Editor’s note: The International Reporting Project supports journalists on travel fellowships, often focused on matters of aid and development. This year, IRP fellows went to Nepal to report on the country’s efforts to improve health and arrived just before the quake. Melody Schreiber, program manager for IRP, reports on the challenge of disaster aid and relief there.
By Melody Schreiber, special to Humanosphere
With yet another large quake striking Nepal on Tuesday, killing nearly a hundred people and reports of a missing US military helicopter that had been aiding remote communities, the challenge of providing disaster assistance in this poor country has only gotten bigger.
Those of us in the US, or online anywhere in the world, who wish to help out are offered a bewildering and nearly ubiquitous array of pitches from organizations.
When users log into Facebook, the social network cajoles them to support Nepal: “Thousands of Nepal earthquake survivors need our help,” the message says, pledging to match up to $2 million. PayPal users see a similar plea. Appeals for aid echo across social media (and more traditional media as well).
The United States has pledged an initial $1 million in humanitarian assistance, and the United Nations announced a $415 million emergency appeal. Google, which lost one of its executives in the avalanche, pledged $1 million.
But where is all that cash going?
“We get words, but no money,” says Dr. Swoyam Prakash Pandit, the director of Bir hospital. At Bir, a tertiary center that provides specialist care in Kathmandu, they need food and water for patients; they need crutches and anesthesiology equipment; they need medicine and supplies.
But nothing has arrived.
Andrew Trotter is an infectious disease specialist at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu. So far, he says, the staff is all local, and all of their resources have come from the teaching hospital. Some supplies were donated from international organizations before tragedy struck, but none since. Outside, near the entrance of the hospital, there’s a Unicef tent, but no one from Unicef is here.
“There seems to be aid mobilized, but we haven’t seen it yet,” Trotter says.
In Nepal, all international aid must go through the Prime Minister’s relief fund. Whether the donation is through WHO, the UN, or private philanthropies, funds get tangled up in opaque bureaucracy and politics. This delays the delivery of money to its intended recipients—the organizations and individuals who most need it—and it may cause the government to make allocations based on politics rather than need.
“International aid takes time to go through the government,” admits Upendra Kanta Aryal, Nepal’s chief of police, who is overseeing relief efforts and search and rescue operations. “Certainly we are worried.”
In a country ranked 126 out 175 nations for corruption, how Nepal’s government handles the massive influx of cash will be crucial to the country’s development over the next decade. But with its lack of transparency, it’s not even clear how much money has been received.
However, one loophole exists. Funds and supplies donated directly to Nepali-registered NGOs bypass the government.
Lokesh Todi, based in Kathmandu, and his brother Aditya Todi, based in Boston, began raising money through the website IndieGoGo about five hours after the earthquake struck. So far, more than $120,000 has been donated. All funds will go directly to Global Shapers, an NGO registered and operating in Nepal. Global Shapers will then disburse the funds to local NGOs that have close, longstanding ties within local communities—organizations that will continue working in the region long after donations have stopped trickling in.
The goal, Todi says, is to focus on women, children, and sanitation, particularly in rural areas—demographics and issues that are often overlooked in disaster relief. The Todi brothers hope “to deal with the void left behind” by the quake.
“It’s unfortunate to see people who were already suffering to suffer more,” Todi says.
Dr. Bibhav Acharya has also used IndieGoGo; so far, his campaign has raised $600,000 for Nepali NGOs.
“This whole week has been heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time,” he says.
His campaign funnels funds directly to the Nepali-registered NGO, America Nepal Medical Foundation; AMNF is then working with other local organizations to provide medical relief.
“The goal is to support the structures already in place—not to create something new,” Acharya emphasizes.
Nepal was long overdue for a major earthquake, and the government had plans in place for such a disaster—in theory, at least. With an earthquake of this magnitude, officials expected a death toll of 100,000 and the ranks of the injured to swell to 300,000.
Yet with around 5,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries—devastation on a scale much less than predicted—the government is still scrambling to recover.
The government’s efforts “need to be more coordinated,” says Sushil Baral, executive director of Health Research and Social Development (HERD). Otherwise, they will have an epidemic—or several—on their hands. “There are NGOs and individuals who are willing to contribute,” Baral says. “But making sure those funds are reaching the people on time is important.”
Now, rumors have begun circulating that the government is clamping down on donations made after April 25—even to local organizations.
For now, Lokesh Todi is confident that donations raised through his campaign will soon reach Nepalis in need.
“I believe that the government won’t interfere,” Todi says. “If it does, the government will lose credibility—not only among local NGOs but also international aid organizations.”
“It’s something the government needs to think about, if they’re going to meddle,” Todi adds. There are NGO experts who might be better placed than politicians to disburse funds, he says, especially to those so often overlooked in basic health and development services.
Bibhav Acharya is worried that potential donors have been scared off by the news around the government’s control of funds.
“That has been such a distraction for the supporters,” Acharya says, clearly frustrated. “It caused so much confusion.”
The delay in aid will directly affect survivors like Tanak Lama, who is sleeping with his family outside of Bir hospital. They’re waiting for Lama’s sister-in-law, Anatari Lama Bal, to be treated for head wounds. Back home, their goats are buried, their house is gone. They don’t even have a tent to camp under.
“I really don’t know what we’ll do when we get back,” Lama says.
Melody Schreiber is a program manager at the International Reporting Project. Before joining IRP, she was an assistant editor at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a freelance editor for various authors and research institutions. Her articles and essays have been published by The Washington Post,Washingtonian, Slate, Grist and other publications. Her fiction has appeared in District Lines and Magical: An Anthology of Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Other Fiction for Adults.