Reconstruction body will have donors as observing members
15 June 2015 | Kathmandu Post
KATHMANDU, JUN 14 - The government has decided to set up a reconstruction body before the donors’ conference on June 25, for which the National Planning Commission (NPC) has already submitted a proposal. Govinda Raj Pokhrel, vice chairman of the NPC, is certain that this body can play a paramount role in rebuilding the country if experts with proper vision and ideas are involved in it and if the political leadership is serious about bringing the country back on track. Speaking to Prithvi Shrestha and Abhinawa Devkota, Pokhrel shared his optimism about donors’ involvement in the reconstruction process and assured that the government would do its best to garner more help.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, volunteers rather than the government agencies were the driving force in relief distribution. Doesn’t this show the inefficacy of the government?
It’s not that the government’s intervention measures were a total failure. The security organs that come under the government and other government agencies like the Radio Nepal did a commendable job. But yes, the government’s efforts were curtailed by limited resources. For example, we don’t even have proper cranes to demolish highrises in case we need to. Also, given that we have weak institutions and bureaucracy and that there is a lack of coordination among the government bodies, we couldn’t work as expected by the people.
What has the role of the NPC been in the relief and reconstruction process? What are the lessons learnt?
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, we tried to convince donor organisations to donate to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. Natural disasters have happened before in the country, and the Relief Fund has always been in existence for those times. But this time around, we worked hard to popularise the Fund so that more support could be garnered. And thankfully, until now, we have been able to collect Rs 5 billion.
The most important lesson we have learned is that there exists a communication gap between the government institutions. Due to this it is hard not just to coordinate on different matters but also to inform the people about our activities, decisions and shortcomings. Also, we have come to realise that disaster preparedness on our part was virtually non-existent and that we hadn’t been able to demarcate the responsibilities of different government bodies in the time of disaster.
The Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) process is NPC-led. How did you come to the conclusion that the rebuilding needs Rs 666 billion?
We have calculated the total damage done by the earthquake to be Rs 513 billion, while the total economic loss stands at Rs 187 billion. But the total recovery amount, after need assessment, comes to Rs 666 billion.
But questions were raised from various quarters that the need assessment was very conservative.
No, the need assessment is not conservative. We cannot assign amounts on damaged properties as we want to; we are bound by international norms and system when it comes to calculating losses. For example, according to the international norms, we have to assign 450 square feet of living space per family while calculating the recovery cost. And since we can salvage construction materials from damaged houses, we have calculated the reconstruction cost to be about Rs 900 per square feet. Even if a family has lost a seven-storey building, we can only assign them the same amount of space. If they want to construct a bigger house, it is up to them.
Also, the amount seems conservative because it is difficult to include long-term plans like livelihood -enhancement and resettlement projects in this estimate. This assessment has been specifically carried out to underscore the immediate need that has confronted us post-disaster. Including too many other things and diverting from the international norms would have diluted our credibility.
What will be the structure of the organisation formed to oversee reconstruction?
The organ that will carry out reconstruction will have a governing body to support policy decisions, which will be headed by the prime minister. Then there will also be an executive committee, which will be headed by a vice-chairman and a group of three experts dealing with social, infrastructural and financial development. Lastly, there will be a CEO who handles day-to-day administrative affairs. This body will coordinate with different ministries and government bodies, but will have the authority to disburse funds to local bodies in coordination with various ministries. People who can win the trust of political parties and donors and have the vision and the ablity to get things done within the stipulated timeframe should be involved in this institution.
There is a larger concern—from both the donor community and the Nepali public—about the accountability of the body to be formed. How do you address this concern?
The reconstruction body that we plan to create will have donors as observing members. Then we will have a financial monitoring committee, which will incorporate members from civil society, to ensure that the fund is not being misappropriated. Finally, we will involve local bodies and members of parliament to monitor if the result is being delivered. This is how we plan to make the body more transparent and accountable.
Donors have publicly sought certain roles in the reconstruction mechanism. What are they?
As I have said before, we plan to involve donors as observing members in the reconstruction body.
How will you insulate such a Reconstruction Authority from the concurrent political instability and meddling?
First, political leaders have to be serious about the reconstruction project. There is a lot of political instability in our country but if the leaders stand together then they can successfully rebuild Nepal.
According to the draft of the Reconstruction Authority Act, the prime minister reportedly has the right to change the CEO of the Reconstruction Authority. Won’t this interfere with the operation of the institution that is supposed to carry out massive reconstruction works?
Theoretically, political leaders might be able to replace the CEO and the team of experts as per their whims. But if someone has got the right vision, qualification, and is delivering things within the stipulated timeframe then the person must be allowed to remain in the position. I personally think that since this is not a permanent mechanism, the team of experts who will be selected should be given the chance to complete the jobs assigned to them and should be judged on the basis of their performance
. The government has been seeking more aid through its channel, despite admitting its inefficiency. The international community doesn’t seem to be interested to put money through the government channel. Can there be an alternative to it?
No, it is not true that the international community is not interested in channeling aid through the government. In fact, they either have to work with the government or through the government. As far as possible, it is better for them to go through the government so that they can try to make the government institutions more responsible and accountable; otherwise they will have to work with it.
Also, we have to understand that aid doesn’t just come in the form of grant only. There are three ways of receiving aid: as grant, soft loan and programmes. If organisations come with a proposal to renovate heritage sites, reconstruct a certain number of damaged buildings or provide textbooks to schoolchildren, then these come under programmes. In fact, we are so optimistic about receiving aid that we have revised the budget ceiling for foreign aid and have increased the amount by Rs 77 billion. It is up to us to convince the donors.
Many people have said that there is a scope for raising funds from charity organisations too. How can you accommodate them?
Whether they are private individuals, NGOs, INGOs or charity organisations, we will not stop them from reaching out to the affected areas. But we expect transparency and accountability from these organisations. Also, we expect them to follow the government rules and guidelines. If an organisation wants to construct a school, then there is no reason to stop them. But yes, we do need to make sure that they are following the building code set by the government and that they are not diverting from their commitment.
How can we avoid Haiti’s experience where disproportionate amount of aid had gone into overhead costs and salaries? For example, a report by Propublica shows that the American Red Cross raised $500 million and only built six homes.
That’s why we have been talking about the one-door policy. This kind
of policy will help us avoid duplication and manage resources properly. Also, if our institutions act in a transparent and an accountable manner, then
we can demand transparency and accountability from donors and aid organisations. Simply speaking, the onus lies on us.