The earthquake in Nepal happened a week ago, and the political nightmare is only just getting started. It is clear already that the entrenched greed of the elites is preventing much needed aid and attention getting to marginalised communities.
The conduct of the government during the immediate response to the earthquake has not impressed anyone: ministers appear on camera surrounded by armed police pushing back crowds of hungry victims, and it appears that their priority has been to inventory and control the supply of aid material and now even relief funds. An astonishing decree on 29 April from the national bank (see here for an unofficial, but accurate translation) states that the national bank will simply requisition all funds in any new account set up for earthquake relief and redirect them to the Prime Minister’s Fund. In other words: if your community in Yolmo or Tistung or where ever has set up an earthquake relief fund, any money going to that fun will be requisitioned by the Nepalese Government. This, unsurprisingly, has generated a certain amount of negative publicity; the Telegraph’s headline for its article reads, “Nepal aid donors ‘may halt fundraising’ amid fears government will seize donations”. A more detailed article in the Sunday Independent says, ‘The agencies appear not to trust the PM’s office to spend the money wisely or to run things smoothly. According to one NGO worker, the government appears to care only about “harvesting the golden wave” of relief aid.’ Yup.
Let’s think about what that announcement means. Any existing institution will not have its funds stolen; any new earthquake relief fund will. Where are the affected areas? Actually, most of the concrete houses in Kathmandu, where the leaders of the political parties live, are fine; some cracks, a lot of fear, not as much damage as there might be. It is the indigenous communities that have been disproportionately affected: Tamang, Newar, Bhote, Rai, Thami, Sherpa; the people of Yolmo, Tsum, Dolakha, Tistung and many others. It is also those communities that suffer the most, and pose the greatest threat to the present ruling party. This edict is not about accountability: it is about fear. Those communities might develop funding streams and communication channels that are not controlled by the central elites…a very scary thought.
What does it look like on the other side, from the side of the indigenous and disenfranchised communities that are desperately trying to get food, tents, medicine, anything to come somehow to villages and towns that have been flattened? Pretty bad. Facebook is a wonderful source of satire; I saw this image there, recycled for the present crisis.
It looks as though the parties controlling the Nepalese government have realised that the National Bank’s announcement that it would simply take all funds in new accounts opened for disaster relief was itself a PR disaster. I am reminded of the phrase, much repeated at the Disaster Anthropologies opening session at the ASA in Exeter last month that ‘there are no natural disasters’. There is a message posted on 1 May by Swarnim Wagle, a Nepalese economist at the World Bank and member of the National Planning Commission here. The post is worth reading; it describes at length how various elite institutions and procedures are being deployed to ensure that the stolen money is well spent. My friend David Gellner, more optimistic about the project of building nation-states than I am, describes it as a ‘clarification’ which I take to be studied irony. Even apart from the (well-founded) expectation of corrupt accounting at the national bank, there is a serious credibility problem here and it is apparent in the comments. Swarnim may not see himself as part of the elite in Nepal, but he will certainly be perceived that way, both because of crude racial stereotyping (his last name is that of a high caste mother-tongue Nepali speaker) and because of his clear connections to the government. For a message like this to be credible it would have to come from a vocal critic, someone who could not possibly benefit from the present government’s good will, someone whose mother tongue is not Nepali—for example, someone from the Nepalese Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, or a Madheshi organisation. The gulf between the entrenched and defensive superiority of the elites in control and the radical aspirations of the communities worst affected by the earthquake is wide enough that it would take great courage and a genuine sense of the common good on the part of the ruling classes to reach out to the very people they fear the most in order to forge a sense of a single nation.
In our household we had hoped, perhaps, that something like that would happen; and we as members of a community of scholars and activists are certainly trying as best we can to build effective alliances now. Sadly, it is clear that the present government and the existing elites in Nepal see this earthquake, correctly, as a political event, and their response is to exploit the opportunity as best they can to increase their grip on power. Hope and real action on behalf of the suffering communities in Nepal will have to come from elswehere.