Assessing the View from the Top of the World in Nepal
Namaste: I’ve been in Nepal for three weeks and have done many site visits, and met with local NGOs, INGOs, and private individuals who responded to the disaster: Gorkha earthquake, April 2015.
Kathmandu is like a lot of third-world capitals: a lattice of crooked roads, choked with traffic and smog, street vendors, and alleys leading to secret courtyards and hundreds-of-years-old temples, and surprisingly friendly people; everywhere, the air is redolent with curries and incense interspersed with sewage and garbage.
After a few days in the city, getting my bearings and having meetings with my local contacts, I headed out into the field to assess the situation in the villages—in the lower mountains with the towering Himalayas in the distance.
Even a year after the earthquake, not much has been done to rebuild houses for the more then 650,000 affected families. On the one hand, this is understandable, as the government and the big NGOs try to coordinate and deliver that much aid, while maintaining some semblance of order (among the agencies, as well as the beneficiaries), building standards, and equitable distribution of resources. On the other hand: let’s just help some people already!
Getting to the villages is an odyssey in itself. Most are accessible only after day-long bus rides on “paved” roads, then more hours of harrowing 4-wheel-drive ascents on narrow cliffside “rough roads,” ending with strenuous hikes along footpaths barely clinging to the mountain. (A friend asked me if I were going to do any “trekking” while I was here; I think this qualifies.) Every time I thought we were near our destination, I was told, “Just around the next bend.” And the next… and the next. :0)
In all the villages I visited in the Gorkha district (the epicenter of the quake), as well as others—some of the most remote in Nepal—the situation was the same: the local mud and stone houses were mostly destroyed, if not rendered uninhabitable. The families have gotten through the last rainy season and winter by constructing makeshift shelters from the detritus of their previous homes. Most are living in lean-tos of corrugated metal and wooden posts.
Right after the disaster, many people from the city and unaffected areas rushed to put together supplies and deliver them to the villages where they had family or personal connections—many foreigners, who felt a connection to these mountains and the people from doing treks, sent money, often to unscrupulous “nonprofits” quickly set up to do “disaster relief.” And the government distributed some necessities, such as tarps and rice, in the early stages of the response.
Now, the process of assistance has ground to a frustrating halt.
Back in Kathmandu, I attended a 3.5-hour meeting with the heads of the government reconstruction agencies (NRA and HRRP) and all the big NGOs. So much bureaucracy, stonewalling, and inefficiency. But also big challenges for them. The government is forbidding anyone from building—UN, Oxfam, Care, World Vision, Save the Children, etc.—but MicroAid is under the radar, so I will do it, if I find the right situation. (See below for info. on our potential site.) At the meeting, there was a presentation by a guy from the World Bank, in addition to the Nepali government and the large INGOs. This is Big Disaster/Big Business/Big Money!
Obviously, there are plenty of people who need help, but the challenge for any NGO is to find those situations where they will not imbalance the village community by helping some and not others. There is no other way to figure out how do this than to be in the field and see it first-hand, like I am doing.
And it looks like I might have found a project. As always, where the focus is not!
Most of the attention is on the mountains and the villages, but so many people around Kathmandu also suffered and lost their homes. MicroAid may build for a family near Bhaktapur—a decidedly urban environment—definitely not the garden spot of the country.
When the Balram family settled here many generations ago (above, some family members with neighbors), the area was a rural hamlet outside of Kathmandu. Their simple mud and stone house was one of the first. The family was/is in the sewing caste, making clothes, curtains, bedding, etc. for the local community. Over the years, due to ready-made options, their business had dwindled and they became poor. A few years ago, the father died, leaving the mother to take care of her two daughters, two sons, and two grandkids. Then came the earthquake, which brought down their house. This is a good MicroAid situation because the family has no other recourse and no other NGO will help—they are too busy focusing on the mountains.
I will continue to update you as I to put it together.
I must add that the more I understand the aid process (in general), the more amazing it is to me that anyone can try to help, or donate to, a cause at a distance. To understand the issues and the players and the potential, one has to have direct information.
As your man on the ground, rest assured that I don’t use our funds unless I find an appropriate MicroAid situation.
I hope you and your family are happy, healthy, and secure.
Namaste from Nepal,