Event Report “Crisis and the Humanitarian Present: Thinking Through the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes”

Ceco, Serena | February 29, 2016

A poster of Centre of South Asian Studies event on 5 February 2016 | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto

On April 25, 2015, Nepal’s Gorhku region was ravaged by a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake and its consequent aftershocks. In the days following, a humanitarian process, facilitated by both domestic and international aid organizations, ensued. Crisis and the Humanitarian Present: Thinking Through the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes, a symposium sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Asian Institute’s Center for South Asian Studies, in conjunction with Asha Toronto, and others on February 5th, 2016, sought to analyze and deconstruct the response effort to the Gorhku earthquakes. In doing so, they aimed to broaden the discussion surrounding the humanitarian present; an encapsulating and evolving concept, including both contemporary humanitarian processes and technologies, as well as the political nets and social blockades that define and surround them. Featuring a distinct and diverse set of academics and practitioners, alike, the event was divided into two panels; Panel 1: Fissures and Solidarities and Panel 2: A Role for Critical Social Science?

Panel 1: Fissures and Solidarities, featured two speakers; Cornell University, Anthropology Professor Kathyrn March, and writer, Manjushree Thapa. Starting off the discussion was Professor March, whose talk focused on the failure of the Nepali government to provide adequate and efficient aid to affected regions. The story of Nepal, as Professor March sees it, is one of good people caught in destructive political structures, whereby tensions between localities prevent communities from receiving the help they require. As her research highlights, the most effective and immediate relief provided to victims, was provided by expatriates and small (international) non-governmental organizations, not the Nepali government. The failure of the Nepali government to effectively mobilize and disperse resources is most obvious in hard hit regions like Phyukri Ridge, where the burden of recovery has fallen almost exclusively on disjointed, local communities.

Following a similar line of discussion, Manjushree Thapa, determined one of the Nepali government’s greatest failures, and a key reason behind lackluster aid efforts, as their inability to build and maintain inclusive government structures. Focusing on the polarization of Nepali society, Thapa illustrates the exclusivity of government structures by pointing to the exclusivity of the written word and artistic censorship within Nepal. She tracks the evolution of democratic government in conjunction with the democratization of writing, highlighting the division of Nepali society as it relates to the public sphere, i.e. the loud voices of those in charge, and the writing sphere, i.e. the quiet voices of those held back. Having identified the earthquake as a brief moment of consensus among the Nepalese, Thapa attributes its breakdown to the inadequate supply and management of domestic aid efforts. Manjushree Thapa concludes by expressing dismay at the hastened passing of a new Nepali constitution in the aftermath of the earthquake. One which lacks the inclusive measures which many communities had been seeking.

With the conclusion of Panel 1, and a discussion on the societal polarization and governmental inadequacy that existed in Nepal, prior to the earthquake, and exacerbated by the earthquake, began Panel 2: A Role for Critical Social Science? Panel 2 focused on the humanitarian aid effort undertaken by government and NGO’s, and how such processes can best be analyzed by social scientists. Featuring two speakers; University of British Columbia, Assistant Professor Sara Shneiderman, and Researcher and Development Consultant, James Sharrock, the discussion began with Professor Shneiderman, who argued that the distribution of humanitarian aid, which was uneven both within and among Nepali provinces, was enabled by administrative structures. In working to assist affected communities, Professor Shneiderman maintains that it is crucial for aid workers to understand local practices of territoriality. It is equally important to recognize the shift in local identities that occur as a response to humanitarian efforts, particularly the redefinition of a “household” for the purpose of resource distribution. Furthermore, Professor Shneiderman insists that, academically, the notion that the state and NGO’s are entirely separate entities, must be challenged. NGO’s, she continues, have their own governmental structures, ones that locals must learn to navigate, just as they would domestic government structures, in an effort to acquire resources. Additionally, it is necessary to recognize that the earthquake was not a singular event, as marked by the ongoing effort to rebuild.

Continuing with the discussion was Researcher James Sharrock, who entered into a dialog surrounding the different technologies used throughout humanitarian aid efforts, both by governments and NGO’s. Humanitarianism, Sharrock maintains, is carried out in one of three ways; through a remote response, through a conflict/disaster response, or a cash and voucher response. In the case of the Nepali government, whose response efforts Sharrock traces back to the 1934 earthquake, methods have shifted in favor of the cash and voucher approach. With regards to the 2015 earthquake, a major governmental error was their faulty perception that relief distribution could be anchored in cash flows. Other major errors, as identified by Sharrock include the government’s poor early assessment of damages, the undertaking of widespread, rather than targeted relief efforts, and the use of remote, online tools, which Sharrock concludes, when used inappropriately, become complicit in the problems faced.

Humanitarian efforts, as highlighted in the work presented by all panelists, involve the combined efforts of numerous actors: government agencies, local populations, intergovernmental organizations, etc. Negotiating the efforts of all involved, and ensuring that resources are distributed quickly and efficiently, is no simple matter – with political divisions, national cleavages, and territorial boundaries often working against multilateral aid efforts. The confusion that ensues is what defines the humanitarian present. The investigation of which, as carried out in Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes, allows researchers to better explore both the mechanics of aid distribution, as well as the political and cultural boundaries that surround it. In turn, one also better understands the structure and complexities of the society affected. The research conducted by panelists in Nepal, is one example of such investigations and the answers they provide.

Serena Ceco is a second year undergraduate student in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Toronto. She currently serves as an event correspondent for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, South Asia section.

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