Shaking Up the Status Quo in Nepal

“Ke garne?” an old lady said to us, tears pouring down her cheeks, as we visited her earthquake-battered village in the Dhading district of Nepal last month: “What to do?” With a history of repeated crises — political, economic and natural — it has become the Nepali way to shrug one’s shoulders and hope for the best.

Sadly, people have been hoping for a long time: even before the earthquakes, Nepal was one of the poorest, most corrupt and least equal countries in the world. Now, despite the recent destruction and suffering, Nepal has a real opportunity not only to re-build broken lives and shattered infrastructure but also to begin the process of creating a new, more inclusive and accountable society.

Since the end of the civil war in 2006, Nepalis have found it impossible to come together around a shared vision for the country, with the failure to agree on a new Constitution leading to continual strikes and violence. But the earthquakes have generated an unprecedented sense of collective responsibility for the future.

Nepal’s youth in particular have shown themselves to be incredibly creative, collaborative and altruistic. The Yellow House and the Association of Youth Organizations of Nepal for example, have mobilized thousands of volunteers to self-finance and distribute aid to even the most remote districts. A young engineer called Bipin Gaire set up Bhukampa, a network of more than 350 engineers who are assessing damaged buildings on a pro-bono basis.

Groups organized by Nepal Rises are monitoring social media to identify gaps in the response and sending supplies including tents and food to disaster-hit areas. Talented social entrepreneurs at Abari (the Adobe and Bamboo Research Institute, which reuses traditional materials in contemporary construction practices) and the Himalayan Climate Initiative (a youth-driven group that promotes clean energy) are collaborating with villagers to build earthquake resistant, light-weight houses using locally sourced materials. The list goes on and on.

The walls of social status have crumbled as those with water, toilets and electricity have shared with others in need; and new relationships are emerging across economic and caste lines. In the community of Dhapasi, for example, we saw a displaced Brahmin family sharing a tent and cooking with their Dalit — or “untouchable” — neighbors. This would have been unthinkable in the past.

In the Patan district close to Kathmandu, a group of entrepreneurs from Smart Paani (a company that designs water-management systems) adapted their off-grid power systems to create a cellphone and laptop charging center, which was used largely by the poor in the days after the first earthquake.

This is not to suggest that Nepali society has suddenly been transformed, but there is a volunteerism, community spirit and social consciousness that is new and very different from before. This can be harnessed in positive ways well beyond post-disaster relief work.

The Nepali people are also demanding to know how aid is being distributed and funds are being spent in their name. Organizations like Bibeksheel Nepali and Quake Relief Updates are setting the tone by publishing all of their donations and expenses online in real time. Websites have popped up to consolidate information on relief efforts, map calls for assistance and document aid flows coming into the country.

In rural areas, where elections have not been held for almost two decades, communities are finding their own ways to build accountability. In the town of Sankhu, for example, 15 miles east of Kathmandu, we discovered that citizens have formed a neutral Disaster Relief Committee to act as a bulwark against political influence and direct relief supplies fairly.

Accountability Lab and Local Interventions Group have been setting up mobile citizen help desks to help people fix problems and ensure transparency of aid efforts at the local level — and hundreds of young volunteers are signing up to help. During previous crises, like the massacre of the royal family in June 2001, it was the government in Nepal that dictated flows of information, which prevented citizens from asking questions of those in power. Now, social media is allowing Nepalis to push the government towards transparency- and we are seeing the authorities respond.

Since April 25, the day of the first earthquake, the government set up a number of Twitter accounts, including for the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, the National Police and the National Emergency Operations Center. Officials have realized they have to interact with citizens about issues that matter- and have been using these channels to fix problems related to the recovery efforts. The government is also disseminating data on all relief funds collected and disbursed through an Earthquake Relief Portal.

On the ground, we are hoping that local officials will follow the example of the Chief District Officer in Dhading district, who has committed to publishing daily reports of earthquake-related activities online so that citizens can monitor progress.

Over time, this movement towards transparency could become normalized and provide a basis for more open and equal policymaking. Throughout its recent history — from the establishment of democracy in 1990 to the abolition of the monarchy in 2008 — change has come suddenly in Nepal when its people have seized responsibility for their own fate. The recent earthquakes represent another extraordinary chance for Nepalis to collectively forge a future based on national unity, shared responsibility, and accountability of those in power. They must take it.

Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. Sujeev Shakya is chairman of the Nepal Economic Forum.

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