Development partners have, for many years, engaged in devising a workable Disaster Risk Management Program in Nepal. A lot has been said and written about the ‘disastrousness’ of the program in recent days. It is therefore not a surprise that after a month following the first quake, we still have 70 VDCs that have not received any form of relief. Once this immediate relief is dealt with, the obvious switch is towards reconstruction phase. Our Finance Secretary, Mr. Suman Prasad Sharma has lent some of his thoughts about what the institutional mechanism should look like, as we make the switch.
The proposal is, derived from what we have seen as the international post-disaster practice, we create an Extra Ordinary Mechanism (EOM); then we customize it a little bit. The following modality has been proposed:
“Access limitations due to geographical challenges will seriously impair the capacity of a standalone EOM at the center entrusted with the mandate for reconstruction and recovery. Hence, a strong central agency of about 25 to 30 people, with an experienced executive supported by multidisciplinary experts, and headed by a strong political leadership, must be established to formulate and coordinate programs, monitor implementation, and manage fund flow. Program implementation must be entrusted to line ministries and their respective units, through the funds made available by the central agency. It is imperative to keep this reconstruction agency above line ministries in hierarchy in order to avoid intersecting communication lines.”
Here, some historical observations about central planning seem to have been overlooked. One, there is a lot of path-dependency i.e. first the “strong central agency” devises plan, develops fund flow mechanisms, devises its own version of check-and-balance mechanism, then mobilizes the line ministries, who will again go for the CDOs and VDC secretaries, and finally the people. Notice how there is no local representative of the people to either communicate the ground information to the planners, or to take ownership of state-mechanism. Here, it is no more necessary to discuss why there are still VDCs that are yet to receive any form of relief being channeled through the government.
Two, there is a lot of noise in the process, i.e. a lot of information gets lost in the process of it being transferred from the bottom-up or top-bottom in a tall hierarchy. As we move from planning to implementation (and further into the number of sub-national implementation bodies), we will have already faced a number of unforeseen circumstances, customized the service to (hopefully) the best of the bureaucracy’s knowledge, and probably many other complexities. In the end, what was planned and what is delivered will likely be two very different things.
These problems of excessive path-dependence and noise render central planning an inefficient mechanism; and very little needs be told about it when we are talking Nepalese political leadership and bureaucracy.
Interestingly, some foreseeable differing views have been acknowledged in the article as:
“Those against EOM suggest a new agency will be susceptible to rivalry with existing agencies; they fear of a lengthy process required to set up such an organization; and creation of yet more communication channels resulting in unwieldy coordination mechanisms.”
Consequently, a justification to the need of EOM has also been provided:
“But the alternatives are worse. Existing institutional mechanisms are marred by sluggish decision making, long process-oriented delivery systems leading to frustratingly slow implementation, sub-optimal procurement efficiency, serious lack of horizontal coordination, unmotivated staff and their frequent turnover, and trade unionism, to name a few.”
This here, seems to be a tall claim to make. It appears, what has been suggested is the creation of an institution that could very well fall to the same endemics that the existing institutions have been succumbing to. More bureaucracy might not be the solution to an inefficient bureaucracy.
It is definitely a commendable thing to do what the secretary has done – starting a discourse on the institutional mechanisms that need to be put in place to deal with such emergencies. It is indeed with great intentions that the new institution has been proposed.
However, as the bureaucracy tries to deal with the situation in a regular bureaucratic manner, we seem to have been overlooking the unprecedented (and frankly, popularly unexpected) voluntary initiatives started by the energetic youth of the nation. This energy, without proper guidance/ management might very well die down. Therefore we need to acknowledge their efforts and convert the volunteerism of the youth into a capital. There are furthermore, a number of community based organisations, private institutions and other non-government organisations that have already been working to bring relief and help reconstruct the damages borne by the people and communities. While this discussion on the institutional mechanism is taking shape, it will be very important to bring these parties on-board, and also pay attention to what the people on the ground really need help with.