"TRADE, NOT AID" - A PERSPECTIVE FROM A CHARITY WORKING TO PROVIDE RELIEF IN NEPAL AFTER THE APRIL 25TH EARTHQUAKE
We are a charity organization working in Nepal where 7000+ people lost their lives to the April 25th earthquakes. Yet, we say don't give aid. Why?
We are running a fund-raising campaign. Yet, we say don't give aid. Why?
Why not aid?
Reason 1: Aid crowds out Individual Enterprise.
We live in a rented house. The landlord is a 70 year old man, an ex-bureaucrat, who is in better health than I am. The earthquakes demolished the boundary walls of our building. On the second day after the quakes, he started rebuilding the walls. What do you think would have happened if he had seen young volunteers in blue caps and yellow jackets going around building walls for free in our neighbourhood? He would have waited his turn for the free service. His 'individual enterprise' and his spirit of self-initiative would have given way to the hope that the volunteers would come around to build his wall. Aid discourages self-initiative.
Reason 2: Aid symbolically defeats incentive to resume daily life.
My wife and I have a toddler, who recently started drinking fresh cow's milk. A lady in our neighbourhood owns two cows and she brings fresh cow's milk to our doorstep every morning. The morning after the earthquake, shocked and tired as we were, we were further worried that we would not have cow's milk for the baby. But the milk arrived just as usual. The lady, praise the lord, had gone about her daily business, despite her share of difficulties. What's more, our house-help arrived at 8am sharp, even though her own house had collapsed in the earthquake and her family was living outside in a makeshift tent. These two ladies were my heroes, not because they were there to help me, but because they showed great resilience in picking up their lives so quickly after the catastrophe. Would they have come if their neighbourhood was teeming with relief-aid agents and hand-out delivery trucks? Aid makes a 'symbolic' imprint on human psychology that the crisis is 'too large for us to surmount on our own', and that the crisis is still ongoing. This discourages people from picking up the broken pieces and rebuilding their lives.
To be fair, there are exceptions to every rule. In the case being made against Aid, there are two exceptions:
1. Short-term-Relief or Humanitarian Aid is useful when urgent needs clearly overwhelm/disrupt market supply. Relief, however, should be strictly time-bound (transparency and procedural documentation is too onerous here, and should not be demanded as it slows relief work). Relief should happen for 2-4 weeks, and then be come to an end. After the Haiti earthquakes, food was subsidized for so long that it all but killed the food-market, and the subsidy was eventually lifted. People get used to easy-solutions. People are tempted by free hand-outs. Aid is sticky, and like band-aid, it should be pulled out quickly.
2. Longer-term-Reconstruction (usually multi-lateral) Aid should be totally transparent and should be based on SMART goals. T in SMART stands for time-bound. Hence, this aid should also expire with a clear time-line. These aid amounts are large, and tempt even ordinarily law-abiding officials. Hence, procedural documentation and transparency are a must.
If one can meet these criteria (for example, in Kehi Garoun's case, we would), aid is fine. But unfortunately, aid usually does not follow the above criteria. Most aid that comes during a catastrophe is emotionally charged, and aimed for short-term relief. It stays underused, gets lumped together with longer-term projects, falls through the cracks and eventually disappears.
So, we stick to the rule 'Trade, not Aid'.
A close friend of ours and her toddler were planning to visit us next month from another country. We were looking forward to our kids meeting for the first time, and meeting her after a long time. After the earthquakes, she cancelled her trip, saying she did not want to burden the already stretched situation both in our home as well as in our country. We were bummed. Her visit would have boosted our morale. And for the ailing economy, where tourism is a mainstay, this was a regrettable loss of economic activity. Economic activity is a healing balm...it solves problems. Let me give an example. Two days ago, we ran out of drinking water and food. We asked our neighbours, and they too did not have much to spare. So, we did what grief-stricken people usually do - we went shopping!
The first store was run by a mother-daughter team. When I asked for bottled water, the teenage-daughter started to go to the back of the store until her mother sharply responded, 'we don't have any water.' The daughter was confused for a micro-second and then understood that the mother wanted to hoard. 'Great lesson to teach her daughter! That's her punishment enough', I consoled myself. In the next store, the shop keeper gave us six bottles of water, no fuss! That was a balm to our worry. We ended up buying much more than water, and that was a balm to his worry, perhaps.
Later in the trip, as we were out of bread, we tried a few stores but in vain. Regular deliveries had not been made for three days and we made peace with that. But then we recalled that there was a new bakery in our neighbourhood. The owner was an excitable self-starter. Not only was his store open, he told us he would bake us fresh bread and that we should come back in an hour. We did, to two large loaves, freshly off the oven. Our problem was solved.
Trade, or rather, economic transaction, makes each party better off (or else, why would they do it?). And that is what we need, whether or not we have earthquakes.
In conclusion, some advice:
To fellow-survivors: Please just buy the damn food/water from the stores. If you don't have the money, borrow from friends. Don't wait for aid. If you don't have shops, come to the market place where there are shops. Of course, if you are injured and can't travel, you may have to ask your friends/families. I am not prescribing this to anyone in extremely dire circumstances (lone survivor of a family who is in the ICU for example) ...but I am pretty sure, most people are not in such dire circumstances. And to them, I have one last suggestion - please go back to your daily lives, to your work, to your schools. The government's announcement to stay out of your houses kept you exiled from your safe homes for 72 hours needlessly; please don't let other experts or your own fears keep you from your productive lives any longer. Get back to the rhythm of your life!
To well-wishers here and abroad: Please see if we are able to 'buy' or 'borrow' before you forward alms to us. And do please help us find business deals, locate people who want to buy Nepali architectural artefacts from broken buildings that we can sell, or sell make-shift furniture that I need to buy. If you are so inclined, find that movie-director who needs a real set to shoot his next Armageddon movie or that CEO of the firm that sells cholera-curing pills and mobile toilets who is scouting for their next big market. What ever you do, don't tell us to leave Nepal and join our relatives abroad. Just the opposite, ask the relatives to come visit us, and when they do, to bring us chocolates and wine....for wine, my friends, is all gone, thanks to the earthquakes!
So, please, give us trade, not aid (except, wine, of course)!