On April 25, 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 people and leaving 3.5 million without homes. Now two years later, after an impressive immediate response and declarations by the government to “build back better,” development workers are saying the recovery process has stalled, especially in rural areas. New designs for homes and buildings are just not practical for low-income families, and according to the government, donor commitments are not coming through.
Apart from government efforts, there has been no shortage of participation by international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) as well. World Education is one such organization, which has been in Nepal since 1976. Although their work is focused on education – particularly non-formal education in Nepal among the poorest and most vulnerable communities – the earthquake thrust the organization into other aspects of the recovery process as well. World Education’s Country Director Helen Sherpa offered Humanosphere an update from the ground.
Humanosphere: Let’s talk first about World Education’s relief strategy of recapitalizing savings and credit groups that were self-sufficient before the earthquake. From what I understand, World Education was able to help restart businesses and rebuild homes by spending about $6 per family, which would have purchased only a blanket or sack of rice otherwise. As an education organization, what inspired that?
Sherpa: In the immediate recovery period, everybody was very focused on getting out blankets, getting out tarpaulins, getting out rice in the first week or two. But as donations and things were gathered during some recovery work, people became concerned that that wasn’t the main need. The bigger issue was how to get crops back in, livestock had died, businesses had collapsed – what could we do? With the small amount of funding available, it wasn’t possible to do a lot for each family.
Humanosphere: So why savings and credit groups?
Helen: Microfinance plays a very significant role in women’s access to finance here. But after the earthquake, their ledger was gone. They were giving up, yet this is the thing that had gotten them out of poverty before the earthquake. …They had businesses, their children in school, television in their home, electricity – they had a reasonably comfortable life. And overnight, they lost everything. They had less than they had when I met them in 1996. Not only [that]…the money from the savings groups was all out on loan to people who were now no longer able to repay.
Humanosphere: Why do you think this relief strategy is overlooked by many?
Sherpa: People think that savings and credit is too slow, but here we are two years after the earthquake, and many of these communities have had virtually no help beyond the first few weeks. The government gave them about 15,000 rupees the first year – about $150. So there’s been very little support to help people organize. But these women’s groups have organized and gotten government services to come and do livestock camps, forest nurseries and restore legal identities for example. By working together with each other again, which is the way they’ve coped in the past, they’re able to see ways of improving things and working their way out of this.
Humanosphere: Was World Education able to identify this strategy because of its long relationship with these communities, or was it something else?
Sherpa: Yes, our connection to the community plays an important part, but we work in literacy, and women tend to be less literate. I think a lot of relief work is done by men who talk to men. Here in Nepal, in many of these communities, the men are absent. We have many female-headed households, where the men are in the Middle East, Malaysia or other parts of Nepal as migrant workers. People come and talk to the men who are present, but often do not talk to the women. I can think of one community: They had meetings with the men, and the men wanted the roads fixed. The women wanted the water supply restored. The men didn’t even mention that because they’re not the one who have to go and collect the water. So I think there’s quite a gender dimension to earthquake response that is overlooked.
Humanosphere: How was Nepal’s development progress before the earthquake?
Sherpa: Despite years of war and problems, Nepal’s health indicators had improved a lot. Far more children were attending school. The social indicators – the number of people who had access to electricity, water – everything was improving. This earthquake has set back a large number of districts, and it will have an effect on children’s persistence in school and health outcomes in those communities.
Humanosphere: How was the initial response in 2015?
Sherpa: I think the initial response was pretty good. The world, Nepal, the urban dwellers of Kathmandu, nobody expected them to mobilize the way they did and go out and help. I think that was really impressive.
Humanosphere: And after that?
Sherpa: After that stage, as we moved into the recovery stage, things have really stalled. The donors made commitments, and not all those commitments have come through according to the government. But the bigger problem has been that the government bureaucracy wanted – and everybody believes in – “build back better.” Well, that’s a lovely theory, but it meant that it took them a very long time to come up with approved designs. That basically took a year. When the first designs were approved many of them are totally impractical in poor communities – too expensive to build, the timber’s not available, etc. The relief funds that the government is committing will in no way be sufficient to a household to build the designs without a lot of other money.
Humanosphere: What conditions are rural communities living in now?
Sherpa: People are living in tin shacks. We had about 700,000 households lost their homes. The government was saying a while back about 40,000 people had rebuilt. It’s very slow. These temporary houses are too cold in winter, too hot in the summer. They’re very small and very difficult for the families, and there’s very little progress on that.
Humanosphere: I saw some figures recently that pegged the number of rebuilt homes as low as 20,889. What about in your primary area of work – schools?
Sherpa: World Education has helped build about 475 temporary schools after the earthquake – a tin roof, bamboo walls and a mud floor. Now, that went through the first monsoon, which the monsoon is very, very extreme here. Then, the winter – extremely harsh, cold and windy. Then the next monsoon, and we’ve just survived the next winter. Many of these temporary school classrooms are starting to collapse now, and the government’s saying that out of the almost 8,000 schools that were damaged in the earthquake, so far only 1,500 have been replaced. So home is difficult, school is difficult. In a flat, easily accessible area, recovery after major disaster is hard, but Nepal is just so much more difficult.
Humanosphere: How resilient is Nepal now?
Sherpa: I’m an optimist, because Nepalis are very resilient. They’ve lived in the Himalayas for centuries. They don’t rely much on government or everybody else, and I think that’s why we are so positive about women’s savings groups, because they actually do the work. They make it happen.
It’s also important to understand that about 30 percent of Nepal’s economy – its GDP – comes from remittances from its migrant workers. Those remittances play a very important part in the resilience of these families. But it also means that most of our young male population, and many young females as well, are absent from the community, which means that recovery and the impacts on older people and children are even greater. So they’ll get remittance money that will enable them to eat, but not enough to rebuild their homes.
Humanosphere: What do you think is most helpful way to encourage a speedier recovery?
Sherpa: I think there is a need to keep supporting recovery through U.N. agencies like UNICEF and through INGOs like World Education. Nepal is not an easy environment in which to work, and after disasters, people get fatigued quickly and lose interest. When you have 700,000 families lose their homes in remote mountain areas, that is something that’s going to take a long commitment. The government only has commitments to rebuild 33 percent of the schools that were lost. We have a whole generation of children who need an education, who need safe homes.
People have to keep the pressure on the donor community, the U.N., the development agencies not to walk away after they’ve done the easiest stuff, because the first schools that are built are the high-profile ones near the road. The ones that are three days’ walk away, when will we see those rebuilt? If we don’t, we’ll see a lot of rural-to-urban migration into already poor living conditions in the city.