, 000 a month and seven times the normal transportation fares. A series of reports on substandard, rotten and inedible foodstuff distributed by World Food Program and other INGOs have angered people around the country.

Most of what happens within these agencies—such as how most things they do is limited to paperwork, how only staffs benefit from grants and assistance—remain hidden. INGOs are often manned by privileged people who are often critical of the government but defend their position or stay quiet for fear of losing their privilege. Perhaps this is the first time they have been put under media gaze and public criticism in Nepal.

Donor conference is taking place at a time when there is lack of trust in both donors as well as the government.

Our government has not been able to spend more than 20 percent of development budget for the last few years. Ministers in Koirala government lack enthusiasm because they know they could be replaced soon. It will be no surprise if the conference ends up being a mere ritual.

Be that as it may, Nepal must ask for help because it stands at an extremely precarious junction. It needs about an estimated 700 billion rupees for reconstruction—which is beyond its capacity. A number of its citizens have lost houses and properties. Donor conference should ensure that their grants reach the victims and benefit those 700,000 Nepalis rendered 'poor' by earthquakes, according to the National Planning Commission.

This is an opportunity for both the donors and government to display high level of commitment and integrity. This is the time to assure that what happened during the relief phase won't be repeated during reconstruction process. But they should start this conference with acknowledgement of each other's shortcomings and commit not to repeat past mistakes. The amount of grants the government will be able to garner, however, won't determine success of the conference.

Pledges and promises may have symbolic meaning but the success of the conference will ultimately be determined by whether it will be able to change the situation of the poor earthquake victims in Gorkha, Sindhupalchowk, Dolakha and Dhading—who are sleeping under tin sheets which could be blown away by storms, whom heavy rainfall keeps awake during long nights and who run helter-skelter in the fear of impending landslips and yet have nowhere to go. One doubts government ministers and donor representatives will be able to visualize these disturbing images while they are shaking hands, faking smiles, exchanging pleasantries, and serving or being served with sumptuous meals inside a comfortable hotel in Kathmandu. They will, let us hope.

Twitter: @mahabirpaudyal
Mahabir Paudyal

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