What is the role of citizens & institutions in holding ‘aid’ accountable?

This is transcript of my talk at Harvard University (Chan School of Public Health) on Sept 26, 2016 on the topic of Monitoring disaster response: Aid accountability & the role of citizens & institutions.

On April 25, 2015 at 11:56 am, I was on top of our office, an old building when the earth shook massively. It is probably one of the most helpless feeling I ever got in my life. I couldn’t move, couldn’t run. I froze there for few seconds before getting out of the building. I was lucky but thousands were not.

As soon as that minute was over,  I remembered our disaster preparation protocol, we had built just months ago: In case of a massive earthquake, first check on your family members safety then gather in the nearest hospital and start organizing to help the staff and government.

In less than 30 minutes, I along with other members of BibekSheel Nepali party, we assembled in front of Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu, one of the biggest hospital in Nepal. It was chaos there – patients and relatives along with staff trying to handle scared patients as well as the overwhelming flow of victims pouring in. As part of the protocol, we quickly assessed the situation, divided our volunteers into different divisions – registration, medication purchase, hospital navigation as well as food and supplies. We partnered with the hospital’s emergency team leaders and tried to triage the influx of victims. Every after shock bonded us together as though the vibrations were massaging our sense of community and diversity. It didn’t care who we were, which party we belonged to, which caste we were born into or how much wealth we had. It was an equal opportunity offender reminding us the fragile nature of our existence.

The hospital’s medical supplies and inventory ran out within few hours and we started working on raising resources from doctors, nurses and our families. Over the next few weeks our we ended up reaching all the major districts of Nepal affected by earthquake, mobilized 1500 volunteers, collaborated 200 health camps with previously unknown partners, and pretty much involved in rescue, relief and rehabilitation process.

So how were we were able to do this, while the government and large resourceful institutions were largely ineffectual and in total disarray during those critical 3 weeks?

First thing first: Preparedness of institutions.

We turned one of our values: transparency into strengths – providing help hotline services through mobile and social media, live updates of donations/ expenses through internet cloud technology and open collaboration with more than 100 institutions and informal groups.

How we collaborated with citizens who want to not just help, but helped them to lead.  

We trusted anyone who showed courage where we opened up, our inclusion served as our true strength. Trusting a project management expert to head our task force, a 19 year student to lead the 24 hour help hotline, another teenager to lead the logistics of send tens of tonnes of relief materials.

A 24 year old doctor, you would still call her a medical student here was leading the entire health camp coordination efforts which went to more than 300 by the time we wrapped up our operations. We worked with Buddhist monks, to Doctors team from Bangladesh to American journalists and fellow travelers from India, who were all disoriented because of government apathy and lack of cooperation.

Our financial and activities were all kept transparent and accessible online, which earned the trust of both partners and donors, this was unlike government and other big institutions. The whole idea was to pursue the aid with Excellence, empathy and courage.

The rescue and relief and rehabilitation of the first month was a success where crime went down, youths led the recovery process with small institutions like ours supporting them in their courage.

So the Takeaway from our experience is that:
When inclusive, open, transparent institutions work in synergy with responsible , judicious, youthful citizens, a virtuous cycle of aid effectiveness and accountability starts.

When a culture of excellence and courage is supported by meritocratic system work together, effective delivery of aid happens.

On the other hand, if you look at Nepal’s record 17 months down the road, we have simply failed. From the near absence of government in the first 3 weeks, and the months and years since then, our institutions have just not delivered despite getting help / pledges of billions of dollars.

Earthquakes may have been nature made, but lack of preparedness and accountability is not simply an excuse when millions of dollars had already been spent on the name of disaster preparedness and much touted in the media about how our institutions were prepared.

Let’s see the pattern here: The prime minister took 3 full days to address the nation when In the very 1st minute, thousands had died and millions left homeless.

When the donors conference happened a month later, we were given and promised billions. What did we do with that generosity?

The government couldn’t even spend the 1.2 billion dollar earmarked for earthquake recovery in the last year, took nearly a year to build the “reconstruction authority” to manage this, and 17 months later millions are still in temporary shelter waiting for much of that aid promised by the government and institutions on the first few weeks of the earthquake to rebuild their homes.

From this we can deduce that when extractive institutions (those who serve to extract from the masses to satisfy only a select elite few) and fatalistic citizens  (who believe all this is because of our fate and who succumb to nepotism) work together, a vicious cycle starts where negative cultures and systems work to destroy the achievements made.

The parasitic culture of Nepali society (where many in the family rely on one youth of a family to go abroad and work) and government institutions that are highly centralized with no credible local governance acting like “the master” of its people.

To summarize, our experience has taught us that  responsible citizens with inclusive institutions results in high aid delivery and accountability where as fatalistic citizens and extractive institutions results in low aid delivery and accountability.

We believe, Aid Accountability starts and ends with building the right governing values within citizens, institutions, culture and systems and adding the right checks and balances between them.

For the highest aid accountability, I recommend us all to invest on:

  1. Building Judicious/Responsible citizens on one hand and
  2. Building an open, inclusive, servant Governments & meritocratic institutions on the other.

Which then creates a virtuous cycle of effective aid delivery and accountability resulting in a friendly state that the 21st century truly demands.

Thank you !

Ujwal Thapa