Nepal: Time to Challenge the Crisis Narrative?
By Craig Walker
For several weeks at the end of April and beginning of May, the world experienced a media barrage. It was almost impossible to escape as the attention of the international media focused on the devastation that the series of earthquakes had wrought on the small Asian nation of Nepal. I wasn’t able to turn on the TV or radio without hearing stories of charities delivering aid on the ground or the predictions by world experts of further quakes and the impacts these would have; or to walk down the street or travel on the Tube without seeing a multitude of different organisations and groups appealing for funds.
This is nothing new. It is an event I have experienced many times before, after countless disasters. So why, I had to ask myself as I watched the stories and images unreel, rather than the usual feelings of sympathy and compassion did I find myself feeling uncomfortable and a little annoyed?
The reason, I decided, is that much of the imagery and coverage portrayed a country facing rack and ruin, defenseless in the face of a natural disaster. But, even more than this, was the fact that Nepal was portrayed as helpless: an impoverished and underdeveloped country in desperate need of ‘our’ help if it was to stand any chance of recovering. A representation that was only reinforced by the reports of the Nepalese government’s ineffective and incompetent response to the plight of its people.
Although it is undeniable that the Nepalese government has requested, and needs, international assistance, the media’s representation of the powerlessness of the people is a far cry from my personal experience. Last year I was in Nepal for four months conducting my Open University PhD research, looking into the success of the peace process that ended the decade-long civil war in 2006. My interest in the postwar situation had been piqued when Nepal was used as a case study in the Conflict and Development module of the MSc Global development Management programme which I had followed a few years earlier. The centre was set up by a committed body of Nepalese academics, politicians and specialists from a variety of disciplines, all of whom are dedicated to educating a rising generation in a range of disaster and risk management areas. The course is part-time, and the student body is drawn mainly from young professionals in the armed forces, police and emergency services who aim to increase their capacity and capability to respond in crisis situations, through both practical and theoretical teaching. What I saw in the students during my time teaching at the centre was drive, resourcefulness, enthusiasm and dedication, not just to learn, but to use their new knowledge to the betterment of their country.
One Wednesday shortly after the first earthquake, eager to hear that he was all right, I Skyped with a Nepali friend in Kathmandu. He works for a local NGO involved in health education for young people, and we were discussing the organisation’s emergency response efforts. Knowing that they have a partnership with one of the world’s largest international aid organisations, I asked how the collaboration was going, but was surprised to hear that his NGO had decided to work independently for the time being. He went on to explain that unfortunately the international organisation was keen to carry on delivering their programme of services, effectively taking a ‘business as usual’ approach. While he agreed that this was important, his organisation thought it more of a priority to focus on immediate relief. Once some semblance of normality had returned, then they could consider continuing with their day-to-day activity.
The road to rebuild Nepal will be long and difficult. And, at some point during its recovery, we are likely to see the emergence of another global emergency that will draw the media’s attention and demand a refocusing of aid. The media’s representation, then, is symptomatic of a humanitarian enterprise that widely fails to utilise – or even to recognise – domestic capacity in developing countries during crises. In such times, partnerships with domestic NGOs should be strengthened, through collaborative work, rather than assuming differences in opinion mean they can only part ways.
Additionally, bodies such as the ICMS need to be encouraged, enabling the international community to draw on local expertise and in turn exchange knowledge and practice with others, further strengthening the capacity of in-country professionals. That way, long after the cameras and the humanitarian workers have moved on, Nepal will be better placed to be self-supporting.
Craig Walker is a Research Student with DPP. After successfully completing his MSc in Global Development Management with the OU in 2010, he realised he wanted to contribute to an emerging area of research – the role of local ownership in peace building – and undertook a PhD in Peace-building and Conflict Transformation. He will submit his thesis, Rebuilding Societies after Civil War: The Effects of Political Participation on Conflict Transformation, later this year.