26 June - 2 July 2015 #764

Subcontracting kindness

Less than 1 per cent of global funding for earthquake relief will go directly to groups in Nepal
Emily Troutman

When the second earthquake struck on 12 May, I was in an antique store in Thamel. The shopkeeper was showing me a Nepali toy from the 1950s. Ten tiny people carved of wood and standing in a line. They had no faces, only bodies covered in miniature saris and the accumulated dust of decades. When I moved one arm, all of their arms moved, giving the impression they were begging.

For the past ten years, I’ve travelled around the world to disaster zones, reporting on humanitarian aid. Disaster victims are often portrayed like the figures in the toy: faceless, powerless and all alike. But I see them differently. I lived in Haiti from 2010 to 2012 and reported extensively on the earthquake recovery. In my work, I see a reality few will ever glimpse. I visit victims’ homes. I ask about their lives. I try to push beyond the headlines.

Over and over again, people ask me, where does the money go? It doesn’t go where donors think it does. In Nepal, I found patterns in the humanitarian response that persist in every disaster. Money will be wasted, aid will arrive too late. As in Haiti, local organisations with the expertise and commitment to really make a difference will be left out. 

Only a few days after the earthquake, the international aid community began calculating the cost of the humanitarian response. Led by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), they put together a proposal to spend more than $422 million on emergency needs in Nepal. 

Called a ‘Flash Appeal’, it happens in every disaster. The collective appeal is made up of dozens of individual project outlines, submitted by any aid organisation that wants to apply. The appeal is like a wish list presented by the UN to donor countries. My analysis shows that only a few Nepali organisations applied for funding: they asked for $3.5 million, just 0.8 per cent of the total.

Many Nepali groups I spoke to had never heard of the Flash Appeal. Even if they did know about it, they would have been hard-pressed to apply on time. The online application system is cumbersome, built for insiders and it requires technical English-language skills. It’s a shame because to-date, aid organisations have received $131 million of their requests. 

There is no disaster response without locals to do the work on the ground. Nowhere is this more true than in Nepal, where the geography alone is a huge challenge for foreigners. But instead of receiving funds directly, local organisations are being hired by foreign organisations as subcontractors. The aid industry calls them ‘implementing partners’.

In the Flash Appeal, international organisations identified more than 80 local ‘implementing partners’. Why not just fund them directly? It’s not a question of experience. Leaving locals out is a systemic bias and it happens every time. The earthquake response will be much more expensive because of this cascading funding structure. Big organisations will take their cut for ‘administrative fees’, followed by each organisation in the chain. The aid response will also be less effective, utilising local experts as little more than hired help.

In Sindhupalchok, Asaman Tamang’s extended family of 23 is sleeping under corrugated sheets. Asaman has a lot of theories about why he hasn’t received any substantive aid. At the top of his list, he blames the government for stealing the money. It makes sense. But the problem isn’t theft. It’s that aid is much more expensive than people think it is.

Aid organisations are to blame for this misunderstanding. I looked at the claims of 45 major groups operating in Nepal on their websites. They say they’ve provided shelter to more than three million people, the real number is 762,000 people, which is calculated by UNOCHA.

When organisations collaborate on a project, they all claim the aid as their own accomplishment. For example, USAID, the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) and ACTED, a French-NGO, have collectively claimed to ‘provide’ 570,000 people with shelter.

They are actually taking credit for the same aid. USAID donated plastic sheeting. IOM received it at the airport. ACTED worked with local groups to pass it out.

There is no way for donors to know how many groups are taking credit for the same aid. That means there’s no way to know what it really costs. By the time the big aid organisations subcontract everything, pass around the tarps and then implement a thousand other temporary fixes, the money will be gone. 

Like Haiti, the victims of the Nepal earthquake were already the most vulnerable people in the country. They’ve been faceless and voiceless for decades. A recent survey of the quake-impacted area in Nepal found that 99 per cent of mud houses collapsed, while only 3 per cent of cement houses were damaged. 

Five years after the earthquake in Haiti, the international community has rebuilt only 9 per cent of the houses that were destroyed. It will happen in Nepal too, and it is happening now. Like the wooden toy in the antique store, the people who really need help will be left with their hands out, just waiting, frozen in time, subject to the whims of the truly powerful.

Emily Troutman is an independent writer and photographer. For a longer version of this report, see ‘What Happened to the Aid? Nepal Earthquake Response Echoes Haiti’.

Read also:

Rebuilding ourselves, Editorial

The disaster is not over, David Seddon

25 June Donor Summit, Om Astha Rai

How not to reinvent the wheel, Bihari K Shrestha

Haiti on our minds, Stéphane Huët

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