Nepal’s quake exposes hidden problems and solutions


Caught in Nepal’s 7.9 Richter Scale quake that left 5,000 dead acknowledged so far, New York Times correspondent Donatella Lorch observed: “People here help one another because they know the government often cannot. They reach out to one another, and they persevere. They open their shops, because what else can one do when the world is upside down?” She’s right.

Avalanches, mud slides and antiquated buildings boosted rural casualties compared to downtown Kathmandu, which suffered less than expected apart from relatively few old monuments and newer substandard dwellings. But walls fell down everywhere, chiefly surrounding government buildings and army barracks. “That’s because politicians and bureaucrats demand huge kickbacks, leaving the contractors no choice but to cut corners on safety,” explained a builder. “The private sector usually gets it right.” Elsewhere I met groups of young entrepreneurs bemoaning officialdom under-equipped and paralysed for days. We can never rely on government again, they concluded.

In a campaign limited to fearful whispers, Nepal’s late 2013 elections surprisingly trounced the Maoists, who fell from first to a weak third place. Just one of the Maoist leaders reportedly stole one billion dollars; yet the ruling centre-right Congress Party is less corrupt but irredeemably feckless. Post-earthquake frustration won’t drain the political and bureaucratic swamp, but mounting public irritation may offer a remedy.

The Red Cross Federation took only a few days to fly Scandinavian field hospitals into India’s Gujarat State after a deadly quake in 2001, but when they arrived the private sector was already there. “National trade associations for jewellers, the dairy industry and others were working in unison, providing food and medicine to tens of thousands of their countrymen, much faster than even the NGOs. We were amazed,” a Red Cross expert recalled. “When government officials arrived a week later, and started ordering everyone about, the businessmen told them to get lost. Everything was already so well-run that the bureaucrats had no choice but to fall in and cooperate.” Watching, and soon to become Gujarat’s Chief Minister, was the free-market Narendra Modi, now India’s Prime Minister. 

Part of the former Hermit Kingdom’s problem has been mistaking First World wealth for governmental competence. But thriving banking, telephone and IT sectors bring savvy young Nepalis home from abroad, and with them comes a can-do attitude. Private sector self-reliance may be what the country needs.