Re-examining critiques of resilience policy: evidence from Barpak after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal

Professor

Simon Rushton

(He/Him)

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Professor

Department of Politics and International Relations

University of Sheffield

Simon is a Professor of International Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations. He is an Associate Fellow of the Global Health Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London; a Senior Fellow of the Center for Global Health Security and Diplomacy in Ottawa; and Visiting Faculty at the Manmohan Memorial Institute of Health Sciences in Kathmandu.
British

About

This began as a health systems project to look at resilience policy discourse in the context of Nepal, but instead it found a disconnect between well-intentioned policymakers and the people most affected by the 2015 earthquake

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.

Key Findings

We found that the resilience priorities that the government discussed were very different to the priorities that people at the village level were talking to us about. One example was that instead of wanting to talk about resilience, villagers wanted to talk about was reconstruction – especially the reconstruction of houses.
We found that the resilience priorities that the government discussed were very different to the priorities that people at the village level were talking to us about. One example was that instead of wanting to talk about resilience, villagers wanted to talk about was reconstruction – especially the reconstruction of houses.
We found that the resilience priorities that the government discussed were very different to the priorities that people at the village level were talking to us about. One example was that instead of wanting to talk about resilience, villagers wanted to talk about was reconstruction – especially the reconstruction of houses.

How to use

Before policy is created, we must start at the community level to understand what are the possibilities and constraints that people face in terms of building houses. Perhaps it means not building houses in the most perfectly engineered earthquake resistant way, but to compromise and ensure it is accessible and will be used by the community. The village Bakpak, which was the epicentre of the earthquake, typically built stone-walled houses, rather than cement, because the material could be sourced easily and so maybe there is something between the traditional and the reinforced concrete, which was difficult to source and transport. Starting at community level would mean you find out what materials are locally available before too late.
This is true to housing, but also resilience policy more widely. It's starting from the bottom. What is it that communities feel they need to be able to better cope with disasters, and trying to learn from examples of communities that have done that relatively well and disseminate that information across communities instead of basing their approach on assumptions.
If you start at the bottom level and ask people what they feel threatened their lives and livelihoods most and what do they need to build to cope with that? Then I think you'll end up with quite a different set of priorities and also quite a different set of actions of how you deal with those things. In our research, earthquakes were of course a prominent concern, but landslides were a big concern too - which changed their most urgent need to be given some new land by the government where they could relocate.
You need to ensure consultation with communities in a certain way to ensure their needs have been taken into account in policymaking. Community consultation can also be encouraged from the bottom-up. For example, in Nepal, local government is a more recent development. And so Nepalese people might not be used to having their concerns taken seriously by the government and might not be used to engaging with the government. And so training is needed for communities to gain advocacy skills to be able to communicate needs in an effective way to local governments.

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About this research

This journal article was part of a collaborative effort

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Julie Balen

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Olivia Crane

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Bhimsen Devkota

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Sudha Ghimire

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), United Kingdom and the former UK Department for International Development (DFID), which merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on September 2, 2020 to become the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

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About this research

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), United Kingdom and the former UK Department for International Development (DFID), which merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on September 2, 2020 to become the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

This paper was co-authored

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Julie Balen

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Olivia Crane

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Bhimsen Devkota

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Sudha Ghimire

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What it means

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.

Methodology

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.

Glossary

Responsibilisation
It is a responsibility to your own well being is being passed down from the government to the communities and to individuals to be able to better cope with disaster rather than the idea that the state ought to protect you from disaster.

Helpful resources

In these videos, residents explore what resilience policy means to them. These videos were the outcome of the participatory video follow on study.
This is the official page of the project, and includes further detail.
A link to the policy report, which identifies some more key policy lessons and priorities

Want to read the full paper? It is available open access

Rushton, S., Balen, J., Crane, O., Devkota, B. and Ghimire, S. (2022), Re-examining critiques of resilience policy: evidence from Barpak after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Disasters, 46: 768-790.

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