KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepal is still reeling from a series of devastating earthquakes. People are still living in makeshift tents. And they are still desperate for relief.
Yet despite this enormous amount of need, international donations and other aid is falling critically short. While news of the relief effort falling out of international headlines is surely contributing to the shortfall, many blame the Nepali government itself.
Nepal is famously corrupt. And many international aid workers now in Nepal believe that a series of questionable decisions in the aftermath of the disaster has scared away donors.
“There were too many bureaucratic procedures in place when they should have been removed for emergency and humanitarian purposes,” a senior United Nations official, who is stationed in Nepal, said on the condition he not be named. “There’s a bit of red tape and then there’s more than red tape, which is corruption.”
Nepali politicians, for instance, appear to be trying to leverage the disaster — and the aid money attached to it — to reinforce their hold on power.
In one blatant example, government officials handed out $70 in cash to survivors, which many interpreted as a strategy to gain favor with voters. Carrying wads of government cash, the politicians went from village to village, meeting with families, recording family information, and giving away the money.
Constituent Assembly Speaker Subash Nembang, who regulates parliament activities, also had to remind lawmakers recently that they can’t use rescue helicopters to visit their constituents because those flights are intended for — rescuing people.
Last week lawmakers — who are mostly wealthier than the general population — sparked outrage when they were caught lining up to receive tarps intended for earthquake victims. When the media and some lawmakers caught wind of the distribution at the Constituent Assembly building, the lawmakers sheepishly returned the tarps.
“There is no management. There is no control from the government,” says Bharat Jangam, an anti-corruption activist and journalist in Nepal. Jangam was the editor of one of the first newspapers in the country and has been lobbying the government for reform.
“They are talking one thing and doing another.”
Government corruption in Nepal is pervasive. Everyone from local administrators overseeing road construction or schools to senior politicians is guilty, Jangam said. Nepal ranked 126 out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 corruption perceptions index.
Small bribes like paying traffic police to avoid a ticket or extra “fees” for expediting government paperwork are common. Here, a request for illicit money is a regular part of exchanges with government officials. So activists have good reason to worry that a sudden influx in cash in the form of aid donations presents just another opportunity for the corrupt to enrich themselves.
Of greatest concern is a so-called Disaster Relief Fund established by Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. The Nepali leader wants all donations funneled through it. He called it a “one-door policy” for aid money.
“It’s only one fund, and all the NGO’s, [International] NGO’s, persons, institutions, or anybody who wants to help with the disaster relief should contribute to that fund,” said Narayan Gopal Malego, a spokesperson for the prime minister’s office.
To this end, Nepal’s central bank seized local bank accounts known to be receiving disaster relief funds that were opened after the April 25 quake. It then took those funds and redirected them into the government’s Disaster Relief Fund. The move turned into a public relations fiasco. Since then, the central bank clarified that they were only seizing the funds of accounts opened after the earthquake, but that did very little to strengthen donors’ trust that their money would get to victims.
While the government has lobbied the international aid community to deposit money into the fund and let the Nepali government direct all aid disbursement, few are so far heeding those calls.
Officials say the Disaster Relief Fund has only collected $3.4 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. Most of that money has come from donors within Nepal or from donations made to Nepali embassies around the world. The prime minister has also secured funding from the Asian Development Bank.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has appealed for $423 million to help with the recovery in Nepal. It has so far only received about 15 percent of that goal.
“If we don’t act quickly, the implications will be severe,” Jamie McGoldrick, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal, said in a statement. “We can only expect misery, a crippling loss of dignity and the real potential for more deaths, especially in the rural and remote areas.”
The Nepal chapter of Transparency International is calling on the government to disclose its books related to the fund as a way to prevent corruption. But so far the government has resisted.
“There are questions of the accountability for the government to spend funds effectively,” said Ashish Thapa, executive director of Transparency International Nepal.
A lack of transparency about where and how disaster relief is spent — on behalf of both government institutions and aid organizations — has been an issue in the aftermath of some of the world’s most-recent and most-devastating disasters.
The Center for Global Development, a think tank based in Washington, DC, studied the $9 billion donated to Haiti in the aftermath of its earthquake. They found most aid agencies could not tell where the money went, how many people it reached, and what goals were accomplished.
Thapa believes this trend could change if Nepal’s government committed to more accountability. He said the government’s actions in the disaster’s aftermath could mark a new chapter in government transparency.
“I am hopeful that the past will not be repeated,” he said.
By Stephen Groves, GlobalPost
This article is syndicated from GlobalPost.