So today, after talking a bit about the relationships that were important to me in Tripureswor, I want to take some time to explain some of the process of aid-delivery that I was able to see first-hand. In a time when, a year later, there is still a lot of blame going around — why are there still people who need help? did the government and the NGOs do enough? — I think it is useful to see why doing aid work was as complicated as it turned out to be.
I think it will be clear throughout this post, but before I say anything else, let me make very plain that I am an enormous fan of Oxfam. They did some fantastic work that I got to observe in Dhading (and I don’t doubt they did similarly principled wherever they operated in Nepal). They have a longstanding connection to Nepal, but in addition to their extant staff, they took on a highly competent extra post-earthquake staff of young Nepali professionals, who developed a clear and nuanced sense of on-the-ground social realities: while many organizations instinctively fly foreigners in to deal with disasters, Oxfam invested and believed in Nepali workers. I met probably 17 or 18 Oxfam workers in Dhading, but I met only one non-Nepali: a French woman who was serving as an engineering advisor to a team of Nepali engineers. Oxfam had also done a lot of excellent work for Ward 6 before I arrived: in addition to generic emergency relief (tents, soap, emergency food), they provided the rice seed that allowed people to plant their fields while I was visiting (ensuring food security for the rest of 2015/16), and one of their water engineers spent hours and hours of his time reestablishing the local water supply.
The story I want to tell today, though, is about what happened when Oxfam delivered tin to Tripureswor.
Delivering tin became a huge component of the earthquake relief efforts all over Nepal in the spring and early summer of 2015, and most of the major organizations put enormous time, energy, and money into transporting and distributing corrugated tin to help people build temporary shelters. So the people in Ward 6 (where several households have TVs and many have radios — meaning that people knew a fair amount about relief efforts across the country) were extremely pleased when they heard that the tin was coming, because it meant that the canonical main earthquake aid was finally reaching them.
The news that reached Ward 6 early in the second week I was there was that tin distribution would start at 11AM the following day at the Village Development Committee Office (the local municipal government) in Khahare bazaar, and that everyone would need to be present in person with the little certification tickets that Oxfam had distributed several weeks earlier when they came through and surveyed each household and evaluated the levels of their needs.
On the appointed day, I showed up at the VDC office about 12, and found pretty much everyone I had been carefully getting to know milling around in the courtyard and the street. There were large stacks of corrugated tin laying in the road, and a table had been moved outside for the Oxfam team to work from. As everyone waited, we chatted; we complained about how hot it was; we settled down on a low wall to try to benefit from the shade of a spindly little tree outside the office.
Around 1PM, the Oxfam representatives who would be handling the tin delivery put on their green identifying vests and started hanging large vinyl posters explaining how to build a tin and wood/bamboo shelter.
All the Ward 6 men gathered around the poster, and started poring over it, explaining it to each other and nodding wisely.
Of course they could nod wisely: no one would understand the building principles detailed on the poster better than them — because every single one of them had already built a structure at least as good and in most cases more elaborate than the structure on the poster. Every place in the village that I had visited had already pieced together bits of old housing, and most of them had purchased new tin from a shop in the bazaar. They had salvaged beams and cut bamboo; households with strong able-bodied men had built their own shelters, while households with older people or just women usually had hired day laborers (apparently poaching them off a nearby bridge building project) to build for them.
In other words, every single person present was already living in a shelter made of some combination of tin, bamboo, and salvaged remains from their old houses. I knew for a fact that K.B. Thapa had built a pleasant multi-room tin house, and that Ram Prasad Timilsina had constructed a two-story tin-and-reclaimed-wood house with a full electrical system, whose screened windows were hung with flowered curtains. I knew that Bishnu Bahadur Adhikari and Nani Maya Adhikari had a tin house they built in two days, with pleasant windows and a porch. But here they all were, come to sit through a workshop on how to build a tin shelter.
My host Sailo Dai was right at the forefront of the group of poster-examiners (in the yellow shorts below). He focused in on the section of the poster explaining in clear visual instructions how, in order to seal your tin roof, you should cut up a flip-flop and send your nails through little squares of foam to keep rain from coming through the hole. I knew for a fact, though, that Sailo Dai was already familiar with this technique: he had already done this to construct the tin-and-wood structure that I had been sleeping in since I arrived.
Soon the senior Oxfam representative on site (a Nepali) stood up in front of the informational poster and gave a presentation on how to build a temporary structure using tin and bamboo/reclaimed wood. He explained every step of the process in clear vernacular (if urbanized) Nepali, and pointed carefully to the poster at intervals. Everyone from Ward 6 listened attentively and nodded thoughtfully throughout the speech.
When the presentation was finished, the Oxfam representative stepped down and everyone formed a line in front of the table in the courtyard where two other Oxfam representatives were seated with record-keeping ledgers. Each villager stepped forward and gave their name, presented their Oxfam certifying ticket, had their allocation recorded in the ledger, and then was authorized to take their building materials.
Each household was entitled to enough materials deemed sufficient to build themselves a transitional shelter: twelve sheets of corrugated tin and a big burlap bag of nails. People who wanted tools could additionally receive a hammer or a bag of assorted implements, and anyone who wanted could take a pair of leather work-gloves imprinted with Oxfam’s logo. Each household was also provided an instruction guide: a single sheet of paper, mostly images with only a few words (an excellent design for reaching an overwhelmingly illiterate population), which had been thoughtfully laminated to protect the instructions from the monsoon rains.
In other words, Oxfam came and delivered a culturally sensitive, practical, all around well-designed short-term housing program, which they had effectively tailored to the needs and abilities of the post-earthquake population. They just happened to have delivered this sensitive, well-designed program about six to eight weeks after everyone in Ward 6 had already gone ahead and built themselves short-term houses.
In the household where I was staying, this meant that Sailo Dai, who had personally built a shelter for himself, had attentively engaged front and center at the instructional program, then stood in line to claim his tin (and nails and laminated manual) — which he then carried, over the course of several hours, back home. He then, with the assistance of a neighbor, carefully stored the tin intended for his tin-and-wood short-term shelter under the existing tin roof of his already-built tin-and-wood short-term shelter:
This was repeated all over the village.
I confess, on the day that this all happened, I initially thought that the situation reflected badly on Oxfam. At the very least, I thought that the weird disjuncture between Ward 6’s needs and the timing of its aid indicated that large-scale aid can only proceed at a glacial pace that can’t possibly match changing situations on the ground. Or maybe the jarring sight of Sailo Dai storing the materials for his tin shelter inside his tin shelter might mean that Oxfam was out of touch and simply didn’t know that everyone already had a house.
Over the course of the next several days, though, I significantly revised my opinion. I now believe that Oxfam knew exactly what it was doing, and had good reasons for doing it. In fact, the tardiness of the tin delivery might actually have been far more sensitive to the situation and needs of the area and people than I thought, and may very well have been entirely conscious and strategic.
What primarily changed my mind was learning that the Chief District Officer for Dhading (the Home Ministry overseer for all of the district) had insisted that every NGO working in his district should deliver exactly the same emergency aid to every VDC and every ward. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a wholly bad idea as a strategy to try to ensure fairness. Keep in mind, the families of Ward 6 had gotten massively upset over reports that someone had managed to double-register their household and thereby qualify for double earthquake aid. So, on the face of it making sure that everyone received all things equally seems like a plausible strategy for combatting local jealousies and tensions.
But in fact, trying to deliver exactly the same thing to an entire district is a monumental order. First of all, Dhading is a very large place. It’s over 700 square miles, with only one motorable road running through it; the district has a third of a million residents, many living hours’ or days’ walk from the road, and this makes equitable aid delivery a staggeringly challenging logistical task. Perhaps more importantly, though, not every part of Dhading had equal needs. Just within Tripureswor (the conglomeration of nine villages in my particular area), the different wards faced different challenges. Tripureswor Ward 9, for example, is reportedly far poorer than the other eight wards, and the population is overwhelmingly elderly and helpless. If you leave Tripureswor aside, several of the Tamang communities farther up in elevation suffered landslides that carried whole families and neighborhoods away.
By contrast, while Tripureswor Ward 6 (where I was staying) had lost nearly all of its houses, it had suffered no human deaths, and its population was overwhelmingly able-bodied and energetic. There are some young people (in contrast to many villages throughout rural Nepal that have been decimated by labor migration), and several of the young men who normally work in Kathmandu had returned to help work on their families’ problems. People aren’t rich in Ward 6, but lot of families have cash coming in from army pensions or from family members working ‘outside.’ In other words, people in Ward 6 were unusually well positioned — both in terms of people-power and cash-flow — to put themselves back together, whereas many other communities nearby were desperately dependent on Oxfam.
Which brings us back to trying to deliver direct housing aid, which after the earthquake always meant tin. Tin delivery is slow, cumbersome, and time-consuming. You need to get the materials in massive heavy bundles from an urban center or the Indian border, drive them up rural roads that might or might not be passable, and even then you can only deliver to about 50-75 households per day (once you’ve factored the time investment of registering who was getting what, and allowing people time to carry their tin off). In other words, for any large organization, even if one had committed to delivering the same materials and the same instructions to every household in the area, you couldn’t possibly deliver them at the same time. Some people will necessarily get their tin first, and some people will get their tin last, and if you have to be late reaching somebody, it would be good to make sure that you deliver late to people who are best able to handle themselves in the meantime.
Once I understood this circumstance, it suddenly seemed very significant that the very last communities to receive tin deliveries in the area were Tripureswor Wards 1 and 3, who got their tin in the days after Ward 6. Wards 1 and 3 are widely recognized as both significantly more affluent than surrounding communities and (for whatever reason — maybe geography, but maybe the fact that richer people build with concrete rather than stacked rocks and clay) far less comprehensively destroyed. I decided that the lateness of a community’s tin delivery might actually index the degree of confidence Oxfam had in the self-sufficiency of that community.
Moreover, I noticed that Oxfam representatives were in the habit of going on evening walks, which helped them to maintain a sense of how their communities were doing. In fact, I bumped into several of them taking walks in Ward 6, and I had the pleasure of introducing the two water engineers to the Nag Than. It was therefore absolutely inconceivable that the people delivering the tin did not know that the people receiving the tin had already all built houses (usually using tin).
In retrospect, then, the official presentation on how to build a tin shelter seems almost breathtakingly Orwellian: a group of aid workers who all know that houses have already been built, delivering instructions on how to build a house, to a population of people who all know that they have already built houses.
Indeed, though, I think Oxfam actually knew exactly that this was happening — which may well be why they also offered an alternative. I also learned over the days following the tin delivery that anyone who wanted to had been welcome to accept an equivalent cash payment instead of the tin and the nails and the brochure.
You’d think that anyone who had already built a house would naturally take this option, and all the weirdness would have been eliminated. A sheet of tin is big and heavy and super-awkward to carry, after all, whereas cash is light and easy and far more multi-purpose. A woman or a teenager typically can only carry one piece of tin on her/his head; a strong man might carry two. Carrying twelve pieces of tin plus a bag of nails the size of a small backpack through a bazaar, over a footbridge, up a hill, and then sometimes an extra 20 minute walk is no small feat, and every family who accepted the tin rather than the cash had to dedicate most of the available labor of the household for the whole day just to get their tin back to their houses.
Yet I only know of two people who took the cash. Both were women living alone or with small children, who couldn’t muster enough labor to carry actual building materials. Overwhelmingly, people took the tin. Anyone who could carry it wanted the tin.
I don’t exactly know why this was. Lots of people didn’t even know what they were going to build yet — they just wanted to have the tin for whatever they wanted, whenever they were ready to build something.
The best I can guess is that people who had just seen all of their material possessions and most of their resources simply disappear might have felt reassured to have the physical resources. Maybe if you have gone two and a half months with almost nothing, it is pleasing to temporarily have just a little bit more than you really need. Plus, as a side-benefit, laminated building instructions turn out to double as handy fans to wave at yourself to cool down, which is very nice when it’s monsoon-hot in your village.
So: do I think that Oxfam shouldn’t have delivered the tin? Instead of having everyone carefully preserve the fiction of the benevolent aid organization fulfilling the needs of the affected populace, should someone have pointed out that maybe Ward 6 didn’t need this particular intervention, or suggested they get something else?
Not really, no. I think that if Oxfam had entirely left Ward 6 to its own devices and not done a tin delivery, that would have felt spectacularly unfair to people. Why should they effectively be punished for being capable and creative and self-sufficient? I suspect they would have profoundly resented being bypassed or overlooked, or even getting something different from the kind of aid that had been established as what they were supposed to get from aid organizations, whereas they clearly felt validated and reassured by their tin.
Which comes back to my central understanding from my whole time in Dhading, which is this: Taking care of people who have gone through an enormous trauma necessarily goes far beyond giving them the physical things they need. It has to reach to the intangible things that they also need — things which may line up in incomplete, counterintuitive, or counterproductive ways with physical provisions. Ward 6 already had houses, but people were really glad to get their tin — whatever they ended up building with it — and I think it was actually a sign of hope and recovery to watch them claim it.
So I sat at the top of the hill and watched as a parade of people carried their heavy, unwieldy reassurances — their temporary sense of having just a little more than enough — down the path all afternoon and into the sunset.