Within Nepal and outside, there is growing criticism of the way in which the government of Nepal is handling the humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake. An early complaint was that planes carrying relief supplies were unable to land at Kathmandu’s congested airport –something that is now less of an issue, with the airport being open 24 hours a day (at least to smaller planes). Then a number of reports of delays in supplies being delivered stressed the time taken in customs and the unhelpfulness of government officials. It was also reported (by the BBC) that until Friday, taxes were being levied on the import of vital tents and tarpaulins. Worse, there are accusations that a part of all the aid flowing into the country is being siphoned off by corrupt officials and is ultimately just helping members of the elite to entrench their positions of power.
Meanwhile government officials have retorted that some of the aid sent is useless (tins of tuna and mayonnaise being the cited examples of insensitivity), and that customs officials are duty-bound to check all consignments of relief that arrive – as they would be in any other country.
So how do our staff on the ground perceive this situation? The most obvious fact is that Nepal’s national government, however one may criticise it, is democratically elected (the last national elections were in 2013). One cannot ignore it. However, there are different ways that international agencies can choose to work with any government. We have a country programme strategy that places a very clear and non-negotiable focus on working with poor and disadvantaged citizens in rural areas, and on promoting two-way accountability between local people and government representatives. In the current relief effort, the same principles apply. National regulations (as per an agreement between the government of Nepal and the United Nations dated 31 May 2007) stipulate that no organised relief materials are taxed, and this is certainly how we have been operating. The same agreement requires all relief materials to be channelled at district level through a District Disaster Relief Committee (DDRC) – that is, through the Chief District Officer (CDO), and to be stamped for distribution. We have also followed this regulation. Our teams then either themselves travel to the VDCs (Village Development Committees) with the supplies, or they hand them to our trusted partners – most notably Alliance 2015 members, but also the International Red Cross.
At VDC level, transparency in distribution is ensured through a Relief Distribution Committee whose membership includes Health Post staff, local political representatives, school teachers, and representatives of ward citizens’ forums. The agreed priority recipients are families who have lost lives as well as Dalits (so-called “low castes”), followed by families whose houses have collapsed. Those whose houses have been damaged have third priority, with families who live close to a road and whose houses have little damage having lowest priority. As noted in an earlier posting, women and especially pregnant women are given special attention. Thus we can be sure that it really is the women and men in need who receive assistance.
Over the past 25 years, Nepal’s road to true democracy has seen a bloody civil war, the fall of a king, much hope and much frustration. Yet to use government lethargy in the face of crisis as an excuse to avoid assisting all those Nepalese who have been rendered near destitute by the earthquake would be disingenuous indeed.