Helping whom exactly?

  • It is a hard sell for the government to claim that it will not misuse relief aid when corruption is endemic
- Deepak Thapa
Helping whom exactly?

May 20, 2015-

Talk of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. That has been the characteristic feature of the loud government talk going on about what it is going to do henceforth. One wonders why it took so long to do exactly what it should have begun a long time ago. Consider the following excerpt from an article titled ‘Waiting for the Big One’ that I had written for Nepali Times back in January 2001: “The earthquake has taught many lessons to the residents and leaders of Kathmandu Valley...Lessons on natural disasters and safety drills have been added to school curriculum. The army, police and other government and non-government groups are developing plans to work together to respond efficiently the next time a disaster strikes...The city is being rebuilt in a much more earthquake-resistant fashion.”

That was a direct quote taken from ‘Kathmandu Valley’s Earthquake Scenario’, a report produced in 1999 by the Kathmandu Valley Earthquake Risk Management Project, depicting how we would be doing a year after a big earthquake hit us. Parts of it sound mightily familiar with what we are seeing in the papers nowadays, don’t they?

I had concluded my article thus: “The report is prescient. In all likelihood, we will begin to take real precautionary measures only after The Big One arrives. As it will. This year (or decade) or the next.” As writers do, I must have come up with what I thought was a clever way to end my piece, for I certainly cannot boast any powers of clairvoyance to come up with what turned out to be such a spot-on prediction. Anyone with any kind of understanding of how our government functions could have made the point.

Chain of command

One bright spot has been to learn that members of the National Emergency Operations Centre had met within an hour of the Barpak Earthquake and begun taking stock of the situation. Its website boasts that the Centre is located in a standalone pre-fabricated building on the premises of the Home Ministry, but no one seems to have considered the possibility that on a bad day there might not have been anyone to meet with or provide guidance. For, despite all the advance knowledge, no attempt appears to have been made to secure even the command centres of our most sensitive government institutions? Following the earthquake(s), the Prime Minister’s Office has moved out of Singha Durbar and both the army and police headquarters are functioning out of tents. The what-if scenario of an 8+ earthquake on a working day is just too frightening to consider in light of how these structures could have crumbled under a massive onslaught and the likelihood that the top leadership might have been killed or otherwise incapacitated.

A massive re-appraisal will have to be done about what worked and what did not in the government machinery during the response phase. Even simple things like why the government was not able to order, on pain of strong punishment, all VDC secretaries, the only central government representatives in large swathe-s of the country, to report for duty at their stations and facilitate the relief work, will have to be analysed. If media reports about the security forces acting on their own volition are to be believed, that will require some serious re-alignment of roles and responsibilities as well. Poverty is no excuse for irresponsibility.

A necessary evil

This brings us back to the government-bashing that has been going on since the earthquake struck. The tenor has shifted slightly though, with some people springing to the defence of the government, arguing that in times of national crisis we should all support the government, that this is the government of a poor, undeveloped country, and so on. And we have had politicians and bureaucrats as well acknowledging that they were caught unprepared. Had it not been for the shrillness of the criticism, I doubt if our leadership would have had the honesty to acknowledge their many shortcomings.

Most defenders of the government also seem to collate criticism of the government with a call to by-pass it. For a country with a terrain like ours, where the immediate relief efforts by individuals and NGOS for the most part reached only as far as where the roads do, one cannot but underline the paramount role of the government in ensuring that the entire affected population is served.

This is where the other debate on funneling relief money through the government becomes pertinent. Despite the government’s avowal that it will not allow any relief to be misused, including the prime minister’s warning of stern action against anyone found involved in embezzlement, the last thing for the world to see was our Constituent Assembly members calmly tucking tarpaulins under their arms even as thousands were still living at the mercy of the elements.

It is a hard sell for the Nepali government to claim that it will not misuse the relief aid when corruption is both systemic and endemic in the country. Yet, we have no choice but to go with it. Consider the alternative and the example of Haiti that everyone has been going on about is very pertinent. As the New York Times reported two years after the quake: ‘Coordinating the disaster response, foreign humanitarians met on the isolated, gated United Nations logistics base and divided into clusters dealing with issues like shelter and health. Something was missing, though: “In the initial confusion and loss of life after the earthquake, the clusters effectively excluded their Haitian counterparts,” Nigel Fisher, humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations, said. “Little by little, we brought them in.”’

At least we have a somewhat functioning democracy and the government has been left intact to avoid that same fate. The initiative taken by the government will also probably spare us what happened in Haiti. The US-based Council on Foreign Relations reported earlier this year that of all the aid that came to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, only 1 percent went to the government, 93 percent went to NGOs, UN agencies, other donor entities, and humanitarian groups, while 6 percent seems to have disappeared into thin air.

Fending off carpetbaggers

Even if the government were to succeed in corralling the external funds, there are yet other challenges it will soon be faced with. Haiti again provides examples of how bad it could be. For instance, according to the Wikileaks cables analysed by the American magazine, The Nation, within three weeks of the Haiti earthquake, the US ambassador to the ravaged country wrote: “THE GOLD RUSH IS ON! As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different [US] companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services.” It was no small fry who had become active. One-time presidential candidate and retired general, Wesley Clark, was among them.

But, according to The Nation story, the role of someone called Lewis Lucke, a former US ambassador to Swaziland, who was put in charge of US earthquake relief operations in Haiti on behalf of USAID, was most revealing. Three months after his appointment, he stepped down and within two months, resurfaced as a point person for an American company and its Haitian partner on a $30,000/month salary. Unfortunately for him, the deal went sour and in December 2010, Lucke sued the companies for close to half a million dollars for not paying “him enough for consulting services that included hooking the contractor up with powerful people and helping to navigate government bureaucracy”.

We can only hope that our government is strong and wise enough to withstand the advances of such modern-day carpetbaggers who will soon be descending upon us. That is when the fiscal probity promised by our government will be most seriously tested, since the stakes will have become very big by then and our record of preventing or prosecuting malfeasance by the high and mighty of the land has always been a lousy one.

Published: 21-05-2015 08:28

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