Nepal experienced an armed conflict from 1996-2006. Some 14,000 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured or displaced. The war was the result of deep-set grievances. The country’s marginalised majority – poor, indigenous and ‘lower-caste’ people, youth and women – were angry at being excluded from power, wealth and opportunity in a country largely run by older male Hindu elites.
Despite steps forward through the peace process, research shows that many Nepalis feel things have only improved for the ‘strong’ in society.
Nepal is also disaster-prone. Floods and landslides happen every year, causing loss of life, assets and livelihoods. It also lies on a major fault line. While Nepal anticipated an earthquake – both authors lived in Kathmandu in recent years, where the prospect of the ‘big one’ pre-occupied Nepalis and foreigners alike – the preparedness challenges were overwhelming.
Its post-war interim parliaments have been absorbed by debates over a new constitution. They had little political appetite to pass legislation. A disaster preparedness act had been in the works for eight years. Now, a national authority for reconstruction, needed to spend the $4 billion of international assistance pledged, is pending.
The politics of preparedness and response
Where the right regulations have existed, putting them into practice has been hard. Poverty and rapid urbanisation have caused people to build houses hurriedly and cheaply, with little heed of building codes.
Widespread political interference and corruption, cultures resulting from Nepal’s long-standing elitism as well as the war, also undermine government ability to enforce codes. Patronage politics made Nepal even more vulnerable in the disaster response phase. Where politicians have held sway over senior bureaucrats, resources have been funnelled to their constituents to build political support.
Nepal’s civil society response to the earthquake was much lauded. National and local businesses, volunteer groups and diaspora mobilised impressively, forging innovative partnerships to deliver practical support – especially to hard to reach communities – while the international system and government responses were slowly ramping up.
This type of people-to-people support did provide vital sustenance for many. But much of the informal help has been directed along identity lines too. Ethnic and religious groups have largely supported their kin and Nepalis living abroad sent help to their home communities. Those with fewest connections, such as ‘low caste’ people and poor women, have received proportionately less assistance.
Will it get worse before it gets better?
Right now, politics is stymying recovery in Nepal. The earthquake jump-started Nepal’s flagging constitutional efforts. A government desire to show leadership in the face of criticism over the earthquake response led to a new constitution finally coming into effect on 20 September 2015.
While an important political step, its provisions on federalism triggered mass protests among ethnic groups who feel cheated. This has indirectly led to a fuel crisis which has detracted attention from the earthquake recovery and made it practically difficult.
The recovery needs to move forwards despite these set-backs and the international community can do more to enable this. Instead of waiting for the national reconstruction authority to be established to manage the vast sum of assistance, donors should release funds in tranches to the National Planning Commission. This would allow progress without too much risk.
Building back better means building peace
Once underway, the post-earthquake push to ‘build back better’ needs to be harnessed towards progressing accountability, equality and social cohesion as a foundation for resilience in Nepal. Tackling politicisation and boosting civic participation in decision-making must be priorities in recovery implementation to enable more responsive governance.
If done well, infrastructure projects can provide excluded Nepalis with new opportunities for participation. Poor women and other marginalised people could be given platforms to shape the design of local buildings and assume roles in their construction that provide new skills and status. Donors and peacebuilders need to influence the government agencies and companies leading the reconstruction effort to integrate sensitivity to peacebuilding needs.
More broadly, resource distribution to the earthquake zone versus the wider country needs to be considered in terms of conflict risk. Injecting funds into the traditionally better-resourced (but badly affected) central hill area at the expense of historically marginalised regions such as the Far West and the Terai may exacerbate grievances about elite privilege. Donor programmes should ensure that they maintain an appropriate geographical balance.
Overall, Nepal needs to address the long-standing political and social faultiness that undermine its resilience as much as its seismic ones. And the humanitarian and peacebuilding communities need to work together in Nepal, and in other places affected by both conflicts and disasters, to integrate their approaches. Research from countries such as Haiti and Myanmar demonstrates that ‘building back better’ is about much more than bricks and mortar.
Humanitarian agencies in particular need to invest in conflict expertise, such as regionally deployable conflict advisors, and to create better mechanisms to engage with local peacebuilders. This would help them understand local conflict dynamics and how their assistance can help, not hinder these. The World Humanitarian Summit next year is a good time to address this pressing need.
For more on this topic, read the report by Drew and Willitts-King, Building resilience in Nepal through public–private partnerships.