I head out from the offices of Olive Nepal to a loaded covered pickup truck at the corner. I shared the front seat with the driver and Subash. There are four others in the back. Our destination is Dhading, about 70 km west.
To get there, we have to work our way through Kathmandu traffic to the winding road over the western hills, plied daily with busses, trucks, tourist vans, motorbikes and taxis. It’s narrow; it will get your adrenaline pumping if you look down; it’s bumpy, rocky in places…and long. Since Kathmandu Valley is elevated, the way up the hill is much shorter than the way down. It seems to go on forever, with slow-downs, stops, noise, cowboys on two wheels and ten wheels playing chicken with oncoming traffic as they pass slower vehicles, horns screaming all the way.
The traffic wasn’t too bad today, but it still took us two hours to get the Dhading turn-off. We stop and wait across the river until we connect with a contact who will guide us further. The contact arrives with his wife. Now we have six in the back. We head over the river and 5 km back into the hills. When we got there, the truck pulls off onto a wide turnout in front of a small house.
We wait. We wait some more. It turns out that the actual village that called for relief is way up the mountain and inaccessible by our vehicle. It is an hour’s walk for the villagers above to come down. Extended inquiry and negotiations occur between our coordinator, Subash, a local social worker and other members of the village who live down at road level.
The issue seems to be that we cannot verify that there is a true need up the hill and Subash has to determine who to trust down below. Meanwhile, he’s getting advice and unsolicited input from others. An hour passes. Finally, a village member takes one of our group up the hill on a motorbike to investigate. It is hot. There is nothing to do. Another hour later, he returns with photos of destroyed homes and the names of all the families who need assistance. They will walk down and pick up their supplies.
The key issue here, as I addressed in a previous post, is determining the true need and who deserves relief. Subash cannot trust anyone on the ground to say who deserves relief. We must verify on our own. He cannot leave supplies with anyone who promises to deliver them to the right people. And most importantly, he cannot trust the supplies with the VDC, the Village Development Committee.
The VDC may be more than one person, but the lead of the VDC is a government official. He is not elected by the village. He is a policeman. He may not even be a resident of the village. He is a civil servant. He answers to government superiors. The VDC is the functional unit of governance at the village level in Nepal. As such, it is also the functional unit of favoritism and discrimination.
Factions of villages inevitably develop, They seek the favor of the VDC. The VDC is interested in preserving power and seeks favors from the village factions. The VDC is not really interested in making sure that relief supplies reach the people with the greatest need. He wants to know who is operating in his territory, what vehicles they are using, when are they coming, what are the bringing and who they are dealing with.
The VDC may be allied with a political party. Party officials are interested in securing their position by providing for those who will support them. They want to look good. Relief supplies become material political favors. This is why supplies remain piled up at the airport. There is contention about who will get to distribute them and to whom.
This is the scenario playing out everywhere. The Sherpa family association of Kathmandu collected millions of rupees for earthquake relief. On top of that , international Sherpa associations in numerous countries of Europe and the US, collected even more. A lot more. They were told by the government that they had to hand over that money if they wanted it used for relief. But the Sherpas were concerned, and rightly, that the government would play favorites with it, doling it out to ethnic friends, or to their “Brahmin” peers, leaving indigenous groups to get the short end.
But the Sherpas would have none of this. Eventually, they managed to make a token donation to the government of 500,000NRs and kept the rest to use as they please.
My former host in Kathmandu is a board member of a start-up company. The entire board donated about 35,000NRs each and collected 350,000NRs in all. They purchased 3000kg of rice, sugar, salt, oil, etc. A truckload in all. They traveled four hours east to distribute. They were told to leave it with the VDC and go. They refused. Two hours of negotiation was required to get permission to distribute. On one hand, it is legitimate for the government to be concerned that duplication of donations might occur. But on the ground, the intentions of the VDCs are transparent to most Nepalis. Especially rural ones. They know how the system works. And it doesn’t work for them.
What does the media have to say about this? I can’t speak for the Nepali media, but there are two english language dailies, both of which receive subsidies from the government, although it isn’t clear to me whether the source of subsidies is generic or partisan. But the bottom line is that although it is easy to distinguish between the more liberal and the more conservative papers, it’s not clear what degree of access-journalism is occurring here, which is itself a form of self-censorship that benefits government.
Back in Dhading, Subash has decided that the social worker he has been talking to on and off for two hours is the one he can trust. Some villagers arrive from up the hill and receive their household packets of rice, dal, salt, oil, etc. which have been previously divided and are sized to last for 4-5 days. The name of each family is checked off the list as they receive their goods and the rest, which will have to be distributed later in the day to the remaining families, about 30 in all, will be handled by the social worker.
The process is observed by others from down the hill whose names are not included on the list. I am concerned that everything be disposed of properly today, because there is not really any secure place to store these supplies overnight. If they are not distributed today, they will surely disappear by morning.
This scenario is what every ad hoc relief group is encountering in the hills and remote districts of the quake area. I can’t speak for how international relief operations are functioning. I suspect they are all dealing with the political apparatus in some way. Are they independent? Where are they getting their information on where the need exists? Are they mapping the territories and verifying the need? I don’t know. I imagine their experience tells them that conditions here are nothing new in the disaster relief domain.
International relief agencies are not all angels either. One such agency responded to a request from across the eastern border of Nepal to assist an independent group in getting the relief materials they had collected across the border into Nepal. Upon doing so, rather than permitting the ad hoc group to proceed with their plan, they simply appropriated the goods for they own purposes.
In our journey to and from the city on this day, I see at least a dozen official international relief vehicles (carrying officials, not any actual supplies), a few ad hoc-looking groups such as ours and some government operations as well. Relief is happening. No doubt about that. And on a large and distributed scale.
But what we encountered today is how it is– a continuous and occasionally extended process of interview, documentation and verification before distribution. The small operations such as Olive Nepal know what they are dealing with and they are doing their best to be fair-minded under some very challenging circumstances. In the process they are no doubt making friends, but are also likely attracting the more cynical eyes of establishment structures who may not always be looking kindly on their accomplishments.