Disaster By Another Name

Yet another disaster has struck Nepal in recent days. But this time it isn’t a natural disaster — it’s man-made.

The name of the disaster now afflicting Nepal is Bureaucracy. Instead of the earth shaking, nothing moves; you can’t feel it or hear it, but it also kills.

The international response to the earthquake in Nepal was everything one could hope for. It was one of those rare events in which the community in the appellation international community was deserved.

It was mankind at its best. Dozens of countries from all over the world, from Japan to Canada, organized every type of emergency aid imaginable. The squadrons of doctors and rescue teams, military and civilian, that brought with them countless tons of food, medical supplies, tents and blankets, was dispatched with a speed and efficiency that all can be proud of. It is an example of what the world can do when politics don’t get in the way.

Unfortunately, something else has gotten in the way of getting help to Nepal. It’s called Nepal.

Much of it is nobody’s fault. Weather conditions and topography in the Himalayas can be daunting and dangerous at any time.

But the national infrastructure is incapable of handling so much help. The airports and roads are inadequate to the task of accommodating a huge, multi-national airlift, and delays in the shipment of supplies were inevitable, even had it not been for additional damage caused by aftershocks.

But that too can be attributed to the meager resources of a poor country. Blaming the Nepalese for poor infrastructure is like blaming them for being poor. Perhaps they could utilize their resources better, but that could be said about a lot of countries.

What is not so easy to excuse or overlook, however, is the role that Nepalese politics and bureaucracy have played in multiplying the misery of so many people.

Humanitarian operations have been hindered from the outset by bureaucratic obstructionism. Desperately needed relief supplies have been piling up at points of entry due to an insensate officialdom. Customs officials insist on checking everything, while hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and foreign visitors are freezing and starving, and without proper shelter are exposed to the risk of contagion.

“They should not be using peacetime customs methodology,” United Nations Resident Representative Jamie McGoldrick said. All relief material should be exempt from the usual checks and sped through on arrival.

The officials seem slow to comprehend. While Nepal lifted import taxes on tarpaulins and tents, a Home Ministry spokesman, Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, said that regular inspections had to be conducted. “This is something we need to do,” he said.

Worse, politicking and corruption have slowed down the recovery. The India Times reported that only after complaints mounted did Nepal’s three major political parties finally agree to allow anyone other than their hand-picked people to distribute the aid materials.

Britain’s The Independent newspaper said that aid agencies are wary about handing aid money and supplies over to the government. It quoted one NGO worker as saying that the government appears to care only about “harvesting the golden wave” of relief aid. Monitoring reports indicate that some supplies are being distributed according to recipients’ social status rather than their need.

That this is the situation comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the government’s record of performance in past emergencies. The victims of a monsoon-triggered landslide last August were still waiting for the financial aid and resettlement help promised them when the ground starting shaking in April.

Some say that the only thing that really works in Nepal is the scenery. For reasons too mysterious for Western observers to understand, there hasn’t been a local election in almost 20 years. Decisions are made by a ruling elite in the capital, Kathmandu, and committees that are supposed to run local affairs are controlled by national political parties, which makes them less accountable to the people.

Minendra Rijal, the minister for information and communication, denied that the government was at fault.

“The accusations are false,” Mr. Rijal said. “It would be better if the U.N. involved itself more in its duties rather than engaging in criticizing the government.”

However, the evidence against him appears overwhelming, and privately a number of officials in Kathmandu admitted that the government has not done well in the crisis.

When Nepal finishes burying its dead and begins rebuilding its homes, and life finally does return to normal, a new task awaits the international aid organizations — to rescue Nepal from its own politics and bureaucracy.

For all the goodwill and planeloads of aid in the world cannot help Nepal if Nepal cannot help itself.