With minds in Nepal focused primarily on the Covid crisis, post-earthquake reconstruction work has largely disappeared from media coverage, and most support activities have ended. More than five years since the quake, there has been considerable reconstruction progress – but not all those who lost their homes have yet rebuilt them. Sadly, it is the poorest and most disadvantaged who are most likely to be still living in temporary, unsafe shelters. Although all those rendered homeless by the earthquake have the right to claim from the government NRs 300,000 (some USD 2,525 at current exchange rates), many people need assistance to access this grant.
This blog reflects on the achievements of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC funded project Employment Fund Skills for Reconstruction (EF-SR), a bilateral initiative of the governments of Nepal and Switzerland that ended in June this year. The project operated in ten municipalities of Ramechhap, Okhaldunga and Khotang districts, and in its second phase (January 2018 – June 2020), sought to ensure total coverage of all households in the project area. Every affected household was visited to assess how far it had progressed in reconstruction - and given advice on earthquake-resilient techniques. At the same time, a training program gave interested local women and men the opportunity to become skilled masons through a 50-day on-site course, building a house and “learning by doing”. The intensive coverage meant that by the project end, 81% of households in the project area have reconstructed their homes, compared with an average of 70% in the districts overall. Furthermore, the houses are safe. This is a highly successful result given that some households will never rebuild – either because they have moved away from the area, or because the occupants have since died.
Reaching the Most Vulnerable and Disadvantaged
In providing the technical assistance for EF-SR, Helvetas managed a large team of local Construction Resource Persons (CRPs), backed by a technical team of engineers and sub-engineers. The CPRs were generally young, skilled masons from the locality. Working closely with the elected representatives and staff of the concerned municipalities and wards, they were responsible for ensuring that every affected household was visited and supported as necessary. The emphasis given to leaving no-one behind is evident in a small collection of stories put together by project and municipal staff. Written in Nepali, they have been translated into English and appear in a booklet that can be downloaded here.
The stories are simple descriptions of how individual lives have been changed as a result of project activities. They were chosen to be an inspiration to others and are thus all positive tales of success in the face of adversity. There is no analysis, and some of the stories are very similar, but this also makes them convincing. Reading through them, certain commonalities become apparent.
Linguistic, Caste and Gender Barriers Remain to Accessing Government Services
Despite intensive efforts on the part of the Nepal government – specifically, the National Reconstruction Authority – to inform all citizens about the reconstruction grant, some of the houseowners described in the booklet either did not know about it, or thought that the rules would not apply to them. Indeed, in some cases the CPRs needed considerable time and patience to persuade them that they were eligible and to help them with all the paperwork, the organizing of labor and materials, and then the supervision of the construction itself. Thus, for example, we learn about 68-year old Lal Bahadur Thami – a member of a community who live in a remote village and speak their own language. He had no idea that a reconstruction grant was available and had difficulty in believing it. Then there is 68-year old Kali Bahadur Tamang who knew about the grant and indeed received the first tranche of NRs 50,000, but had spent this and more on medical treatment. He feared getting into debt in reconstruction work and had simply resigned himself and his family to remaining in their highly damaged, unsafe house. Single women often received special attention from CPRs; Maya Thapa is one example – abandoned by her husband who had taken a second wife and moved to Kathmandu, she had no hope of being able to rebuild a home. With CPR support, she now has that home.
Pride and Self-Confidence Amongst the Skilled Masons
It was always the intention that those who received skills training should not only use their knowledge to rebuild their own home, but also continue to work and earn a living from their skills. Several of the examples highlighted are women masons who have not only gained a source of livelihood but stress their satisfaction about the respect they now enjoy within their community. Perhaps most poignant is Rita Nepali, who is stunted in height but clearly quick-witted; she rejoices in the fact that out of respect for her masonry and business skills, people now call her by her own name rather than derogatory nicknames for a short person.
Fostering Social Inclusiveness in Local Government
Beyond the stories of individual success lies the approach adopted by the project of engaging with the elected representatives and staff of municipalities and wards. Consulting with them throughout, stressing the need to leave no-one behind, has left with them a heightened awareness of social inclusion, and a public commitment to ensure that the rights of all their citizens are upheld. This sets an important precedent for the future operation of these local governments.