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Building a new Nepal: why the world must heed the lessons of Haiti

6 May 2015 - Prospery Raymond

Watching footage of the devastation caused by the Nepal earthquake this past week has brought back vivid memories of the moment, five years ago, when my office in Port-au-Prince collapsed around me during a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude quake. I will never the forget the dust, darkness and despair that threatened to overwhelm me as I was trapped for two hours in the ruins of Christian Aid’s Haiti headquarters.

A group of people in the aftermath of the earthquake

Bhaktapur, about eight miles from Kathmandu city, in the aftermath of the earthquake. Christian Aid/Yeeshu Shukla.

For those affected by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal, I have nothing but compassion and empathy. I have seen first-hand the extent of the pain and suffering brought  by a disaster of such scale. I can only hope the Nepalese people find a way to cope and to emerge stronger from it.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that people are already beginning to draw parallels between Nepal and Haiti: both are among the world’s poorest countries lacking the infrastructure, resources or capacity to deal with a crisis of such magnitude. Some commentators have already urged the international community not to ‘make the same mistakes’ it made Haiti after the January 2010 disaster.

As both a seasoned aid worker and a Haitian, I saw first-hand the well-documented challenges of the post-earthquake efforts here: challenges around distribution of supplies, the influx of foreign aid agencies, the subsequent cholera outbreak and the countless debates over what happened to the £6bn pledged by foreign donors.

However, Nepal is not Haiti, and 2015 is not 2010. Nepal has its own context, its own culture. The impact of both disasters has differed: the Haiti earthquake killed approximately 220,000 people, displaced 1.5 million and destroyed or damaged 300,000 buildings. The death toll from the Nepal disaster is considerably lower, but a greater number – 8 million people – have been badly affected.

That said, I would like to shed some light on some lessons we learned in Haiti, which could be avoided in Nepal.

Media Focus

Firstly, I’d suggest the media focus on search and rescue distracts us from the real needs: shelter, food, water, medication. In Haiti, our focus was similarly misplaced. In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 disaster, constant coverage of specialised rescue teams created the impression that large numbers of people were being saved by outside help.

In fact, according to a Haiti evaluation report, no more than 130 people were rescued from the rubble by international search-and-rescue efforts, described as a ‘tragically low’ figure in a disaster in which hundreds of thousands were trapped. (As it happens, Haitians saved over 5,000 people, myself included).

Since 2010, the Haitian diaspora has contributed over US$10bn to the post-earthquake recovery, for instance through remittances: that’s over twice the amount of international aid invested in the country. The media reports did not reflect this reality. Likewise, in the coming weeks and months the media needs to tell the whole story in Nepal. Rather than depicting foreign aid agencies as the only ‘heroes’, they must also highlight the solidarity and support given by Nepalese heroes.

Ivolving locals

Regrettably, one major obstacle to the initial relief effort in Haiti was the lack of synchronisation and collaboration between foreign agencies and Haitians. For instance, central coordination meetings hosted by the UN were conducted in English – in a French- and Creole-speaking country. This prevented many Haitians from participating effectively in the recovery process.

In Nepal, all efforts must be made to conduct operations, taskforces and UN clusters in the local language, with such groups co-led by local institutions. INGOs and the international community must support them in delivering aid – and as part of this they need to consider when will be the best time to exit.

Much of the billions of dollars pledged by foreign donors bypassed the Haitian people and government. Haitians were largely excluded from key decisions over how this money was spent.

A tiny percentage of donor funds for reconstruction work was given to Haitian firms and local NGOs: it’s estimated that less than 0.6 per cent of relief funds were channelled through Haitian hands.

This must not be allowed to happen in Nepal. International donors agencies need to reduce the level of requirements for releasing aid funds and ensure contracts are made with local businesses, not international companies, where possible - so that the learning stays within the country.

Donors agencies in Nepal work closely with local organisations, NGOs and authorities, whatever their perceived limitations. Sadly, the lack of Haitians’ inclusion in the global relief effort has been one of the main obstacles of the past half-decade. Some, like the Inter-American Development Bank, are now taking concerted steps to reverse this trend.

While pursuing a locally owned approach can be challenging and time-consuming, the results are more effective and sustainable. It is better for the international community to have a positive attitude towards the ideas and vision of local people, support them to do it their way and trust them. That’s why Christian Aid is working in Nepal through local partner agencies with long-standing experience of the region: this model proved effective during our Haiti response.

Let’s be clear: many INGOs are already doing an excellent job – including those belonging to the Disasters Emergency Committee, of which Christian Aid is a member. I would urge all NGOs to focus their efforts on quality not quantity, and to resist the urge to set up new organisations in order to support the country. Take it from me: it doesn’t work.

The last few days have seen criticism of the Nepalese government’s speed and approach to the response. That’s to underestimate the impact an overwhelming impact a disaster like this has on all local structures, governments included. That’s why NGOs must work with the government to ensure they have the right systems in place to coordinate efforts effectively, supporting them to prevent pitfalls such as corruption and to facilitate the delivery of the right support to those who need it most urgently.

Meanwhile, I’d encourage caution towards health issues too. Some may think vaccination against epidemics is not a priority right now, but extreme vigilance is needed. The cholera outbreak that killed more than 8,000 people in Haiti in 2010 could have been avoided.

Lasting legacy

If the last five years have demonstrated anything, it’s the importance of linking immediate and interim relief and rehabilitation work to longer-term development goals – Nepalese citizens must be empowered to participate in decisions over their own sustainable development.

The task of reconstruction is never easy after a disaster of such magnitude. Even in Haiti, the rebuilding work continues: over 85,000 still live in temporary camps. Full recovery takes time, and the same will be true of Nepal in a few years, after the photographers, film crews and aid agencies have moved on.

During the Haiti crisis I met wonderful aid workers who brought with them empathy, kindness and a listening ear. Despite the above challenges, we are indebted to them. To the Nepalese people I would say this: do take the time to express your gratitude toward the institutions and people that are supporting you, as frustrated as you may feel over inevitable delays in accessing aid. 

As one Haitian blogger wrote this week, in his own letter to Nepal: “You are not victims – you are survivors... Your brothers and sisters in Haiti are here to tell you that the ground will stop shaking, the dust will settle, and you will live on to build a new Nepal.”

For more on Christian Aid’s response to the Nepal earthquake, visit www.christianaid.org.uk/nepal

This blog first appeared in the Guardian

  About the author

Prospery Raymond, Christian Aid's country manager for Haiti

Prospery Raymond is Christian Aid's country manager for Haiti.

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