Relearning to Listen

A few weeks after the two devastating earthquakes (magnitude 7.8 in April 2015, followed by a magnitude 7.2 in May 2015) hit Nepal, I was at a meeting of the “Communicating with Communities” cluster in Kathmandu. The premise of the CWC cluster is that ‘information and communication are critical forms of aid, without which disaster survivors cannot access services or make the best decisions for themselves and their communities.’ As someone experienced with multiple humanitarian and political emergencies, including in Nepal, I have always advocated for a large chunk of aid money going into helping local media strengthen and re-emerge and for the communities hit by earthquake to get timely, accurate and useable information.
As we went around the table, updating each other on the information and communication initiatives and opportunities, a representative from the disaster response support unit of a Western military spoke up. His government believed communication to be critical to relief and recovery, he said. He related how he and his colleagues had traveled to Sindhupalchok, a district some 25 miles east of the capital Kathmandu to distribute 67 handheld radios that they had flown in with. He reported they had gone to the local Radio Sindhu for suggestions on where to distribute.
He related his disappointment: “First they wanted us to donate all the radios to their own listeners. When we told them we needed distribution to be wider, they wanted us to organize a big handover ceremony.”  They were able to avoid both, he said. “All the radio station was interested in was a show and a boost to their own importance!”
Having grown up in Nepal I am familiar with the tediousness (and uselessness) of formal ceremonies, with the stifling bureaucracy that is more interested in its own survival than actual service, the divisive internal politics that pits one group against another, and the caste system and resulting unequal distribution of resources. Like others who know Nepal, and continue to work in the country to bring about change, I winced inwardly at the story.
A week later, I was in Sindhupalchok, a district hit hard by the first earthquake; a second earthquake a week later, and multiple aftershocks that followed, had shaken its residents to their core. I could see the devastation as I drove up the windy hills to Chautara – mud and mortar houses had been completely destroyed, concrete houses, perched on spindly pillars atop rice terraces, looked ready to topple with the next aftershock. The radio station building, with a tall antenna tower mounted on its roof, was tilted at an unusual angle and had been deemed too dangerous to enter.
As I sat in a makeshift tent that housed the radio station and listened to Radio Sindhu’s Station Manager Ratna Prasad Shrestha talk about his radio and heard about the programs the radio station had been broadcasting in the aftermath of the earthquake, I realized this was the same station that the two gentlemen at the CWC meeting had reached out to when they wanted the 67 radios distributed.
And the story, as I was to learn in Sindhupalchowk, was very different from the story I had been told in Kathmandu. In the words of the station manger:
“Three gora (white) people came to the station. They said they were from the military and wanted us to tell them where to distribute radios. We told them where our radio station could be heard and recommended a small village with 60 houses.”
The station manager realized quickly that they were not pleased with the suggestion. The military representatives told the station manager they had maps and had identified areas where ‘low caste’ people lived. And this is where they wanted the radios to go. The station manager had no problems with the village, itself, as they are villages typically not represented by mainstream politicians, not serviced by bureaucracy, and not yet reached by development.
However, the village they had picked was large and the station manger felt he did not know how to recommend they distribute 67 radio sets in an area that contained at least double that number of households.
He consulted with other reporters at the station and recommended that military representatives go to the village the next day and make a “ceremony of handing over the radio sets to the Village Development Committee Secretary. “We thought, that way, the onus would be on the VDC Chair to come up with a fair distribution formulae. And since there would be a ceremony involved, he would be forced to be transparent with the villagers and could not just walk away with the radio sets himself.”
The station was quite pleased with the solution they had come up with. They felt this would get radio sets to the people who needed them the most, foster transparency, and bring accountability to the aid distribution process. The next day, when the military reps arrived with their radios, the station manager and a few others from the station accompanied the military representatives to Tundikhel (a big open space) where the VDC Secretary was also to distribute rice sacks and other essential items to earthquake affected.
“There must have been at least 5,000 people there,” the station manager said. The villagers had come to collect relief supplies, including food and materials to build temporary shelters.
Not surprisingly, according to the station manger, the crowd descended on them when they realized there were radios to be had, and within minutes, all the radios were gone. “We have no idea who ended up getting the radios,” he recalls, shaking his head.
I remember this story, because, for me, it has many layers that we overlook in our haste to “meet our deliverables.” It is also a strong reminder that those of us who work in development need to go in with an open mind, not be so quick to assume the worst, to impose our ideas, and really listen to local civil society actors, who have as much stake in the development of their communities as we do in effective delivery or aid. It is also a reminder that transparency, accountability and social change are as important to local actors as they are to international actors.
In the months following the earthquake, it has become obvious that the international community will have to think through their approach as they budget and program to support Nepalis in recovery and reconstruction in the medium and the long term.
Two points to keep in mind when seeking impact and outcome:
Support Genuine On-the-Ground Initiatives: Nepal has been home to unique development innovations since it ceased to become an absolute monarchy in 1990. Its relatively easy organization registration process and welcoming visa regime has allowed for international organizations to register in the country and for home grown civil society groups to do ground breaking work. Many small non-governmental organizations in Nepal, with deep on-the-ground presence, have invested in transparent accounting practices and democratic governance structures. One example is Nepal’s local media. Over the last 20 years, independent media sector (especially community radio outside Kathmandu) has blossomed. These small FM radio stations, often operated by local non-profits, have provided information to the Nepalis, far from centers of power and connectivity, and through the country’s transition to constitutional monarchy, decade-long civil war (1996-2006) and the political chaos of the last ten years. When funding humanitarian projects in Nepal, it will be important to support frontline local initiatives like these radios, and organizations with strong local base. This will help not just individual communities, but also help strengthen civil society in Nepal.
Help Foster Accountability and Transparency: Post earthquake, we have an opportunity to take stock of how well Nepal’s home-grown civil society organizations have served local communities. While rescue work is often rolled out quickly, medium to long-term projects can build in transparency and accountability from the get go – both to the funder and the communities they serve.  One way to go about this is for donors, implementing organizations and communities to agree on the parameters and processes for needs-determination, program delivery and program monitoring and to commit to accountability at each stage of implementation to these standards. In the absence of self-reporting of aid delivery or NGO activities, local radio stations can help in information dissemination, fostering accountability and transparency, and helping strengthen communications, not just with communities, but also among community, with donors and the government.

Manisha Aryal

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