In April and May 2015 two earthquakes devastated the South Asian country of Nepal, measuring 7.8 and 7.3 respectively. Almost 9,000 people died and a further 17,000 were injured. The impact of the earthquakes was felt mostly in rural areas and across the country 473,000 homes were destroyed, 2.8 million people displaced and over 25,000 livestock killed.
Background to the Nepal Relief Program (NRP)
The Australian based NGO Would Youth International (WYI) has worked in Nepal for approximately 15 years, running short-term infrastructure, community development and nursing programs. From September – November 2015 WYI ran its first ever emergency response program, the Nepal Relief Program (NRP).
The NRP was based in two rural communities in the Kavre district, Ganesh Than and Jwentar. Over two months, 22 volunteers spent between 10 – 60 days contributing to the rebuilding of Ganesh Than’s primary school and Jwentar’s Community Centre, used for village meetings, medical clinics and wedding receptions. The decision on which projects the NRP would work on was made through community consultation and project proposals submitted by the WYI Nepal in-country coordinator to WYI management in Australia.
Each volunteer fundraised a minimum of $2,000 to take part in the program, on top of a program fee which varied based on the length of their time in Nepal. In order to complete the projects, WYI contracted 5 national staff, including 3 tradesmen, 1 cook and 1 in-country coordinator, all of whom work with WYI regularly.
International volunteering and its discontents
International volunteering has been in existence for several decades and is practiced in many forms. ‘Voluntourism’ is a recent offshoot to traditional volunteering and is one of the fastest growing and most widely criticised areas of development. Criticism of voluntourism, point to the increase of questionable ‘orphanages’ in South East Asia, the growth of slum tourism, particularly in Africa, the economic consequences of unskilled foreigners doing work which could otherwise go to locals and the strain on often scarce local resources. There is also a wider argument of NGO’s picking up the slack, in areas where governments and national institutions should be providing services and being accountable to their populations. Despite most international volunteers having the best of intentions, many programs they participate in can and do create a negative impact.
So where does the NRP fit amongst the many international volunteering and voluntourism programs? Was the program a positive response to the affected communities? Could it have been done differently or better, or not at all? How did the presence of volunteers affect the local population? What was the impact of the NRP on the local populations? Most importantly, was the NRP successful in helping those it set out to?
The psychosocial impact
The NRP began in September 2015, four months after the second earthquake. In that four month period the local populations of Ganesh Than and Jwentar accessed the emergency relief they required – food relief, temporary shelters and medical assistance – providied by the government and large NGO’s, before moving on to the next phase of their recovery.
The widely used UMCOR ‘Phases of Disaster Recovery’ manual notes that after the Emergency Relief period, populations move into Early Recovery and Medium – Long Term Recovery, stages that can last from months to years, depending on various factors. In these stages life takes on a ‘new normal,’ where adults return to work and children to school. It is in these stages that the NRP sits.
The psychosocial impact of the NRP participants volunteering in Ganesh Than and Jwentar was overall, a positive. WYI has been working with these communities and others in the area for approximately 5 years and over that time a strong relationship has been established. The communities, including the children, are used to having volunteers live in the village and at the time of their greatest need, their presence was a comfort rather than a burden. Many of the volunteers were previous WYI volunteers and therefore were not strangers entering the community, but were welcomed as friends. The community members were enthusiastic to meet the volunteers, mix with and spend time with them. Furthermore, there were no demands placed on the communities regarding home stays, local orientation or any other form of ‘accommodating’ the volunteers, a decision taken by WYI management in Australia. The level of interaction between the community and volunteers during the NRP was dictated by the community members and the volunteers respected this.
UNICEF recognises that if children ‘…feel safe and cared for, and are able to have a sense of routine – including being back at school where they can learn, develop and play – they can better cope and recover from traumatic experiences.’ This point highlights the importance of the reconstruction of the Ganesh Than school and the role that it will play in the recovery of the local population.
Finally, the impacts from many natural disasters of late (Pakistan 2005, Haiti 2010, Philippines 2013, Vanuatu 2015) have been exacerbated, by shortfalls in required aid money and a lack of media attention and ongoing presence in the public’s consciousness. The populations of Ganesh Than and Jwentar, through the NRP, know they have not been forgotten in their time of need and that as their recovery continues, WYI will be working alongside them. The psychological benefit to the community is therefore strong and places these communities in a stronger position than many others in Nepal.
An important factor to consider with the NRP was the strain that 22 volunteers would place on local resources, especially at such a vulnerable time for the community.
Food: Most of the food purchased during the NRP was done so in Kathmandu. Some local produce was purchased, including bananas, tomatoes, milk and eggs. Rice was not available for purchase locally, as it was not harvested, however for future WYI programs purchasing rice in the community is a possibility. Also home visits were kept to a minimum, therefore reducing the impact on household food resources. Importantly, there was no strain placed on the local population’s food supply.
Fuel: Only days after the NRP began, a new Nepalese Constitution was passed, amidst much controversy. In the days and weeks following, protests in the Therai region and an Indian border blockade saw national fuel supplies plummet and the price increase dramatically. To date the fuel crisis is unresolved and continues to affect the daily lives of Nepalese citizens and stifle recovery efforts. During the planning of the NRP the current crisis did not exist and could not have been foreseen. However, since the blockade began and fuel supplies diminished, the NRP leaders and volunteers adjusted to the conditions and all transportation was kept to a minimum.
Water: The differences in water supply between the two communities of Ganesh Than and Jwentar is stark. In Ganesh Than and other surrounding villages, the earthquakes disrupted the natural flow of water, therefore, those villages are facing permanent shortages and long walks to retrieve water. In Jwentar there is no shortage of water.
The impact of the NRP volunteers in the communities varied. In Jwentar the volunteers’ presence had no effect on local water supplies, however in Ganesh Than, while no official data was collated, anecdotally, the presence of NRP volunteers did contribute to reducing local water supplies. There was an increase in direct water usage, for cooking, showering, washing and drinking water and indirectly, by the water used in the school’s reconstruction. The volunteers in the NRP were aware of the shortage in water and as a consequence attempted to keep their impact as low as possible.
Economics – local & national
The economics surrounding international volunteering is one of the strongest arguments against many of the programs that exist. Having unskilled tourists do work for free, which skilled locals could do for a wage, is not a recipe for a communities economic development. However, on other hand the argument to ‘just send the money’ instead is not always the answer, for many organisations are now entrenched in the work they do and are only able to do it because of the money fundraised by volunteers. A catch 22, the issue is being debated continuously in development circles.
WYI has several Nepalese staff, a Nepalese board and partners with other NGO’s including the Nepalese Red Cross National Society. For the NRP, 5 local workers were contracted, 3 tradesman, 1 cook and 1 in-country coordinator. In focusing purely on the NRP, the overall economic impact of the program, locally and nationally, is again, positive.
At a local level, the NRP did not contribute significantly to the economy, although it did not restrain economic activity either. The direct benefits of the NRP to the local community were on a micro scale, including purchases at local shops (soft drinks, tea, non-perishable items) or buying produce from local farmers (bananas, milk, eggs). Where possible, the materials used for construction were recycled (bricks, timber), while the purchase of new materials (cement, bricks, steel) was from regular suppliers, none of which exist in the local area. Indirectly, the use of volunteer labour allowed the local population to concentrate on their harvests and other economic activity, which was vital to the recovery of their livelihoods.
The volunteer labour used to construct the primary school and community centre was led by Nepalese staff and supported by the volunteers. Due to the nature of the program, being emergency response, the use of volunteers reduced the burden of the local population, who were and will be for some time, busy rebuilding their own houses and livelihoods.
Furthermore, at the time of the NRP, the community was preparing for and then harvesting their rice fields. In a series of interviews and discussions with community members it was confirmed that sourcing local labour for the NRP projects would have been a strain on economic recovery and the ‘new normal’ lives that the local populations are now leading – for example, it would have meant a slower rebuild of family homes and days away from harvesting fields.
Unemployment is not an issue in either of the two communities and the completion of the projects, the primary school in particular, would have stretched out to many months without the labour of the volunteers. As mentioned earlier, the quicker children can return to routine and a sense of normality the better they will recover from trauma. This is important to note when assessing the use of volunteers instead of local labour.
At a national level, the presence of 22 volunteers in Nepal during the early stages of the country’s recovery was again a positive. Tourism plays an important part in the Nepalese economy and since the earthquakes struck the sector has been affected greatly. Aside from the direct expenses related to the NRP volunteers, several of them extended their stays to go trekking, while others spent significant amounts of money on massages, souvenirs and dining out in Kathmandu. Furthermore, all 22 volunteers will now return home and tell their friends, families and communities that Nepal is safe to return to and desperate for the tourism sector to flourish once again.
The information compiled in this report was done so through a series of formal interviews, informal discussions, observations and lived experience by Stu O’Brien, a member of the NRP who spent 60 days living in Ganesh Than & Jwentar.