Kate Sayer: A visit to Nepal showed me things are not always simple

Seeing the earthquake-affected area in the Himalayan kingdom quickly forced our columnist to start recalibrating an 'efficient and effective' response to disaster

I recently spent a month in Nepal, combining work and holiday. One purpose of my visit was to understand how efficient and effective one charity's response to the earthquake had been. With millions raised from charitable donations, trustees and donors wanted to know if they were getting value for money - based on the four Es: efficiency, economy, effectiveness and equity.

Sitting at a desk in London, I might have looked at a map and expected agencies to work their way round the affected areas, rebuilding or repairing homes according to a planned route. Once in Nepal, I realised it wasn't as simple as that. Many of the earthquake-affected areas were the hills in the middle of the country, which are remote and house some of the poorest people. Emergency aid reached those in the towns in the immediate aftermath, but many people in the hills did not receive any help at all - the roads just don't go that far.

Before I travelled myself to a couple of towns in the hills I had no idea that steep hills, poor roads and damage from landslides could make journeys so tortuous. One journey of 200km should have taken five hours according to our estimates - but it actually took us 10 hours. I needed to start calibrating "efficient" with this key information.

For economy, I thought we would have an idea of the costs of building a new house and be able to monitor those costs. Again, things were not so simple. Nepal is landlocked and relies on imports of key supplies from India. Last autumn, the trade routes were blockaded by India. The precise cause of this action seems to be obscure, but the effects were more dramatic and widespread than the earthquake. The blockade meant that building materials such as corrugated iron sheets for roofing were not getting through. It also led to an increase in prices of between 40 per cent and 50 per cent.

In terms of effectiveness, donors were expecting to see results one year on. In Nepal timing is crucial, but for a different reason. The monsoon season is June to August, which effectively halts any construction work. All work needs to be fitted in around this. The monsoon frequently causes landslides, which were worse in 2015 because the quakes and tremors had disturbed the ground. Then the blockade kicked in - this also made it difficult to transport building materials because a shortage of fuel practically brought the country to a standstill. The situation was only partially resolved by December, so the window for building work has only been from December to May.

For equity, the charity I was reviewing had prioritised the people most in need, but you have to consider that the people you most need to reach are the most difficult to reach. To achieve equity, then, you might be less efficient and it might cost you more. Achieving a virtuous circle of the four Es is certainly not straightforward in a disaster scenario.

Kate Sayer is a partner at specialist auditors Sayer Vincent

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