Last Thursday, our meeting with two district officials in Lamjung was so encouraging that I’d been energized all weekend. I talked with a friend at home who did her thesis on post-earthquake housing in Haiti. My dad helped me get in touch with the inventor of earthbag building. I pored over diagrams on the internet and learned the term “waddle and daub.” I was looking for every possible way to supplement a government housing kit consisting of tin roofing and tools. And of course, I talked with a few people about my safe-box idea.
Aamod and I made our second trip out to Lamjung on Monday, for the shelter cluster meeting. (Relief coordination between large iNGOs and the government is divided in to clusters of which shelter is one). We somehow managed to be an hour late again, which this time meant entering a room of a few dozen government officials and representatives from big international organizations.
We sat down in the corner and I took out my notebook. A slide up on the projector showed the names of about six multinational agencies, the villages where they’d been assigned to provide housing, and the number of households covered by each agency, which ranged from about 900 – 1500. Then on the bottom row was our name with two blank columns next to it – no villages yet assigned – and “100” in the righthand column under number of houses. Well, A for effort, anyway.
Besides, with the possibility of using the government’s housing kit, we were hoping to get that number up to about 300.
But the next hour was nothing like either our personalized visit with Lamjung’s district officials a few days earlier, or the big health cluster meeting I’d attended in Kathmandu. Today we were in a room of local politicians talking about use of resources. And my prior enthusiasm was quickly put in check.
Within minutes after we arrived, a discussion about reassigning some villages from one organization to another turned in to a 15-minute debate over whether aid agencies should be allowed to flash their logos while working. After all, it’s the government that should come out with the recognition – is housing aid to become no more than advertising anarchy?
All the big iNGOs have Nepal offices with all-Nepali staff. As I watched the Nepalis representing those agencies negotiate this discussion, even I started to get lost as to who was allied to what cause. I basically understood why these folks engaged a conversation about who would get credit instead of pointing out the more urgent matter of thousands of homeless people in Lamjung; let’s call that standard operating procedure, a necessary hurdle to eventually getting back to housing.
But when someone from one of these NGOs suggested that the Chamber of Commerce should broker
the massive upcoming procurement of corrugated tin roofing, I couldn’t keep up. This guy was working for a huge iNGO that needed to get tin in order to help build shelters. To put this in context, Nepali villagers can build anything out of anything. The overall approach being used with transitional housing is to provide a critical piece of hardware – THE ROOF – and let people build around it.
Foreigners in the room had already explained why their agencies were working on getting corrugated tin from multiple sources to meet the need as fast as possible. Why would this guy, tasked with representing his iNGO to the shelter cluster, encourage all these government officials to control and inevitably slow down the process? Was he bluffing? Maybe he knew his suggestion would never work out, but would satisfy egos and clear the way. Or maybe he meant it. It was either brilliant or terrible, but I still don’t know which.
Finally, one of the European aid workers spoke up. I’d noticed him sitting off to the side, a burly, hearty looking man with clear blue eyes and a tousle of graying hair. He captured all my biases – obviously a disaster professional, not a Nepali-speaker, here for Earthquake and that alone, bored with these talking games that I’ve come to sort of enjoy as sport. He was keeping a feel for the pulse of the conversation while mostly ignoring it, looking rather peeved.
In a few swift paragraphs, this guy listed the amount of corrugated tin available in Lamjung district, and in Nepal as a whole – about 10% of the tin needed for the number of houses destroyed. He knew exactly the number of trucks he needed to transport housing materials to his coverage area; the amount of square footage needed to store all the supplies. He pointed out that accomplishing all this was a massive task and that the monsoon will be starting imminently.
“If we could please finalize which of us are taking which areas, than we can all get to work,” he said.
Even I was taken down a good notch, as I am so accustomed to all this politicking in Nepal that I’ve come to expect it, even though we’re in an emergency.
And there’s more. The government has established a policy to give two sheets of tin to each family that needs to rebuild – but there isn’t nearly enough tin in Nepal to deliver on this quickly without a lot of smart planning and international coordination. So instead, Nepal’s government has decided to give everyone $150 in cash to buy their own tin.
“And when you do that,” said the burly aid officer, “the price of tin is going to skyrocket, because there’s not enough tin available in the local market.”
“We have controls for that,” said an official.
“You can’t control that,” pointed out the aid officer. “When you put money in to a market where there isn’t enough product, the price will triple.”
The matter was never totally resolved.
Later, Aamod and I discussed why on earth Nepal’s leaders would willfully do something like that. The only reason can be to to pacify constituents quickly with cash rather than sorting out the more complex problem the population is actually facing. People will be pleased with receiving $150 and they won’t realize it’s useless because the thing they most need is nowhere to be found, or is now worth $450.
I wonder if this cash reimbursement matter is getting any coverage in the U.S. The only reason it won’t cause an economic collapse in Nepal is because there’s no more room to fall; people literally have nothing. So instead it will just put the most urgently needed commodity – sheets of corrugated tin, for goodness sake – out of reach by displacing the government’s responsibility to provide it on to people who can’t possibly solve a material shortage.
I actually watched a group of politicians look at each other, confront this fact, and, from what I could tell, decide to do it anyway. It felt as though this inflation matter was a good point, but a lot of trouble to solve. It’s a perfect example of the structural rot that weakened this country long before an earthquake shook its softened beams to the ground.
Just to put icing on the cake, before we left, we found out that the district had changed its mind about providing a government housing kit for us to use. In fact, the friendly engineer we talked with the other day – Pradeep – a genuinely sincere guy who seemed to like our idea of collaboration, said the official policy is now that government is only to deliver its tin (or $150) in places where NGOs are NOT working. As for the entire housing kit, which includes things like nails, wire and hammer…that’s just a suggested kit. The big multinational agencies will use it, but the government won’t.
I knew it had all seemed to good to be true. Didn’t I say it was a miracle?
I made a hard pitch to Pradeep that he and I had the opportunity to set an example for how community organizations can collaborate to achieve the work of the government. There are countless groups like Eva Nepal running around providing aid with tremendous energy. He actually liked my idea a lot, but said I’d have to write a proposal and send it up the chain. We all know how long that will take, and in the mean time, people are living under tarps. It’s not the time to play games.
Looks like if we want to work on shelters in Lamjung, we’ll have to bring in all the materials ourselves.
. . .