We have all been shocked by the earthquake that hit Nepal and the region last Saturday. Now the aid effort is starting up. International Alert has put out a statement gently raising the warning signs: humanitarian aid can go wrong if the aiders don’t take into account the full reality on the ground.
Compassion is the right first response. Eight million people in Nepal have been affected by the earthquake; that’s a quarter of the population. Each time I check the death toll has risen – now at over 5,000 with the Prime Minister saying it could double. Water, food and electricity are in short supply and there are fears of outbreaks of disease and now of a large scale exodus from Kathmandu.
But if aid is given as if the only important thing about Nepal right now is that it has experienced a major earthquake, then there is, sadly, every possibility that the mistakes of post-tsunami aid to Sri Lanka and post-quake aid to Haiti will be repeated.
The country is still suffering the effects of its 10-year civil war, which ended in 2006 when the monarchy was also ended. Nine years on, peacebuilding is a continuing need, governance has not been sorted out and a new constitution is yet to be agreed.
The causes of the civil war included bad governance, lack of political voice, failures of development, and discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, religion and caste. These have not yet been fully addressed. Relationships between some communities remain strained. Government is not efficient and there is already anger at the pace at which the government is delivering aid to those who need it most.
Worse, corruption is an endemic problem, which always makes emergency aid difficult. And alongside straightforward corruption is the way political parties manoeuvre for advantage. Many government activities and policies are managed at least in part on the basis of the short-term, sectional advantage they offer to one group or another, rather than for long-term benefit to the common good.
All this means that the distribution of relief will be highly sensitive and may cause grievances or make existing ones worse, grievances that are not always visible to a superficial glance. International Alert has been working in Nepal since 2001 so we have some knowledge. The window for delivering humanitarian aid purely on the basis of need will probably not open very wide or for very long. When the most immediate needs have been met, unless the conflict and governance issues are taken into account by those delivering aid, the window is likely to slam shut.
Humanitarian agencies can try to deliver aid on the do-no-harm basis by being aware of and sensitive to the context of conflict. To do this, they must get to a good understanding of the context – and quickly. It is not easy but there are many people in Nepal who can help them work it out.
They would do even better to let aid actually enhance peace prospects through early recovery initiatives that bridge traditional divides and foster social cohesion. Relief needs to be inclusive and delivered in ways that minimise politicisation and corruption. That would help ensure Nepal’s sustainable recovery from the impact of the earthquake as well as from the aftermath of war.