A rapid response is guaranteed when security or economic interests are threatened, but international donors have yet to honour the pledges made to Nepal writes Feyzi Ismail

It’s been one week since a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and subsequent aftershocks struck Nepal. The death toll has now passed 6,600 and will almost certainly reach 10,000 or more, as information trickles in from the rural areas. More than 14,000 people are injured and this number will also rise. The earthquake has caused a national catastrophe, with heart-rending destruction and untold suffering.

But while a natural disaster had been expected for decades, there is nothing natural about the outcome. The capacity of the government and international agencies to respond has to be understood in the context of Nepal’s history of underdevelopment, poverty and inequality. Whether in rural areas or in Kathmandu, it’s the poorest who always suffer the most. The earthquake is no different.

It is in fact the dire poverty of so many in Nepal that is turning the earthquake into a tragedy of immense proportions. Nepal is amongst the world’s poorest countries, with a human development ranking of 145 out of 187 countries. Levels of inequality are on the rise and are unsustainable, and discrimination against ethnic minorities and indigenous groups remains rampant.

In urban areas many houses are badly built, there is overcrowding, and access to piped water is difficult at the best of times. The lack of electricity – known as loadshedding – is a constant problem, particularly for the poorest who cannot afford alternative sources. Rural settlements are characterised by minimum basic facilities, and the poor often live in makeshift, self-built homes. They are isolated from population centres because of poor roads and unreliable public transport.

According to the UN, in 2005 more than 90% of Nepalese homes were built on an informal, individual basis and there has long been a well-documented need for a massive programme of house building and upgrading. No wonder then that while a lot of modern city buildings withstood the shocks, there are many reports of devastation in the villages.

The prognosis for the next days and weeks is grim. With water and sewage pipes burst, there are fears of cholera and other infectious diseases. Survivors in many communities are going to find it hard.

Part of the responsibility for this desperate situation lies with the west. Nepal has never been directly colonised, but it was subject to centuries of domination by imperial powers. From the mid-nineteenth century, Britain backed the brutal and repressive Rana regime that kept much of the population in a state of chronic underdevelopment for over a century. Following the transfer of power from the Rana regime back to the monarchy, western powers backed the monarchical regime, known as the panchayat. Political parties were banned and Nepal was relatively isolated. Development was a significant part of the nationalist ideology of the panchayat, but subordinate to it. The regime was overthrown in 1990 through a popular mobilisation.

Since the mid-1980s, when Nepal became indebted through World Bank-imposed structural adjustment, there have been enforced cuts to already minimal development, public services and welfare programmes.

Subsequent dependence on foreign aid has unquestionably made Nepal more vulnerable to conditionalities and further debt. These in turn have produced political pressures that have forced Nepal to calibrate foreign and domestic policy objectives with western interests.

For international donors, who have been working in Nepal since the early 1950s, development has always been secondary – their effort primarily went into preventing the spread and influence of communism and promoting free market ideas. For example, the overthrow of the Rana regime in 1950-51 combined with the perceived threat of communism following the Chinese Revolution led the US to establish a presence in Nepal.

The aim was to weaken communist influence from both China and India, particularly in the countryside, by promoting rapid economic growth. US officials were conscious of the fact that it was precisely the colossal levels of poverty and inequality that made the peasantry vulnerable to communism. But it’s arguable that the US failed in these efforts. Communist parties grew in popularity and, following the 1990 people’s movement, the Maoists rose to prominence fighting a People’s War.

Breaking this communist influence has also been the objective of aid programmes in recent decades. As the Maoists developed a growing base of support on the basis of struggle against poverty and inequality, western governments – and their regional allies such as India – did everything in their power to stem the Maoists’ influence. In 2006 they succeeded in bringing them into mainstream politics. Development was mainly a political project meant to strengthen western, pro-neoliberal interests, while poverty eradication was subordinate to these broader economic and political interests.

The Maoists subsequently embraced the neoliberal line, almost completely eroding their support base as they joined the political elite. It is this class that shares responsibility for Nepal’s ills, including for poor governance and corruption, refusing to distribute resources more equitably, and failing to write the much-anticipated constitution. Local elections have not been held since 1997 because of disagreements amongst the parties about how to conduct them. The provision of public services at local levels has been compromised.

The result is a country with a barely functioning infrastructure and, despite consistent earthquake warnings, predictions as to its size and scale, and numerous high-profile projects on disaster preparedness and emergency response, the last few days have shown these to have had little useful impact.

Under these circumstances, the response of the ‘international community’ in financial terms to date has been pitiful. While ordinary people and the Nepali diaspora around the world are clearly horrified by the tragedy – over 2,500 people attended just one vigil in Trafalgar Square in London – governments have pledged meagre amounts of aid. Perhaps shamed by public reaction, the US upped its initial offer of $1 million dollars to $10 million on Monday.

The British government, despite its long-standing, exploitative relationship with Nepal, only belatedly pledged £15 million and a 60-member search and rescue team, upped from £5 million and a handful of advisors. The British public has now given more than double that of the British government – DEC has raised over £31 million in public donations. Even now only a handful of helicopters are operating shuttle missions into Nepal’s interior. It is a travesty that the Nepal government has to choose between rescuing those in the worst-hit rural communities and those on the mountains.

The UN’s appeal for £270 million is significant, but still a fraction of what will be required to ensure immediate relief. But most shockingly, none of the funds that have been pledged by international donors have actually been transferred to Nepal. The government financed the entire relief operation on its own.

Given the public statements from the government of Nepal and humanitarian agencies that reconstruction will be a long-term effort and billions in aid will be necessary, these sums are not only grossly inadequate, but they are being delivered unacceptably slowly. We know that the US, Britain and India and other regional military powers are capable of rapid response when their security or economic interests are threatened. It’s appalling that the same urgency can’t be focused on humanitarian relief and reconstruction that is properly funded and co-ordinated. The west has an obligation, given the history of aid in Nepal.

Even if billions are eventually provided, as they were in Haiti, co-ordination remains a challenge. Aid is getting through to some areas but people are angry that it isn’t reaching them quickly enough and there is no transparency about how foreign aid in particular is being distributed. One of the problems with the aid effort is that it is driven by competition.

The government of Nepal should be in charge of co-ordinating relief efforts and aid money. As has been argued, this is a matter of autonomy and governance. Much of the relief work is already being done by the Nepal Army, local organisations and the efforts of individuals on the ground. The stories that have come out about people pulling together are uplifting.

Reliable research now exists showing the link between Nepal’s last major earthquake in 1934 and the current one, and suggesting that there will be another earthquake in the coming decades. Both the UN and the government estimate that more than 300,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged, but the number is almost certainly higher. When the rebuilding begins, it is imperative that all homes are earthquake-proofed, for a start.

But the unmistakeable fact is that questions of democracy and development are linked. The key to development lies with the social and political struggles of the Nepali people, to which foreign interventions have in general been hostile.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU