Crisis and Aid: Reflections on Nepal

I continue to be deeply cautious about aid efforts pouring into the country, and here I attempt to explain some of the terms of my ambivalence. I talk about: (i) how the aid that has been poured into the country over the past week is already difficult to organize, and therefore we should be mindful about what else really needs to go in; (ii) the development industry and accountability, and how anyone making a contribution should be aware of institutional practices (plus how organizations should emphasize getting information from victim groups over presupposing the pattern of events); (iii) how the idea of crisis functions as a narrative device, and the implications of extending this label onto a state of affairs.


Over the past couple of days, electricity has gradually been restored to the Kathmandu valley and communication channels into Nepal – both via the internet and other means – have gotten a bit stronger, albeit still not at normal levels. In conjunction with a lot of things happening in my own schedule – not least of which has been having to catch up with obligations sidelined by the events of this week – I have posted Facebook updates about the situation in Nepal less frequently over the last two days or so. I do still have information to give and will post updates as often as I can, but I’m also choosing this moment of relative calm (if only in the capital and relative to the last four days) to attempt to articulate a difficult ambivalence I feel with regard to the movement towards rehabilitation.

The issue is of aid: foreign and domestic, donations as well as volunteering. Over the past week, I have had friends from over the world show much concern about the state of affairs in Nepal, and many have asked what they can do. Late into the night after the earthquake, I posted a quick initial response on Facebook: ‘wait for the dust to clear’. There and again in another post the next day, I asked people to be cautious about all the different funding drives and and aid efforts springing up in response to the disaster. In the capital and in the media, the dust has begun to settle a little, and the shroud of rurality is beginning to be lifted enough to see beyond the Kathmandu valley. More tragically, we have entered the phase of the disaster-aftermath where rescue efforts are increasingly unlikely to be successful. Both of these mean that we are moving from the initial flurry of rescue and relief, to the more complex stage of relief and rehabilitation. Now, even more than before, I believe reflection is going to be crucial.


I’ll begin with the situation on the ground. Immediate relief work has been underway in the capital since Sunday, with groups trying to get necessities like food, water, and medicine out to the affected. Along with disseminating means of shelter (tents, mostly), this has become the most important aspect of immediate relief and has now begun to spread from the valley to more rural areas where people have been hit the hardest. In terms of the aid coming into the country, however, reports have been that people are struggling to effectively organize and coordinate all of the people and things that are beginning to accumulate. The airport has been increasingly overburdened, with a lot of the aid materials sent into the country still in customs. There are many more people trying to get either in through or out of the airport than there are enough people to efficiently manage them.

Transport, in my opinion, is one of the most significant resources to consider in this context. The transport systems that take materials and/or people out of the airport and across the country are limited. Right now, they are straining under the pressure of demand created by aid efforts. It is important to remember that transporting aid is not the only concern for these ‘systems’ right now: there are also multitudes of people trying to get out of Kathmandu and to their rural homes, and while the government has made bus-travel out of the valley free for such people, many of them have been waiting for days to exercise this freedom, as there simply are not enough buses.

By Tuesday, the government of Nepal had declared that no new foreign rescue teams were needed. This was in part because of the general timeline of disaster relief, but it should also be read as a response to the difficulty of managing resources – both material and human – in the country. A rescue team on the ground reported that there was ‘no coordination’, making it likely that different teams ran into each other. This might be extrapolated onto a wider scale as well: there are so many relief efforts trying to get into the country without much coordination amongst them, that they are prone to ‘run into each other’ in both literally and in terms of having clashing agendas or ineffective division of responsibilities.

The above does not mean that absolutely no more people and/or materials should go into Nepal. I do believe that emphasis should be placed on the proper distribution of what is already in the country (over more coming in), but there are of course unaddressed needs that might benefit from certain people and things coming in. However, if you are part of or linked to any sort of initiative that involves the movement of people and materials to Nepal at this time, you need to know not just what or who you’re sending and why, but also how and whether they will get to the areas of need. Make very sure that you know what conditions are like at the airport and outside of it, and that you’ve thought out the process all the way through. This should be done in coordination with people already in Nepal and familiar with the systems and logistics in place.


Secondly, I’ll approach the topic in relation the the broader ‘aid and development’ context in Nepal. There have been a large number of independent aid initiatives springing up online, and these are initiatives that I’ve been warning my friends and contacts away from. This has nothing to do with the probable intent behind such initiatives (although there have been cases of some such ventures being scams): rather, I am worried about the effectiveness of usage of funds. Minor initiatives are likelier to be taxed, and also likelier to be unaware of the general proper procedures of aid efforts. So one of the messages sent out has been to keep donations to recognized organizations with pre-established bases in Nepal. In an earlier Facebook post, I shared a couple of organizations I thought would be helpful, with general reasons outlining my belief.

However, simply looking at organizational brand value isn’t foolproof either. As before: I am far from being an expert, but I do happen to have enough insight into the development scene in Nepal to know that accountability and ‘truly’ qualitative aid are major issues for most organizations that operate there. Once again, this has not so much to do with the malevolent hoarding of resources or anything of the sort, as the inefficient handling of overhead costs, consultancy fees, resource distribution, and long-term check-ups on projects. Just like in many other countries where aid is tied into large-scale projects, the development industry in Nepal needs shifts in the culture (as well as cultural understanding) of development.

In part, this is a paradigmatic problem. The tendency of development actors and agencies to approach problems ‘from above’ has been well-documented and commented upon, and for decades now there have been some efforts to transform the practice of development into a more participatory process. However, the number of organizations that actually emphasize the voice of the affected (rather than relying on ‘known’ patterns and tendencies of development) remain few and far between. More often than not, it is still people who have the resources to give out deciding for people who need them what exactly it means to be developed, and what the path towards development entails. In a context like this, where the stakes are even higher than ‘development’, I feel it is even more important that the victims of the earthquake rather than those trying to help them should be the main agents of need-assessment.

Again, this is not a call to cease all donations to organizations in Nepal: far from it. It is, however, a call to make sure that you are at some level familiar with the organizational practices of the agency to whom you donate, and aware of the possible inadequacies of them. There are a bundle of lists of ‘reliable charities and organizations for aid in Nepal’ going around the internet; these can be useful, but don’t take their contents uncritically. Please do make an effort to know where your contributions are going – not simply in terms of knowing to what organizations they are going, but to what areas and people. Even more importantly, before you make a contribution, make sure you’ve thought about how much you know about the needs of the people and areas you’re contributing to: who has told you about these needs? Who is assuring you that they will be fulfilled?


The final point I’d like to make is of the idea that we are in a crisis, and what that’s going to mean. I’ve left this for last because it involves abstractions and conjectures – all of which I believe are very important, but might be a more long-term than immediate concern to some people.

Crisis is a narrative device. Janet Roitman of the New School for Social Research writes that ‘crisis is mobilized in narrative constructions to mark out a “moment of truth” or as a means to think “history” itself’. The ‘moment of truth’, so to speak, in the narrative of Saturday’s earthquake was the quake itself: it was a moment of crisis that signified a turning point, and each moment of the period of aftershocks was marked by a wide displacement from ‘normalcy’. By any measure of the word, I believe, it is fair to call the Nepali Earthquake of 2015 a crisis.

When crisis is protracted from a turning-point to an extended condition of living, however, it enables a series of narratives and justifications that I would suggest it would be best to avoid. Often, crisis acts as a condition under which certain truths are seen as self-evident and certain objectives as unquestionably essential to fulfill. In Roitman’s words, crisis ‘is a primary enabling blind spot for the production of knowledge’ which ‘allows certain questions to be asked while others are foreclosed’. I link this back to the issue of aid paradigms. For information to come from and knowledge to be constructed out of the voices of those actually displaced and affected, it is important to not let their conditions of existence be defined solely by crisis. In conditions of ‘crisis’, it becomes all too easy to make decisions for others, because the crisis dictates that actions come before questions; that there is no time for critique; that any attempt to challenge the terms and methods of action also challenge the general effort to move away from the terrible destruction and despair of the critical moment. The crisis does not – cannot, it tells us – wait to hear whether or not the subaltern can speak.

Furthermore, crisis invokes the sense of a lack of control – or rather, it makes the judgement that control necessary to order has been lost and must be reclaimed. In the context of the earthquake, it is certainly true that social systems and structures have been weakened – for example, systems of transport and distribution, in ways mentioned earlier. It is also evident that systems of governance (or the faith in them) are under attack. Certainly, then, this is a critical moment for any of these systems, especially with regard to how they will react. Once again, however, to protract the meaning of crisis to signify a state of living can have dangerous consequences. For one, it homogenizes the features of existing conditions to point towards lawlessness. An under-reported aspect of the period right after the earthquake on Saturday was that the immediate government/police mobilization to reach people within the capital was largely swift and effective (this is not to deny later instances where the government might have been lacking). A narrative of crisis thus becomes a convenient site to construct political dissent (which of course I do not reject in and of itself; it is only the totalizing aspect of dissent in the context of crisis that I am concerned about here). An example I would point to are the messages going around on the internet about how ‘this is why we need a king’ rather than a democratic system.

Importantly to the idea of aid, crisis also opens up one avenue of political intervention from the outside. Just in terms of control: in Haiti in 2010, for instance, the crisis became the justification for stationing 20,000 US troops on call for fear of the repercussions of that earthquake on crime. While measures like that might be as possible in Nepal, it is important to consider that Nepal is located in an area geopolitically important to a host of actors: India, China, as well as the West. The aid industry is highly politicized, with aid packages often being part of a bundle agreement that makes certain demands on the recipient. Even if this might not be the case for short-term efforts in the wake of a disaster, it is essential to keep in mind for the longer term. As in most of the above, the issue is one of power: if the state of affairs is a ‘crisis’ that needs resolution, whose proposed means and ends are going to be prioritized? If the answer is not going to exclude those who have been most affected by this earthquake, then I would assert that the narrative of crisis needs to be resisted in the weeks to come.

Photo Credit: Abhijan Chitrakar-Phnuyal 

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