In any type of intervention, an implementing organization must choose between a blanket approach or a target approach to treatment. In plain terms, if an organization chooses to provide some service to a community, it must decide whether to serve all members of the community (the blanket approach), or just some members of the community, chosen based on some predetermined characteristic (the target approach).
A few weeks ago, a team from Nepal Monitor visited Dhading and Nuwakot to learn more about the specific processes by which aid was disbursed at the local level following last year’s earthquake.
During the course of our interviews, we uncovered that the government, in partnership with the international community, chose the blanket approach in distributing aid — and it’s easy to see why. As Arun Kanta Paudel, Project Manager at Oxfam in Nuwakot, and Brahma Deo Ram, his Deputy Project Manager, told us in an interview, most people in Nuwakot were living under either the blue sky or a tarpaulin in the aftermath of the earthquake. It did not matter if they were rich or poor, high caste or low — they all needed help.
Taking a Blanket Approach to Aid During the Relief Phase
As a response to widespread disaster, the government announced that those households whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake would be entitled to 15,000 rupees. Each head of household was given an ID card and, once a victim was given their allowance, the distributor (either a government agency or an NGO) would write the amount disbursed on the ID card. This system was implemented in order to avoid duplication of services and to ensure that those who needed relief received it. For instance, Buddhi Mugarati, the District Lead Support Agency (DLSA) Coordinator of ACTED in Dhading, reported that 88,825 households received a cash grant in Dhading (of which 2,834 receive their grants from NGOs).
The blanket approach was not just a necessity, born out of the sheer scale of damage; rather, it could also be viewed as a political compromise. To clarify, all of the agencies we interviewed in our field visit insisted that NGOs did not give aid only to those political cadres affiliated with the NGO. However, almost everyone agreed that many NGOs would advocate to first serve those areas with their friends and family if given the chance.
Thus, a targeted approach would have created the potential for conflict. The primary body for coordinating aid are the District Disaster Relief Committees (DDRCs), which coordinates aid between the national and local governments, INGOs, political parties, and other stakeholders. At DDRC meetings, NGOs could advocate for or against prioritizing certain communities. NGOs that have connections to communities left out from a targeted approach may feel slighted, creating tension at the local level. The blanket approach resolved these tensions.
Consequently, many of the individuals and organizations we interviewed spoke highly of the relief process. Ramhari Acharya, VDC Secretary of Charghare, argued that everyone who genuinely needed help received it. He said that this was verified because the 15,000 rupee allowance was given to those households who had to tear down their home. Since they system helped all 1,356 such households in this predicament in Charghare without discrimination, they could easily verify whether or not a home’s base was destroyed and could compensate them accordingly. Leaders of political parties in Nuwakot also supported the blanket approach, insisting that everyone who needed help received it and that there was initially very little tension among those involved in aid disbursement.
Consequences of the Blanket Approach
Though the blanket approach worked well during the relief phase, its consequences have become readily apparent in recent months. First, this approach has created deep tensions between communities within a district. According to Oxfam representatives, the expectations of an impacted community were raised for reconstruction assistance. That is, because everyone — rich and poor — received assistance in the aftermath of the earthquake, they felt they were entitled to future aid as well.
During reconstruction, many organizations, including Oxfam, settled on a targeted approach to ensure that the most needy got the help they needed. For example, Oxfam believed that the marginalized Dalits would needed a disproportional amount of assistance to get back on their feet, so focused interventions on this community. However, soon after offering cash grants to Dalits, Oxfam found that local leaders in a VDC would take the cash from the Dalit family and disburse the grant evenly among the households in a village. Dalits, already marginalized, recognized that they had to live among this community and so chose not to report this to Oxfam. When Oxfam discovered what was happening, it had to temporarily cease the cash grant program and representatives had to explain to local leaders why Dalits were getting grants while others were not.
We also saw a similar problem in Dhading. In Dhading Besi, there was some discrepancy following the transition to a targeted approach regarding whether individual DDRC members were abiding by the targeted approach. For instance, Sahaytri Samaj, a women’s NGO in Dhading Besi, received reports of women with a disability or increased aid being turned away for priority assistance because some DDRC members didn’t feel that this prioritization was justified when the entire community was still universally in need.
Charghare experienced similar unrest. NGOs often do not have resources to offer foodstuffs and other relief to serve an entire VDC. However, the VDC Secretary and DDRC coordinates with NGOs to ensure that there are no coverage gaps. In this way, no ward is left without some relief, though each ward may receive different types of assistance. This, too, proved problematic. Acharya asserted that the citizens from one ward would complain that they did not receive some type of material aid while another ward did, ignoring that they, too, received some type of aid that the other ward’s citizens did not. Again, we see some evidence that the initial blanket approach may have created expectations within communities that everyone should receive everything.
Limitations to blanket approach-based aid relief also had adverse effects on certain at-risk populations, including mothers and single women. Sahayatri Samaj reported a case of a mother who gave birth the day of the earthquake. However, the local government, taking a blanket approach to distribution, chose not to distribute relief materials until there was enough for the entire community. So, initial deposits of relief were put in storage until the remaining materials arrived. Twelve days after the earthquake, the new mother and her baby were still sleeping outside, still awaiting the tarpaulin that could be found in storage.
Women were also at increased risk after the earthquake, more broadly. A number of agencies in Nuwakot and Dhading, particularly local police stations and women’s NGOs reported an increase in reports of gender-based violence in the year following the earthquake. The women’s cell at the Dhading Besi District Police Office logged six cases of rape in the month directly following the earthquake alone. While Officer Indra Kumari couldn’t confirm that all of these cases were directly related to the earthquake, she did reiterate what other local NGOs told us — that, overall, displaced women from neighboring VDCs who resettled to temporary camps in Dhading Besi were increasingly vulnerable in the aftermath of the earthquake. Their vulnerability, in part, resulted from the fact that these women were often either single, widowed, or temporary heads of households, as many had husbands away on migrant work at the time of the earthquake.
A targeted approach requires an organization to identify those most at risk and cater interventions to that specific group. Had the government and the international community taken a targeted approach in the initial relief phase, they could have taken steps to protect women from sexual and other physical violence. For instance, one NGO, People in Need, argued that, instead of leaving women in unsecured shelter, implementing organizations could have provided locks for households composed exclusively of women and children. However, the entire aid regime ignored these possibilities when developing a plan for the relief phase.
In short, the blanket approach was effective — and even necessary, perhaps — in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, where nearly everyone in earthquake-affected communities needed food and shelter to ensure their survival. However, the central failure of the government and the international community since the relief phase has been their choosing to maintain this approach, or failing to convince local communities of the importance of targeting aid to the most needy. Ensuring equal treatment for all people is equitable; rather, it produces increasingly inequitable results by not concentrating resources on those who need it most.
Haley McCoin and Raheem Chaudhry are AidData Summer Fellows working in Kathmandu with Nepal Monitor this summer. Haley and Raheem are both students at The University of Texas, Austin, where they work for Innovations for Peace and Development, a research organization affiliated with AidData. Haley is pursuing a degree in International Relations and is specializing in Middle East Studies and Arabic. Raheem is pursuing his Masters in Public Affairs and anticipates graduating this August.