Those coordinating the relief and reconstruction effort in Nepal are about to make some tough decisions.
Of the $423 million United Nations flash appeal for the Nepal relief effort, only about 20 percent has materialized. And as organizations shift to reconstruction in the aftermath of last month’s deadly twin quakes, the challenge moves from establishing funding priorities to choosing between them.
When it comes to shelter, aid groups working in crisis recovery are perennially torn between the need for emergency shelter and the need to rebuild long-term, sustainable housing. In Nepal, this dilemma is compounded by the fast-approaching monsoon season. Temporary, emergency shelter is no longer an option because the go-to materials — namely, tarpaulins and plastic sheeting — can’t withstand Nepal’s extreme weather conditions.
With the cheaper shelter options out of the equation, the funding dilemma becomes more dire.
“You’re always disappointed when funding goals aren’t met,” Alex Gray, global humanitarian director at Relief International told Devex, “but considering the magnitude of the two earthquakes and the urgency of the monsoons, this feels unprecedented.”
Between a rock and a hard place
Gray explained that RI and other donors working in Nepal have been forced to begin planning for funds to dry up. On the ground, donor fatigue translates to a series of judgment calls, he said, the first of which is determining the most vulnerable.
Devex connects with Alex Gray, Relief International's global humanitarian director, about the shortage of building supplies in earthquake-stricken Nepal and a reinstated customs tax on aid supplies that Gray says will likely slow the recovery to a near-halt.
“It’s a pretty shocking outcome,” Gray said, “but with funding so uncertain, we have to hone in on those that won’t be able to get back on their feet without help.”
In Nepal, the most vulnerable come from the lowest rungs of the country’s caste system. Members of the Dalit caste — which make up about 12 percent of Nepalese — are often both socially and geographically cut off from the rest of society, and according to Gray, are among the most helpless after a disaster.
“Dalits and rural Nepalis used more traditional building materials [like stone] in their houses,” so when the earthquakes hit, Gray said, rural homes were especially treacherous. Now Nepalese are wary of using stone to rebuild, and so communities are asking for corrugated steel, which is expensive and hard to come by.
Gray said this amounts to a second judgment call: choosing between an expensive, taxed and foreign-sourced commodity that suits the diverse Nepalese context, or focusing resources elsewhere, like on teaching the people how to sort and build with scavenged materials.
“You have to look at previous crises, to see what solutions to the funding problems come up in reconstruction over time,” Gray said.
Where the rubble meets the road
Lessons from other disaster recovery campaigns are instructive.
A rubble removal project implemented by the U.N. Development Program after the 2013 war in Gaza has been “instrumental” in developing community-sourced solutions in the years since the conflict, as have similar initiatives launched in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2013 floods in Pakistan.
“Because of the restriction on aid into Gaza by the Israeli government, it’s difficult to bring in a lot of building materials,” head of UNDP in the West Bank and Gaza Frode Mauring told Devex in a phone interview.
“The solution was to crush the rubble from the destroyed buildings, and use this to repair and rebuild the damage,” Mauring said.
In the process, Mauring said, the project targets the most vulnerable Gazans, rebuilding the homes of women, especially widows, and large families first. UNDP also trains and hires Gazans to do rubble removal, as well as sorting and disposing of dangerous materials with the goal of augmenting a long-term, “coordinated civil works” function in Gaza.
The difference in Nepal, Gray pointed out, is that the urgency of monsoon season and donor fatigue has forced organizations to begin implementing these solutions much sooner.
“UNDP has utilized not only this knowledge across its projects, but also staff from our project were sent to Nepal to help move things along there,” Mauring said, adding that partners in Libya and Yemen are being trained under a sister program.
And aid groups in Nepal working side by side with UNDP have begun to create their own version of the program.
“We’re starting a cash-back program to pay volunteers, both for debris removal and training them to separate usable and nonusable waste,” Gray said.
What’s overwhelmingly clear, Gray added, is how time and again funding challenges push donors to resort to salvaging and reusing materials, when really, “this is a capacity we should be growing from the beginning and linking to recovery.”
While aid organizations must continue to cope with donor fatigue — and possibly face it earlier than in previous crises — sharing experience and information across reconstruction efforts could offer an opportunity to move more seamlessly from relief to the longer-term business of development.
Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.
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