This academic has been verified by Acume
One year after the 2015 earthquake, some colleagues and I went to the village, Barpak , which was the epicentre of the earthquake, originally to try and look at how the health system was recovering from the earthquake.
And when we got to Barpak village, it quickly became clear that the health system was not what people in the village wanted to talk about at all. The health system barely existed before the earthquake, so there was little expectation it would function even in normal times, let alone after the earthquake.
We then talked to both the district and the national level governments. And they were all talking about what we need to build is resilience against future disasters.
As it was only one year after the earthquake, the World Bank and DFID were still supporting the Nepal government to make better resilience policy and to adopt international policy templates for how to make communities in Nepal more resilient to future earthquakes and how to better cope with future earthquakes too. But very few of these people were talking to those on the ground, to understand how they understood the resilience (or lack of it) of their communities, or what they thought would help them cope better with future disasters.
What we try and do in the paper is look at some of the existing critiques of resilience policy, and reflect on whether they’re true for Nepal or not.
And so we talked with villagers from Bakpak, who were the victims of the earthquake, and we talk with the government to work out if these critiques do indeed exist.
Therefore there were three mainstream critiques that we then looked into. These were:
1. An attempt to make developing countries more resilient is a top-down process, where you have these internationally agreed policy templates, which then get transmitted by experts down to national governments, who are responsible for transmitting them down to communities. But this does not really take into account what the ordinary people want, or what they think.
2. What is really going on here is the state is retreating from their role to keep the community safe and putting the responsibility on the community or individual to deal with adversity, in the academic world we would refer to it as responsibilisation.
3. What happens when you start talking about resilience policy is that you stop talking about why these communities are so vulnerable in the first place. Meaning the focus is on what they need to better cope with disaster rather than why they are so prone to disaster.
We found the first critique (resilience policy being a very top-down process) to be very much the case. There is a set of policy ideas that are funnelled from international experts, to the national government, and then on down to the community. It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong, the point is that they are not really being implemented in consultation with communities, creating the divide between policymakers and communities on reconstruction priorities.
The second critique (the state retreated from its role and shrouded from its responsibility to protect the community or individual) did not apply so much to this case or for the context of Nepal – better for global north countries (eg. flooding policy in the UK where we see the state say it’s your responsibility to have sandbags to protect our home and can’t expect the state to build flood defences). It’s not the case in Nepal because these communities were already not served by government services even before the earthquake. So yes, it’s true that many were left to their own devices – but this is not due to retreat, but rather because the state was never there to begin with.
The third critique (that the focus is on how to prepare the community to deal with disaster rather than address what makes them more vulnerable) was definitely the case for Nepal.
At the time of research, all discourse was focused on preparing for the next earthquake. But there’s a lot of other disasters that people are vulnerable to as well, such as landslides and floods, but despite these other disasters making many people homeless every year, they were excluded from the conversation.
In Nepali there is no word for resilience, and the government of Nepal used the english word of resilience. But that didn’t mean anything at the village level, where you had to really explain what resilience means. Describing it as being able to cope with and recover from disasters. Which is another indication of how top-down this policy was when even the word for the policy does not make sense to those on the ground.
An example was the housing reconstruction programme, which was the government’s response to how they were planning to make these communities more resilient – to ensure that those who lost houses, rebuild in a way where they don’t fall down again in the next earthquake.
This was a well-intentioned policy that failed to meet these goals as it wasn’t designed to take into account the actual beneficiaries of it.
The government therefore worked with international experts, and especially with the Japanese aid agency to create a load of standard templates of earthquake resistant houses. And if you were somebody whose house had fallen down in the earthquake, you were able to get a government grant to rebuild your house, but only if you rebuild one of these earthquake resistant designs. And Civil and Structural engineers would inspect at various points in the building process to make sure that you were compliant.
So on paper – a really good policy, where there were government grants to encourage people to build houses that weren’t going to fall down in the next earthquake. However, it failed as it was impossible for people to comply with for a few reasons.
First, the grants didn’t become available until a year after the earthquake. So people, tired of living in a tent, started to rebuild without waiting for the government grant scheme.
Second, the grant was not enough to cover the costs of one of these houses. It did not take into account the costs of transport to remote villages. Some people with savings and resources could do it, but others couldn’t make up the gap between what it cost and what the government grant was. Especially because the grant came in instalments, and the next part was only released after the first inspection.
And the third, the people had to source the materials themselves. As these designs were based on reinforced concrete, which from an engineering perspective is the best way to build earthquake resistant buildings. However, for a person who lives a three days walk from the nearest road, this is not feasible as a material.
And in the final, the designs, designed by the Government of Nepal in partnership with international experts, many from Japan, were just not based around how people live in communities in Nepal. The only affordable design was a small one room house. And that just didn’t suit multi-generational households, or their needs such as space to store rice. So the designs were unfit for how people actually needed to use their houses.
So this was a well-intentioned policy that didn’t take into account actually what communities need. Plus it put all the onus on them to actually construct their home, and failed to take into account why most people wouldn’t be able to make use of the grant, and therefore remain vulnerable. Those who could make use of the grant likely had a family member working abroad and sending money home – and even they struggled. Whereas those who did not have that financial access were also the most disadvantaged.
This research was based from interviews and focus group discussions with the residents at Barpak village in Nepal, which was the epicentre of the 2015 earthquake. Interviews were balanced and included men and women, young and old people, and those with an appointed responsibility in the community and those without.
And then we also conducted interviews at the district government level, and at the national government level.
We then did a follow up study, which expanded this research to three additional villages, who were all also impacted by the earthquake. In this follow up, we used a participatory video method.