Nepal quake fund move is PR fiasco*

By Obi Anyadike

Editor-at-Large and Africa Editor

The Nepalese government’s decision to route earthquake donations through the bank account of the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund has been a public relations disaster, introducing suspicions about the politicisation of aid even if there is no evidence of foul play.

“Nepal aid donors 'may halt fundraising' amid fears government will seize donations,” shouted Britain’s Daily Telegraph; “Donor concerns as Nepal government announce plans to seize aid donations,” echoed Ireland’s Independent – the sort of headlines unlikely to inspire confidence among private aid-givers that their donations will be safe from graft or political manipulation.

The government has tried to explain the rationale behind its decision. “The Fund seeks to provide a one-window service to the affected people by consolidating amounts, avoiding duplication of effort, and ensuring proportional and equitable access to relief by needy victims in all affected [areas],” Narayan Gopal Malego, secretary of the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund, said in a statement on 2 May.

“While the government appreciates any and all genuine initiatives to help victims, it also has a duty to regulate the raising of public funds and contribution in the name of disaster, so that benevolent donations are not misused and the rights of victims are protected,” the statement said. 

The government is trying to prevent bogus organisations - which emerge in every disaster – from making money off the back of the 25 April earthquake, which killed more than 7,300 people and destroyed or damaged 366,220 homes.

Respected Nepali Times editor Kunda Dixit has tried to allay the concerns voiced in the international media. “Firstly, let us be clear: registered NGOs can receive funds from outside the country,” he wrote in a blog on Saturday.

“The government has declared that any funds sent from outside the country to NGOs who were created solely for earthquake relief will be re-routed to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. NGOs with existing registrations prior to the earthquake are unaffected by this rule. Funds to these NGOs will not be seized.” 

Local “community-based organisations with ties to the affected villages” will be unaffected by the government’s ruling.

“These smaller organisations can leverage even relatively small donations incredibly well because they understand Nepal, are run by Nepalis, and are committed to taking care of their own communities. These organisations need and can utilise quickly small donations provided by the Nepali diaspora and other supporters,” Dixit wrote.

Raising eyebrows

But the government’s decision has raised eyebrows over the potential for misuse of the funds.

Malego’s statement stressed that the fund “cannot be used to provide donations or any other administrative and overhead costs, including facilities and allowances to civil servants or other office-holders.” It also said the fund would be audited annually by the auditor-general.

The government is insisting that the district level is the proper focus for aid distribution, allowing local officials to determine relief priorities based on local knowledge.

But a senior UN official, who asked not to be named so he could speak more freely, said that some in the international development community fear that “distribution will be dictated by politicians and patronage.”

Of particular concern is the fact that the government intends to monitor spending through the deployment of officials to electoral constituencies as well as the districts.

“It stinks of politicisation. There’s no logic to it,” the UN official told IRIN.

Dixit, however, believes the new rules have been misinterpreted and said it is vital to scotch the rumours so “funds can flow without interruption, and aid can reach some of the most neglected and affected communities.”

 *This story was amended on 5 May to clarify that funding for organisations registered before the earthquake need not pass through the Prime Minister's Disaster Relief Fund