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Volunteers to the rescue in Nepal’s flood season

As the monsoon rains again cruelly reveal the fragility and errors of ‘development’ in Nepal, there is a sense that the country should expect less support from an international community preoccupied with its own COVID-19 pandemic response.

Yet humanitarian aid has perhaps never delivered as much as we are led to believe. Accustomed to seeing slick press releases and articles promoting multimillion-dollar aid response of donor agencies, many assume they are leading rescue and recovery efforts. Research from 2019 suggests otherwise.

The Overseas Development Institute research suggests that international humanitarian assistance could account for as little as 1% of aid flowing during disasters and crises. Other sources provide the rest, including:

  • monetary and in-kind help raised by crisis-affected individuals and communities
  • remittances from family members abroad
  • local and national governments
  • informal aid, including volunteering, philanthropy and faith-based giving.

A related ODI article that focused on aid in Nepal’s Saptari district following the 2017 floods concluded that ‘the response of the western international system (the UN and INGOs) played only a minor role, accounting for around a sixth of the resources that affected households said they received’.

‘A third came from family, neighbours and landlords, the government, the diaspora or community-based organisations, including in-kind items such as shelter, food, cooking stoves and fuels. Another quarter was from other countries, with China reported as the main source, and Nepali NGOs, particularly the Nepali Red Cross, accounted for a fifth.’

Volunteer Corps Nepal (VCN) currently has 500 volunteers on standby in Saptari to respond to flooding. “Our concern is to prevent deaths, so we have alerted our volunteers to immediately evacuate people to safe areas,” says its president Deepak Chapagain.

VCN was the first organisation to arrive in Jhambhu of Sindhupalchok after the deadly landslides last week devastated the community. It helped organise the helicopter rescue of seven injured locals, and VCN’s attempt to locate bodies using a drone was thwarted by the piles of rubble created by the disaster, but the video footage it captured shows the massive destruction.

Two people have been confirmed dead in the district and some 20 remain missing. Dozens of houses were swept away by the landslide.

Chapagain says his volunteers had to build a trail to the community after the landslide destroyed the road. “We walked for three hours making our own trail carrying food for more than 25 households from Barabise,” he said.

VCN includes more than 3,000 trained local volunteers and a wider network of 8,000-plus people in 77 districts, and is increasingly relying on funding from within Nepal to run its operations, notes Chapagain.

“Big donors stopped giving four months ago because they were highly affected by COVID, and we get small funds from family foundations and individuals but they become big when they come from a large numbers of people,” he adds.

Even in COVID-19 lockdown response, more than international help it is community efforts which are making a difference. NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati has been raising funds for food aid and helping organise an information campaign during the lockdown.

“Our source for funding certainly is not any of the aid agencies that quote extremely large figures in their package announcements. It really is these other sources, including remittances, including diasporic communities, including large, global communities that care for Nepal,” she told the podcast Nepal Now. “The difference we have felt this year is a lot of the fundraising has depended on the diasporic Nepali community and also people who have lived in and love Nepal.”

‘Why does this matter?’ asks the main ODI article. ‘If international aid is only 1–2% of what people receive, then it needs to be managed in a much more complementary way and in better alignment with other resource flows to address the real needs faced by people in crisis.’

‘This means shifting perspectives from one with international resource flows at the core to one where households and affected countries are at the centre of how responses are planned and funded. Aid should be used not just to respond to gaps in need but to catalyse better and more effective use of flows beyond aid, which may be the best way to ‘localise’ the response.’

Chapagain wants big donors to start putting money into rescue efforts: “We were the first responders at Sindhupalchok … when the road is clear other organisations will also arrive but there is no sense in going then. They need to reach immediately so they can save the lives of the people.”