By Rebecca Cordell. Rebecca is a Quantitative Human Rights PhD student in the Department of Government. Her doctoral research focuses on CIA rendition, secret detention and torture post-9/11. You can follow her on twitter: @RebeccaCordell
At 11:56am last Saturday a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal causing widespread devastation. This was the strongest earthquake to hit the Himalayan region in over 80 years and it was followed by a series of tremors and aftershocks that weresignificant earthquakes in their own right (at a magnitude of 6.6 and 6.7). Over 5,500 people are known to have died – a number that is expected to grow significantly over the coming weeks as relief efforts continue. Current estimates indicate that over 100,000 people have been made homeless. These individuals are currently without adequate access to shelter, clean water, sanitation or food; raising the risk of an epidemic.
I became aware of Nepal’s vulnerability when I visited the country at the end of 2013 to work with local peace building, development and democracy NGO Alliance for Peace. Given the nations close proximity to two large tectonic plates, poorly constructed buildings, overstretched emergency services and an ill prepared government, I was told that should an earthquake strike – the consequences would be catastrophic.
Frustration at the government’s response
Shortly after the earthquake, foreign aid and international emergency relief organisations descended into the country. Despite this, local people have spoken of their anger at the government’s response that has hindered rescue operations and caused chaos on the ground.
“The major concern at the moment is the mobilization of the assistance Nepal is receiving and management of relief works. Unfortunately, the government – particularly at the political level – has become a passive bystander. Fortunately, in most of the chowks in Kathmandu it’s the locals who are leading the relief works not the government” (Apurba Khatiwada, Lawyer – Kathmandu).
Far from cooperating with relief efforts, the government has decided to ban non-state groups from receiving any funds from foreign or domestic sources. Instead, money will automatically be transferred into the government’s relief fund – making it very difficult for NGOs and other non-state groups to raise money and provide relief work at a local level. Moreover, should non-state groups bring relief materials, goods and food, the government shall levy a duty on them. This development follows reports that“international organisations are doing nothing” in some of the most affected areas just outside of Kathmandu.
Relief could exasperate poor political record
For some, it is perhaps no surprise that the government is failing the Nepali people at this desperate time given the country’sunresolved political issues and lack of a strong leadership. Since the end of the civil war in 2006, youth groups, activists and NGOs have fought tirelessly with the government to try and secure a fair and peaceful future for Nepal. However, nationwidepoverty and political corruption is rife. Moreover, the country’s traditional system of beliefs has led to numerous human rights issues including gender based discrimination towards women and caste-based prejudices towards Dalit, Madheshi and Janajati people.
In rural areas many young people struggle with gaining access to education and securing entry into the job market is a nationwide problem. In addition, governance continues to be hierarchical and vested in elders, making it extremely difficult for the new generation to replace the old and for fresh ideas to enter the political sphere. Controversially, the government of Nepal considers anyone between the age of 16 and 40 as “the youth”. Often when parents are also under the age of 40, the entire family can have limited opportunities in life.
Fearing that Nepal’s recovery from the earthquake could resemble that of Haiti’s, there are concerns that the mismanagement of relief efforts by the government could exasperate the already fragile human rights and political situation in Nepal. Nepal’s diverse terrain has made relief operations incredibly difficult following landslides and restricted access to remote villages most affected by the earthquake.
As the government decides how to deal with the tough challenges that lie ahead in the aftermath of one of the country’s worstnatural disaster to date, the key role of NGOs in disaster relief operations must be recognised. In particular that of grass roots organisations that gain their strength in local knowledge and an understanding of Nepal’s complex political situation. However, it now seems that their funding will be severely restricted by a government disconnected from the people and driven into the hands of the political elite.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.