Aid agencies pour into Nepal – Then what?

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster of the scale of Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake, the scramble by aid agencies to respond can easily descend into chaos.

Following the earthquake that killed 220,000 Haitians in 2010, the influx of hundreds of aid agencies and civil society organisations – many with no prior knowledge of the country – proved impossible to fully coordinate and in some cases was actually detrimental to the response, according to an assessment by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Have aid agencies learned from the mistakes of the past? And will their presence in Nepal be more of a help than a hindrance to the emergency response?

“We do not want Nepal to be a dumping ground for aid and personnel,” Rameshwor Dangal, chief of the Disaster Management Section in the Ministry of Home Affairs, told the German news agency DPA. “It's very hard to manage a crowd in such dire situation. In the name of support the international community should not dump unnecessary items on us.”

In more diplomatic terms, he said: “We are trying our best but we are overwhelmed by different kinds of responsibilities… We really need the relief materials more than people. If there are many people, it’s difficult to coordinate.”

And yet, teams of relief workers and their supplies are already congesting Kathmandu’s small international airport – from the big all-round players like Oxfam and World Vision and the smaller, specialist organizations like WaterAid and ShelterBox to the well-meaning efforts of individuals like Alison Marston who will be flying into Kathmandu later this week with a modest sum she has raised from donations and strong local contacts, having lived there for many years, but with no clear idea of how she will contribute to the response.

“People were looking for something that wasn’t one of the big organizations so I rather greenly started my fundraising and didn’t go in with a strategy and it sort of snow-balled from there,” she told IRIN. “I’m in a position where I know Nepal very well and I can well assess where the needs are going to be on the ground and the whole aim of this is to collaborate with other small, grassroots organisations.

“I’m not envisioning much coordination with larger organizations. I think I can make a difference in areas where they’re not,” she added.

For Chris Blackham, director of programs at the London office of Samaritan’s Purse, a US-based international relief agency that has dispatched a team to Nepal, “every little bit helps,” especially in the early stages when needs are so high, providing the help is well-coordinated.

For many others, Martson’s unilateral approach is problematic.

“Ways to NOT help #NepalEarthquake: Give to new charities that suddenly pop up (often scams), collect stuff to send, try to go yourself,” political science student Laura Seay tweeted as part of a growing protest on social media against well-intentioned but ill-advised giving.

IRIN is a service that provides independent humanitarian news and analysis.