Opinion: 5 lessons from research in the wake of an earthquake disaster in Nepal

A view of the hamlet of Katike, one of the severely impacted areas by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Photo by: Pierre Prakash / European Union / ECHO / CC BY-ND

In August of 2016, I visited a small village about an hour’s drive outside of Kathmandu. It was the first time I had been to Nepal since the April 25, 2015, Gorkha earthquake killed or injured thousands and flattened entire villages across the region. As I walked down the narrow path through the terraced gardens, I noticed the livestock structures that the earthquake the year before had destroyed. I also saw new or improved structures that women in the community had recently built or rebuilt with emergency aid.

When a research team proposed in 2014 that we support an impact evaluation of a Heifer International program in Nepal, I was primarily intrigued in the asset transfer component of their three-arm program, which also includes human and social capital development. Previous work by our researchers and others reaching back more than a decade has demonstrated that assets are essential for poverty reduction.

The Nepal research was designed around a common package of interventions for women that combined a livestock (asset) transfer with technical training and social capital training. The research sought not only to test the impacts of this package of interventions, but to better understand which pieces of the intervention drove the impacts.

The quake revealed just how vulnerable the rural poor in these communities are to shocks, especially natural disasters. Catastrophic damage forced the team to halt the study in two of the seven districts, to make way for urgent relief efforts.

Two years since the earthquake struck, the team’s recently reported findings from the other five districts offer five key lessons for the development community writ large. These lessons resonate with findings from many of our projects worldwide about designing the interventions carefully based on program objectives.

1. Social and human capital development can have near-immediate impacts.

Human and social capital development interventions have impacts, and quickly.

One of the first things the team discovered is that human and social capital development interventions have impacts, and quickly. The study showed that the program’s social capital training alone had measurable benefits for women, in terms of financial inclusion and empowerment, and in only one year and a half. These impacts were visible even among women who did not receive the livestock transfer.

This shows that investments in human and social capital for women can make a relatively immediate difference for women’s empowerment and financial inclusion, even in the wake of a devastating natural disaster.

2. Indirect beneficiaries can benefit as much or more than direct beneficiaries.

Among what was, for me, the most interesting results so far, the research team found substantial indirect effects. Women in the community who were recruited into the program by direct beneficiaries had increases in financial inclusion and empowerment that were similar to those experienced by direct beneficiaries.

Given the short time horizon of the study to date, this is particularly impressive, and has important implications for development professionals seeking fast and widespread impacts in these areas. It shows that enlisting direct beneficiaries to recruit others from their communities into a program can help an intervention to quickly achieve scale.

3. Aspirations can be an important factor for development.

In recent years we have seen a series of research findings about the positive impacts of hope and aspirations, as well as the challenges posed by gloominess and hopelessness. The idea is that those who have hope are more likely to invest in future-oriented activities than those who do not. The research team in Nepal added evidence to this literature, but also added shape and nuance to what we already know about aspirations and hope.

Goals should be achievable, or at least within reach.

Their results suggest that the readily observable assets or wealth of peers are very important for an individual’s own aspirations for their own assets and wealth. This is not the case for income, which is not as easily observable by outside peers. However, the team also observed the added nuance that if aspirations are too large, they may lead to failure and frustration. Goals should be achievable, or at least within reach. To overlook considerations like these in program and policy design may miss opportunities for the spillover effects of aspiration, and an increased impact.

4. Shocks are a reality of life for vulnerable households, and we must do more to protect against these risks.

The Gorkha earthquake was another reminder that vulnerable households such as those in the study face a high degree of exposure to risk. Risk is not unique to Nepal. It is becoming more and more clear that catastrophic weather risk from drought and flood is increasing worldwide.

We, as a development community, can do more to try to transfer this risk out of these vulnerable households, and to develop mechanisms that can quickly and effectively respond when disasters strike to protect assets and consumption. One promising tool is index insurance, but more research is needed. What is abundantly clear from this experience in Nepal is that risk management is an essential priority for any development strategy.

5. Development organizations should consider rigorous evaluations to maximize impacts.

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More generally, however, I think the greatest lesson learned from our experience in Nepal and other countries worldwide, is that development organizations and NGOs should do more to rigorously evaluate their interventions, in particular, using independent external evaluation experts. Truly knowing whether an intervention has observable and lasting impacts ensures that donor dollars are put to good use.

Further, by disentangling which pieces of programs have the greatest impacts for each specific sub-groups, the development community can ensure that they are maximizing the impact of increasingly constrained funding for development assistance.

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About the author

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    Tara Steinmetz

    Tara Steinmetz is the assistant director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets & Market Access at the University of California, Davis, where she supports a wide portfolio of research focused international development, risk management and resilience, including the I4 Index Insurance Innovation Initiative. She holds a B.A. in political science from American University and a master of public policy from Duke University.