Nepal: A Fractured Society On the Mend


Following its long civil war, Nepal’s complex social divisions make it difficult for the post-earthquake aid agencies to do their job. But they can build bridges between communities if they understand the nation’s complex social and political make-up, writes Dan Smith, secretary– general of international alert, the peacemaking charity.

Nepal has been devastated by a massive earthquake, but it is not the only recent trauma to have affected one of the world’s poorest nations. Nepal is slowly emerging from a 10-year civil war that exacerbated the existing tensions between different communities. In such a context, delivering aid without upsetting rival groups is a delicate matter. Fortunately, there are many people in Nepal who can offer advice to the aid agencies. In some ways their greatest battle will begin in a few months when the emergency period is over and the rebuilding period starts. At that point, Nepal’s complex social and political realities will start to bite.

Of course, clearing up after the April 25 earthquake is already a great challenge. More than 8,000 people died and the final toll may be higher. Eight million people – a quarter of the population – were affected and tremors were felt in New Delhi and Tibet. Whole villages were flattened and hundreds of thousands left homeless. A second quake two weeks later compounded the trauma, killing 90 and injuring around 2,000.

Compassion is the right first response. The big charities are appealing for money the world over. But compassion has to be smart. Humanitarian aid can go wrong if it doesn’t take account of the full reality on the ground. Giving aid as if the earthquake is the only important thing about Nepal right now risks repeating the mistakes that were made after the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami and the 2010 Haiti quake. Nepal’s vulnerable citizens are already frustrated by their government’s inadequate aid distribution.

Once the immediate emergency period is over, the more complicated operations begin. This is when the aid workers and redevelopers will need all the help from native Nepalese and foreign experts on the country. The problems are not insurmountable, but they first need to be acknowledged and understood.

Civil war

Nepal is still suffering the effects of its 10- year civil war, which ended in 2006. During this period the government also ended the rule of the monarchy. The causes of the civil war included bad governance, lack of political voice, failures of development, and discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, religion and caste. Nine years on, these problems persist and peace building is a continuing need. Relationships between some communities remain strained, grievances among the excluded remain, governance has not been sorted out and a new constitution is yet to be agreed.

An even worse problem is endemic corruption, which makes emergency aid difficult. Rival political parties are also manoeuvring for advantage. Many government activities and policies are managed at least in part on the basis of short-term, sectional advantages for one group or another, rather than for the common good.

Then there is simple inefficiency because of weak capacity. Aid deliveries are piling up at the airport. Some of the UK’s aid is specifically allocated to getting heavy lifting equipment into place to resolve that particular issue, although the government has refused entry to three British Chinook heavy-lift helicopters for fear they will do too much damage to fragile structures. On top of this, there are geopolitical issues to consider. China doesn’t want Nepal to allow US aircraft near its border, which makes it even harder to reach isolated communities in the north.

All these issues affect emergency relief and rebuilding. The distribution of aid may cause grievances, or deepen existing ones. These grievances won’t always be visible to a superficial glance. Marginalised groups are likely to become even more marginalised after the emergency aid has been distributed and rebuilding starts.

Sensitive approach

Humanitarian agencies can deliver aid on a do-no-harm basis by being sensitive to the context of conflict. It is not easy, but there are many people in Nepal who can help them to gain a deeper understanding. They can also work with the ad hoc aid groups that have sprung up as communities go in for self-help.

If it is done sensitively, aid could actually enhance the prospect of peace by bringing different communities together who are experiencing the greatest common need. While experience offers some tough lessons about what happens when aid goes wrong, we also know that it can be delivered in ways that minimise politicisation and corruption.

Aid should be available on the basis of need. As emergency relief gives way to the reconstruction process, the people with the greatest stake should have a role in deciding how it is done. Reaching across social and political division will ensure that as Nepal recovers from the impact of the earthquake, it also recovers from the aftermath of its long civil war.



Photo Credit: Drburtoni from flickr