Nepal earthquake, 2 years on: Let’s put peacebuilding at heart of recovery efforts

Photo: ILO/Shukuko Koyama (Creative Commons BY 2.0)

Two years ago when the earthquakes devastated Nepal, the loss of life was immense, and the destruction extensive. A staggering $4.1 billion was raised for relief efforts – around 20% of Nepal’s GDP. Distributing this amount was always going to be a big challenge, but distributing it fairly in a country still recovering from violence was an even bigger task, with one massive factor at risk: peace.

In Nepal, the vulnerable and marginalised communities who were hardest hit couldn’t always access the help they needed to recover. Their housing and insecure jobs were the first to get wiped out in the disaster, and worse still they faced the greatest struggle to get compensation. The risk is that feelings of desperation and inequality can easily become the spark that reignites violence.

Reconstruction for everyone

At International Alert we believe that the only way to ensure countries like Nepal don’t fall back into war is to bridge social divides and empower marginalised people with new skills to participate in and lead the reconstruction of their country. This only happens when donors, NGOs and the government recognise and adapt to the full picture on the ground. In other words, their work is sensitive to the risk of violent conflict.

As peacebuilders, working in this conflict sensitive way is weaved through everything we do, and we find that other organisations in Nepal are starting to take similar approaches in their work. In practice, this means that they are trying to anticipate the possible negative impacts their work could have on everyone and looking at the wider context to ensure any interventions don’t fuel more tensions.

For example, Nepali society is very hierarchical and it’s important to understand how gender, caste, culture, religion and class can all play into situations. Our research last year showed how individuals and communities experienced the earthquakes differently depending on their gender, location and level of social exclusion. Recovery efforts should be shaped with these differences in mind if everyone is to benefit for them, and the country is to continue to emerge peacefully from decade of armed conflict.

Making conflict sensitivity the new norm

Take Youth Action Nepal – the NGO that supported 65 year-old Sanumaya as an example. She lived with her sister’s family and their house in Bhaktapur was destroyed when the earthquake struck. Sanumaya was forced to live in a plastic camp with nothing but basic materials. Worse, she was ineligible for government support because she didn't own a house for which she could get compensation. However, the NGO recognised that she was vulnerable and provided her with permanent shelter.

Another NGO created a checklist to ensure 60% of its beneficiaries were from vulnerable groups, while one organisation is promoting women-led reconstruction efforts to change gender roles. They may not be calling these approaches ‘conflict sensitive’, but they are applying its principles.

Each of these cases shows that with the right approach we can reach those who may otherwise be overlooked by traditional methods of humanitarian support. Now we just need to make sure it becomes the new norm, happening in projects all across the country.

Local elections and causes for optimism

The local elections starting this month in Nepal – the first to be held for 20 years in the country – provide another great opportunity to address past failings and reignite reconstruction in a way that is sensitive to conflict.

All local bodies will be more inclusive than ever, comprising of at least 35% women, 23% Dalits or marginalised groups. They each have their own legislative, executive and judicial bodies and authority over local development budgets and plans.

Currently half of the allocated annual development budget goes unspent by the end of a fiscal year and channelling additional billions meant for reconstruction without local bodies’ support would be a tough task.

Elected local representatives can monitor progress, oversee the quality of work and guard against the misuse of funds. They can also help to implement recovery efforts and give citizens a space to discuss their concerns. In turn, people must also be empowered so they can ensure these bodies are accountable, transparent and inclusive.

Two years ago, one of my colleagues wrote an article echoing similar challenges and opportunities and stressing the critical role that political leaders, donors, civic leaders and the private sector must play. As people prepare to brave another monsoon without adequate shelter, I continue to carry the hope that all those involved will do their soul-searching, reflect on the lessons from the past two years' highs and lows and adapt accordingly to ensure that the survivors see real progress. By working together, we can ensure a fairer and more peaceful future.

> Read our report: Building back better or restoring inequalities?