Nepal: the road to hell is paved with good intentions


Eric Berseth and Vincent Mudry


Shocking images, televisions stuck on the one event, the same words in everyone’s mouth on Monday morning. An earthquake has struck. Distraught individuals in the middle of what remains from their homes, bodies under the rubble, some of them already piling up on the side of the roads, survivors on the roofs without water nor food … The images are hard to stand, but unfortunately so familiar, and reminding us of previous natural disasters: the Philippines, Haiti, Pakistan, the Indonesian Tsunami …

The earthquake that struck Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia, has all the typical features of a severe but also highly broadcast humanitarian crisis, where widespread sympathy for the country, its people and its culture, as well as the presence of western tourists during the disaster, will have a major spillover effect.

Solidarity gains incredible momentum from this media shock and from the legitimate empathy that the pain of the victims evokes. Governments, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society set off to finance, rescue and coordinate; to help succour, feed and accommodate the victims; and to rebuild a country and a society that have been severely hit by the disaster. Individuals, foundations and enterprises take their share of responsibility in this impetus of solidarity, and mobilize their energies and means to help aid agencies in their relief efforts.

Nevertheless, there is a feeling of déjà-vu. As always happens after serious humanitarian crises, especially those that are widely broadcast, once the striking images fade away what we’ll be left with is the failures of this solidarity impetus, and the missteps committed during the emergency phase and the next phases too.

Far from wanting to curb the momentum, or to play the role of Cassandra in prophesying the next failures, this modest piece aims to remind all of us, through an experienced eye, that past mistakes must serve to improve the management of new crises like the one in Nepal today, and that we need to better channel this impetus of solidarity in order to maximize its impact for the earthquake victims.

The private sector – companies, wealthy individuals, charitable foundations – has a role to play in this type of response, and its engagement is more than welcome: it is necessary. However, to be effective it must be conducted thoughtfully and strategically. While the funds mobilized in such crises can be very large, their distribution is not always optimal.

First, the emergency phase always benefits from more attention and resources, thanks to extensive initial fundraising campaigns, emotive and full of images, and endorsed by the first press conferences of foreign ministers sharing their commitment to the people of Nepal. This initial phase is obviously essential, but what will happen in Nepal in the medium and long term, when the effects of the disaster will still be felt but the media gone? Moreover, some places that are more accessible or exposed in the media will capture more attention, leaving remote villages that are already highly marginalized with little access to aid. Finally, big international humanitarian players, certainly recognized and mostly effective, will capture most of the resources because of their reputation, communication skills and visibility in coordination platforms where institutional funding is negotiated. This allocation of funding will be detrimental for the local players, the ones truly able to pursue the rehabilitation of the country in the long run and to provide its people with the keys to resilience.

The private sector has a great role to play mainly because it enjoys total freedom in the allocation of its funds. It is therefore able to look for implementing partners and projects where it can achieve the biggest impact, where other actors are absent, where there is a structural need for funding between the emergency phase, where the big actors are at their best, and the more complex recovery phase, where smaller actors, mainly the local ones, come into their own.

Getting involved in a major humanitarian crisis, even at the height of the emergency phase, should not be done without deep reflection. Even if the emotion arises in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the response shouldn’t be exclusively concentrated on this emergency phase.

This is where the complexity lies: finding a good balance between what should be delivered immediately and what needs to be done in the longer term, with higher quality standards, appropriate monitoring, and a strategic choice of partners and sectors to support. And all this needs to be well thought out; indeed, the advice of experienced professionals might be an asset.

It may also be useful to recall, even though it may seem obvious, that in an acute emergency phase like the one that Nepal is currently living through, the legitimate desire for solidarity can in no way justify sending inexperienced people, unsolicited goods or technical solutions, or anything else that is not in line with the needs identified by aid professionals and beneficiaries. As experienced too often in the past, the aid community cannot handle what it does not need in the chaos of a major humanitarian disaster.

Eric Berseth is executive director of Philanthropy Advisors, and Vincent Mudry is head of operations.

Comments (4)

Uday Bhanu Sen

Disasters are always unique to its affected areas and community that lived within the same. PHILANTHROPY ADVISOR has rightly concluded the need for immediate and long-term relief and rehabilitation needs which are in line with Banda Acheh, Latur or Bhuj. Typically, resources are pulled in at the very on-set based on magnitude of sympathy generated by media and Global politics of aid (forgive me for my opinion, but it is very true at times). But what is required at the end is to streamline the development by balancing between preventive and promotional activities in social and environmental spheres so as to avoid similar human catastrophy in future. Shocks and after shocks are due for our Nepalese brethrens but what is not due to them is standing alone to defend after the initial spate of support is over. For recovery is a long term treck and the community will need steady and assured support beyond narrow feelings. The volume and length of financial involvement cannot depend on individual State or states, and focussed communication need to guide private philanthopy to the same. I believe if nature has struck down its own creation, it has given us a scope to rebuild the same devoid of inherited discrepencies that plagued the Nepalese society with abject poverty, insecurity in food, morbidity, migration and loss in human rights. Thus, our tasks are clearly earmarked (i) to prevent the above atrributes to take root by gripping the Nepalese society with constant fear of loss by standing with them and (ii) by encouraging our Nepalese brethren to organize themselves in a great eco-frendly human-sensitive rebuilding exercise that ensures all-round new begining - harnessed to promoye equality and justice in socially value-added practices.

Tim Fausch

There is an enormous need for "second responders", ideally humanitarian organizations, that are deeply committed to the communities in which disasters are taking place. It is critical to work with nationals who will be serving their communities for years to come. Too often, well-intentioned charities do a massive drop of resources, with little follow up. One thing I learned visiting Haiti is that years of aid, especially after the earthquake, have created unsustainable dependency. Extreme Response is working strategically through our Nepalese partners to provide help to the remote villagers who are living in tents among the rubble. We could deploy teams of responders from North America, but it would take weeks to organize, collect supplies, and distribute them. Follow up would be very difficult. Instead, we're sending funds to empower local partners to act efficiently and decisively.

Amitava Sanyal

Can we seriously try to facilitate and enable the socially and economically weaker communities in any given country to grow and develop to their potentials and change their lives to levels of their dreams and choices? I believe that the facilitation and enabling processes should be structural. While addressing the urgent emergent issues directly with those affected - it is important to simultaneously address the state of Governance in a given country. 1. What are their plans while they address the problems of weaker sections of the society - at the Federal level; at regional level; at specific affected level? 2. What are the plans of the given country in their design of 'social security' measures for the entire population? 3. What are the Federal Resources available fir Governance - annually - and what proportion are 'budgeted' for areas that concern developmental Consultants? 4. How do the Financial Institutions - Global, Federal & Local level function? After we determine the four areas mentioned earlier or even more areas suggested by 'those concerned' and 'those affected' - it is important to evolve a structural and systemic approach to begin the rehabilitation and development process. Along with building 'social capital' - by engaging all affected communities as also communities at their peripherals. All resources need to flow through a 'system' of local Governance - which will slowly develop into a 'specific community capital' (SCC) - that will be responsible to provide resource support to the 'social capital' to address their local problems. The families and communities receiving support would be required to repay the 'rresources' received to the SCC. It is important to ensure that all individuals - in an area where interventions are being made - should be a equal member of SCC - with a vision that if that given SCC - makes profits in future times ' the dividends will equally be credited to each individual member within SCC. Such SCC should be locally; regionally; provincially; federally connected through networks enabling flow of resources to SCCs. At Global level - Pool of Resources - should be made from which resources can flow to any evolved SCC - through Federal network in a given affected country. Individual citizens of the world can be equal member of the Global Resource Network (GRRNET). Only if we have a global unifying perspective - we can ensure sustainable initiatives towards - equitable qualitative development - around the world.

Joe Zillo

As someone who is currently an unpaid pro bono consultant to the Founder of an orphanage in Nepal, see, I am starting to learn first hand what it means to try to raise money and get attention to an orphanage of "only" 35 kids. While all of our 35 kids are safe, the rented space of the orphanage, was partially destroyed. My comment is not about us,the United States based Founder who lives in Florida , or about me who resides and works in the DC Metro area, but about the 35 kids, their local teachers, their local managers of the orphanage at the school. How does a nonprofit operating a small orphanage in Nepal and the United States, get the media coverage and "fundraising" front page against the "big" more highly visible charities like Red Cross, Oxfam, etc. Check out the Comcast/Xfinity community involvement page, and see how many small, Nepal- based charities are listed? What do I do as a the advisor to get Rising Lotus Children's Village on that page or for that matter any digital "font page" to raise more money or to get in the face of corporate America to donate money for the 35 kids? I agree to what is stated in this discussion, but put yourself in our shoes - the Founder based in Florida who is getting great Orlando based media, but how does she "break through" on the national/international level when Nepal is still "hot," and is still on the front pages of major print and digital media like the NY Times? How does its adviser help when his contacts in this newly based digital media world do not return emails, etc. - not that they do not care about the 35 kids, but they are simply too busy, they are scrambling to get that perfect story about how Nepal relief may or may not be like Haiti, what the US is doing or not doing about helping Nepal, how the UN is succeeding or failing in its relief efforts, how the amount of $$ pouring into the the large US based relief charities is being used and whether the amount or speed of donations equals or exceeds other major disasters, or even trying to find that human interest story which tugs at the hearts of its readers either on the local, national or even international level. We all really have the right intentions to help Nepal whether its the fund raisers, the media or even corporate America., or even this discussion thread. The cautionary comment I raise here is simple: don't forget about the real victims, the survivors in the this horrific tragedy, the "stars of the reality TV " show that is constantly being re-tweeted about, or digitally fund-raised about, in the currently social media emphasized world - the people of Nepal, the 100 year old man who survived days under the rubble, even "my" 35 kids - and they really have become my and my wife's kids even as an adviser, and even my wife and I have not even stepped one foot on Nepal soil, at least not yet..... Our attention should be more and more focused focused on the actual human tragedy -the Nepal people - even in our discussion threads, our blogs, our chats on how to do our professional job better. That is the cautionary tale I raise.

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