Nepal Rebuild Stalled by State Stumbles, Despite $4.1 Billion Pledged in Aid

Donors pledged about $4.1 billion after the catastrophic April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, but the government has disbursed only $154 million, amid bureaucratic delays, shifting cabinet lineups, inadequate staffing and personnel turnover.

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Nepal Rebuild Stalled by State Stumbles, Despite $4.1 Billion Pledged in Aid

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Much of the damage from a series of earthquakes in 2015 is still visible in cities, towns and villages all across Nepal. Here, a section of Bhaktapur, a historic area near Kathmandu, is shown in this image taken in December 2015. It's common to see such damage in Nepal even now, more than two years on.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL — Donations came in quickly, as images of crumbled buildings, half-buried bodies and desperate families huddled in tents flooded international media in the hours and days after the earthquake.

Huge sums of money were pledged to Nepal by governments around the world. Money poured in via text messages, and international aid agencies arrived with truckloads of food, tents and medical supplies.

All told, about $4.1 billion in cash, in-kind donations and other forms of relief was pledged, according to data provided to Global Press Journal by a high-ranking Finance Ministry official.

But less than 4 percent of that money has been spent.

The first and strongest earthquake, of magnitude 7.8, occurred on April 25, 2015. Another, slightly smaller one came in early May, and aftershocks went on for weeks, decimating early response efforts. More than 9,000 people died, and tens of thousands more were injured. About 800,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Recovering from a disaster this grave takes time, but the causes of the extensive delays in rebuilding Nepal are not solely geological.

It took eight months – until Dec. 25, 2015 – to establish the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), the agency charged with managing post-quake recovery.

Homes, temples, roads and other basic infrastructure across the country still show quake damage. Many people in rural Nepal – the majority of the country – say they can’t get access to the government grants they need to rebuild their homes. In Kathmandu, treasured sites are still covered with tarps.

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Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Radha Malakar, 50, sells flowers near Kasthamandap temple, which was destroyed by an earthquake in April 2015. It’s common to see earthquake damage throughout Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.

To make matters worse, a dispute over the nation’s new constitution resulted in a blockade that kept basic goods, including fuel and medicine, from entering the country overland from India. The blockade lasted two months and seriously hampered the reconstruction effort.

There’s no shortage of government officials willing to point fingers and cast blame for the sputtering reconstruction effort. Nepal has had four different prime ministers since the earthquake, leading to ongoing political infighting and constantly shifting priorities for government ministries. The NRA was originally designed to work independently, but much of its work is now linked to other ministries.

The result? Many tasks are duplicated, and progress comes much more slowly than it should, say multiple government officials who spoke with Global Press for this story.

Of the $4.1 billion in international aid pledged, only $3.4 billion was committed – that is, formally promised via a memorandum of understanding or some other formal document, according to data provided by Kewal Prasad Bhandari, a joint secretary at the Finance Ministry.

Of that, $154 million has been disbursed.

The reason for such a small payout is that most of the aid is set in a reimbursement model, Bhandari says. The Nepalese government spends first and then gets reimbursed.

The government has also spent 37.8 billion Nepalese rupees (about $365 million) in public money on reconstruction efforts. In total, about $617 million, including money from international donors, has been spent on reconstruction, Bhandari says.

That is a tiny fraction of what the country needs. The Post-Disaster Needs Assessment published in 2015 by Nepal’s National Planning Commissionestimated that it will cost $6.7 billion to repair earthquake damage. In 2016, the NRA estimated that reconstruction would cost about 811 billion rupees ($7.8 billion).

And those estimates project that homeowners will, in most cases, pay some of the costs for rebuilding their homes and do much of the work, if not all of it, themselves.

Meanwhile, officials complain that the NRA – and the rest of the government – is hobbled by insufficient staffing and high turnover. The agency has 72 people on staff at its Kathmandu headquarters – an office that should house 182 workers.

“With a high transfer rate, work gets affected,” says Bhishma Kumar Bhusal, a senior spokesman at the NRA.

The top spot at the NRA, for example, has changed every year.

Sushil Gyawali, appointed in December 2015 as the agency’s first CEO, was unable to establish a basic budget. That’s because it wasn’t long before a plan was in place to appoint a new CEO, he says.

Govinda Pokharel, a former vice president of the National Planning Commission, took Gyawali’s post within a year.

But Pokharel didn’t last long, either. In October, Yubaraj Bhusal, a career government worker with deep personal ties to other government leaders, replaced him.

Activists are losing hope that the government will ever be able to efficiently manage the reconstruction.

“We also need political stability for work to go smoothly,” says Shree Hari Aryal, president of Transparency International Nepal, which has tracked reconstruction, particularly of private homes.

According to government plans, reconstruction should be at the halfway point. The NRA was mandated to oversee rebuilding for five years.

By 2020, regardless of its success or lack thereof, the agency will close its doors.


Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.