Nepal's most unpopular humanitarian aid policy

Members of a women’s self-help group pitch in with the aid effort, delivering water to families in need in Banke. Photo by: Heifer International

BANGKOK — The incessant downpour that triggered damaging floods in Nepal’s southern districts last week also brought a hastily announced humanitarian aid policy — one so controversial it was abolished even before floodwaters receded.

Nepal’s strict “one-door policy,” announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Aug. 14, dictated that development stakeholders hand over relief materials to a government-led Relief Collection Coordination Committee, after which district-level emergency committees would oversee distribution of all goods from identified collection points.

In short, local and international groups seeking to distribute items such as drinking water and food to communities in need of urgent care would first need to take it to or pick it up from a government-approved collection point, despite the fact that many major highways were flooded and transport to flood-affected districts was already a crippling challenge.

The announcement “came as a surprise to many,” said Prabin Manandhar, Nepal country director of the Lutheran World Federation and former chair of the Association of International NGOs in Nepal. “It created a lot of doubt and rumors in the first few days, and that really affected the relief operations.”

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Four days later, when rapidly rising water had displaced hundreds of thousands and taken more than 100 lives across the country’s food-producing region, Nepal’s Supreme Court issued an interim order to strike down the policy, citing that it wasn’t suitable given the scale of the disaster.

The reversal was welcomed by aid workers on the ground, who had been alarmed at the delays in relief: "We see truckloads of relief materials that are stuck there waiting [for approval], said Neena Joshi, a spokeswoman for Heifer International in Nepal. “Disaster already complicates all logistics, so getting everything in one place doesn’t make sense.”

The past week’s frustration wasn’t new to anyone involved in Nepal’s 2015 earthquake response, when the same strict policy was enacted and subsequently skewered by local and international actors for its ineffectiveness.

Now, during the ongoing response to the country’s worst rainfall in 15 years, the “one-door policy” has morphed into mandatory coordination with District Disaster Relief Committees, rather than assigning these committees distribution duties as well, according to a press release seeking to clarify the directive issued by the Ministry of Women and Children.

“It’s been widely acknowledged that the management of the mayhem induced by the April

2015 earthquake was far from effective,” wrote the Minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare Aasha Koirala in a press release issued on Friday. “Considering it as a lesson, all national and international NGOs in the country should effectively carry out rescue and relief operations in coordination with Ministry of Home Affairs at the central level and Natural Disaster Rescue Committees at the district level.”

Aid professionals on the ground still have questions about the exact role of the district committees — and it seems members of the district committees themselves do too.

“It’s good practice for a government, whenever there is emergency that they are coordinating, that they take charge, that’s what everyone wants,” said Sven Coppens, country director of Plan International in Nepal. “But what does taking charge actually mean? That’s been open for a lot of interpretation.”

Putting the district committees in charge “is a good thing,” Coppens added. “But it has been interpreted in some contexts that only the district coordinating committees are to be doing the response. Then we get into trouble.”

While their coordination would be welcomed, the district-level disaster committees are not equipped for distribution or programming, he explained.

“Making sure your information as a development actor is provided to the DDRC and getting an approval to do particular things isn’t the problem. The problem has been in districts where DDRC took its role very literally and hampered any distribution of aid,” Coppens said.

The press release issued by the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare on Friday did help alleviate high-level confusion and provide clarify that the role of the DDRC is coordination, not goods collection or distribution, “but there is still confusion on the ground,” Coppens said.

So much room for interpretation can also disintegrate quickly into a politically charged power grabs, especially considering the country’s upcoming legislative elections. A district-level committee choosing to stockpile goods and conduct distribution themselves could use that position for political gain later, which becomes an added risk factor during such time-sensitive emergency response.

The announcement of the “one-door policy” from the start was a showing of a “command and control” mindset at the highest levels of government, Lutheran World Federation’s Manandhar said.

“The government should be mobilizing resources for facilitation and coordination rather than this ‘command and control,’” he said. “There’s a lack of understanding that this is a humanitarian crisis and you need rapid response to save people’s lives with dignity. If you delay, people die.”

In the meantime, a week after Devex checked in on the flood response last Wednesday, flood water has been receding and the accessibility of the impacted areas has dramatically increased, according to Coppens.

The government, in partnership with the Nepal Red Cross Society, has released its official needs assessment report, which will help all actors on the ground and donors take stock and determine what needs are in the next phases of the response.

More than 1.5 million people have been affected across 28 districts, with 141 deaths, nearly 500,000 families displaced, 800 damaged schools and more than 30,000 cattle lost, according to the Nepal Red Cross Society initial rapid assessment report issued on Aug. 20.

“With the clarity about how the one-door policy should be interpreted, there is much more delivery of aid going to affected populations, directly by the government itself and indirectly though actors like ourselves who have access,” Coppens said.

Better understanding and coordination will be necessary for the remainder of the immediate flood response, but also for expected medium and long-term needs of flood-affected populations.

“The disaster protocols are not understood fully. The mapping of all the agencies present, all resources present are not understood fully,” Heifer’s Joshi said. “But think the one basic flaw in implementation is an understanding of how this whole “one-door policy” can work if it is taken forward with this spirit of coordination.”

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.