| February 28, 2017
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Broken lines

Broken lines
International response to natural disasters continue to fail to address the needs of affected communities
Shakti Thami from Suspa village of Dolakha district was working in Charikot, the district headquarters, when the earthquake struck on April 25, 2015. Ten months later, he shares a house with four other families. He is still waiting for government compensation. He is not sure when the money will come. “There’s so much confusion. People in one ward have received funds but we haven’t. We are told the money isn’t coming from Kathmandu, but no one has told us why,” Thami says.

Thami is not alone in feeling uninformed about specifics of recovery. The post-earthquake response in Nepal was huge, mobilizing large international organisations, government bodies and local NGOs. Over US $4 billion was pledged for recovery efforts and huge amounts of resources were distributed among the 14 affected districts. With so many organisations and teams working in Nepal, why are so people uninformed and unaware of what is being done?


Rural communities are often left out of policy and planning decisions relating to recovery after natural disasters. As a result, there has long been discrepancies between the aid that is needed by specific communities and the aid those communities actually get. So we have poorly planned, but well meaning, emergency responses that actually make the situation worse.

Following Hurricane Mitch of 1998, Honduras was overwhelmed by donations. According to Alanna Shaikh, a global health professional who has written on relief efforts, the donations had a negative effect. “They clogged ports, overwhelmed military transport, and made it nearly impossible for relief agencies to ship in supplies they really needed. Those donations did harm, not good. Expired drugs had to be carefully disposed of. Inappropriate donations had to be transported away and discarded. All of this wasted time and money.” Examples of excessive donations of supplies hampering relief efforts can be found in Haiti and in India after 2004 Tsunami.

Back in Nepal, after the earthquake the Tribhuvan International Airport was equally overwhelmed by relief materials, large portions of which were unnecessary and unhelpful. International responses are always inadequate or poorly planned because they work on assumptions of what is needed. There is a constant lack of long-term community engagement. It is this arrogant top-down attitude of predominately Western organisations that causes, or certainly contributes to, poor disaster response. The lack of community involvement is the single biggest limiting factor in post-disaster response.

The post-quake reconstruction is an immensely complicated affair, made more so by the presence of numerous multi-national organisations. This complexity is natural. However, if the nature of the work is not explained, it can leave thousands thinking they have been abandoned by those in Kathmandu.

Two organisations that are working directly with communities are Accountability Lab and Local Interventions Group. Both currently work in all 14 affected districts and attempt to create a complete feedback loop for post-earthquake response. They are part of UN’s Inter Agency Common Feedback Project (CFP), an attempt by humanitarian agencies to collect data from local level while simultaneously provide crucial information to these communities.

The generated data is used by a variety of organisations including Oxfam to improve their responses. The two bodies not only provide other organisations with data, but also serve as crucial links between communities and organisations responsible for relief. The creation of the CFP is an attempt to create mechanisms to generate community feedback and integrate it in the response.

The CFP reports allow those in communities to engage and establish dialogue with international and domestic actors, with whom they otherwise wouldn’t have come in contact with. For example, in the Community Perception Survey in Dolakha undertaken in December, the CFP found that the information most required by citizens was related to government decisions followed by information on how to access or register for support. This shows a failure of government and non-governmental agencies to disseminate relevant information to those who need it.

This is also applicable in the case of NGOs. According to the same report, 33 percent respondents said NGO response was unsatisfactory, as they thought relief materials were being distributed based on political affiliation, the process was taking too long and NGO plans were unclear. Most worryingly, back in December, 88 percent respondents had said they were not prepared for the winter. Accountability Lab and Local Interventions Group are all too aware that disaster responses or interventions are often supply-driven and rarely fit needs on-the-ground and that after the earthquake it is clear there is a need to be more engaged to create dialogue with communities.

A crucial part of disaster management is the ability to learn from mistakes in order to strengthen local capacity. Analysis of post-earthquake reconstruction shows that there is a need to utilize local knowledge and capacity. Only by being an integral part of the recovery can communities ensure their needs and requirements are understood and addressed. Discussions regarding the involvement of communities are encouraging and could lead to an increased level of resiliency.

However, for many of the eight million people affected by the earthquake, any discussion or attempt to put the community at the forefront of relief effort is simply too late.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu