Development programmes can respond to new challenges, helping governments cope and mitigating the impacts on vulnerable communities, as the recent experience of the Purnima post-earthquake recovery programme in Nepal has shown. Deputy team leader Kiran Wagle explains.
Sudden crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic put local and national governments under strain to cope with the needs of those most at risk. In developing countries, where communication channels and information networks are already stretched, this strain can result in vulnerable populations suffering disproportionately from poverty, ill-health and even stigmatisation.
The strain can be relieved by development programmes that are integrated with government. They provide a ready network of teams already working with vulnerable groups and give access to international expertise. They are also ‘partners for change’, invested in achieving long-term, trusting relationships with government and local communities, and are willing and able to adapt to changing conditions.
That is the case in Nepal, which was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2015. The UK aid-funded Post Earthquake Recovery Project, known as Purnima and implemented by Mott MacDonald, has been assisting the country’s planning and rebuilding efforts in rural districts since 2017.
Economic fall-out from the COVID-19 lockdown has been severe, particularly for Nepalis closest to the poverty line. The poorest households are typically dependent on informal, daily-wage labour, and the lockdown and its economic impacts have hit many Nepalis, who have lost jobs and been forced into additional debt. In addition, migrant labourers were required to return home during the lockdown, causing a double burden for their families, who not only lost a valuable source of income and but also had more mouths to feed.
In times of hardship, people typically reduce their spending on food, and particularly nutritious food, which has a marked impact on the elderly, people with disabilities, women and children. As with many societies around the world, the lockdown and economic downturn in Nepal have also heightened the risk of domestic violence and suicide.
Purnima was well placed to pivot its activities and initiate new ones with the sudden onset of the pandemic. Our staff and partner network were well-established in many locations. Although we worked remotely, we had a strong network to provide communication and assist local communities, as soon as the lockdown was partially lifted in May. We were a trusted source of information for local governments, especially for identifying vulnerable people and the impact of COVID-19 on them.
Our first task was to devise an action plan and draft standard operating procedures (SOPs) to keep our people and processes safe. In particular, we supported municipal authorities, known as Palikas, to continue delivering essential services during lockdown and provide relief to the most vulnerable people. Through Purnima we had established helpdesks for local small businesses. These were mobilised to disseminate information about food availability and food supply chains across districts. The programme continued providing water, sanitation and hygiene facilities to communities and supplemented these with radio messaging around health, hygiene and infection control.
Purnima was already supporting vulnerable groups, including the elderly, people with disabilities, internally displaced persons, single-woman-headed households and the extremely poor. We worked closely with local governments through lockdown to facilitate relief distribution to households, reaching 4500 vulnerable people – 45% of all those reached through local government relief support – and helping more than 4000 households to access the government’s social security programme.
Stopping the ‘infodemic’
Communication was vital. Vulnerable people who didn’t know about the services available were at high risk of being left outside the relief safety net – which ran contrary to our ‘leave no one behind’ mission. And it was important to combat misinformation, which has proved a barrier to an effective response, all over the world: in Nepal, vulnerable groups and poor communities are often stigmatised and marginalised, and when the pandemic broke out, they were singled out as carriers of the virus. To counter this, we designed a behaviour change communication programme related to public understanding of COVID-19 risks and control measures, including hygiene and social distancing. Working with BBC Media Action, we shared life-saving health messages through 50 episodes of Milijuli Nepali (Together Nepal) – a daily radio programme broadcast by 55 local stations.
While the socioeconomic impact is more immediate with an earthquake than a pandemic, they are both economic disasters and many of the problems are the same. Despite the extreme restrictions on travel, Purnima succeeded in supporting local government and helped authorities increase their capacity for service delivery. Many NGOs and government agencies were unable to function and respond effectively, even several weeks and months after lockdown was lifted.
The agility and resilience of the Purnima team, and its ability to make a positive difference during a period of increased hardship for many Nepalis, is a real cause for pride.