The relief operation is underway in Nepal – under extremely difficult circumstances. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play a crucial role in disaster management in the 21st century – and this will be especially true in Nepal following the devastating recent earthquake.
In contrast to the donations of national governments that are often tied to political favours and strategic considerations, NGOs are less susceptible to political imperatives and seem to distribute aid according to sincere humanitarian needs. Moreover, NGOs such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent have long-standing disaster-prevention programmes that cover a large range of natural hazards. This places them in an ideal position to help vulnerable countries such as Nepal.
Historically, large earthquakes in Nepal account for approximately 6.5% of all natural disasters while floods and landslides account for 35% and 18% respectively. In this context, NGOs are crucial because they are able to address multiple natural hazards.
For instance, data from the Financial Tracking Service, which monitors international aid donations, show that NGOs such as CARE Nepal and Save the Children, among others, steadily donate and appeal for donations for flood and landslide emergencies in Nepal. These efforts bring millions of dollars in disaster aid. It also means that they have experience in coordinating relief efforts on the ground in Nepal.
The steady efforts of some NGOs are as important as the breadth of hazards they cover. For instance, since 2012 the British Red Cross has been working on a disaster preparedness program that identifies local hazards, provides disaster education, complements the training of emergency responders and broadcasts disaster warnings. Oxfam also has a history of work in Nepal where it contributes to reducing flood vulnerability. Clearly, NGOs also have the ability to collect significant disaster aid.
Perhaps the most important comparative advantage of NGOs in disaster relief is their relative lack of electoral incentives in the recipient country. A large body of research indicates that disaster aid is often misappropriated and channelled to political supporters. The degree of misappropriation depends on political institutions and economic conditions – and on both these counts Nepal does poorly according to the UN’s Human Development Index, Transparency International and the World Bank.
This does not mean that NGOs are free of political or administrative pressures. Neither does this mean that NGOs are completely humanitarian. They have been closely scrutinised for their misuse of funds in the past, their failure to meet their own development goals, and a system of destructive competition.
But research into these problems finds that US-based NGOs, at least, seem to distribute aid according to sincere humanitarian needs. Indeed, NGOs are not subject to the same political pressures as local politicians and therefore are in a good position to use their local knowledge to effectively distribute aid.
Challenges and obstacles
NGOs do face a number of challenges and obstacles in the provision of aid, however. Some governments are more co-operative than others – and restrictions on aid are not uncommon. For example, the government of neighbouring Myanmar placed stringent conditions on the distribution of international disaster relief in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, including the delaying of plane landings and the issue of demands that supplies were unloaded and distributed by the government.
To give credit to the Nepalese government, it immediately requested aid this time around and aid has already started arriving. But even in the face of full government co-operation, co-ordinating relief efforts among multiple NGOs is by definition challenging. In Nepal and other countries affected by disasters the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been successfully implementing a cluster approach to organise multiple humanitarian organisations – including NGOs. As is the case with NGOs, OCHA has maintained a presence in Nepal since 2005.
Making the response easier for them, social media now also plays a vital role. The UN have suggested it is part of a fundamental shift in disaster response whereby people in need of aid will play a more active role in disaster management by expressing their needs. Both Facebook and Google Crisis Response are being used to share information about missing (and safe) persons. And, in terms of providing relief, social media can also be used to help raise awareness and funds.