Did the humanitarian response to the Nepal Earthquake ensure no one was left behind? A case study on the experience of marginalised groups in humanitarian action



In April and May 2015, two large-scale earthquakes struck Nepal, killing almost 9,000 people, damaging over half a million houses and displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Natural hazards are indiscriminate: earthquakes have no regard for social hierarchy, gender, age, disability, religion, ethnicity, or caste. But the impacts of natural hazards – and the humanitarian response to them – can easily discriminate against the very people who are most in need. When a disaster hits, vulnerable and marginalised groups have fewer and more fragile livelihoods options, less access to social and economic resources, less ability to influence the relief effort, and face more barriers accessing assistance – often without the political voice that would enable them to advocate for those barriers to be addressed. Unless these challenges are purposefully addressed as par t of the relief effort, humanitarian crises can exacerbate and entrench social disadvantage, with the risk that already marginalised people will be left even further behind. This report uses the response to the Nepal earthquake as a case study through which to examine this risk.

The earthquakes occurred in the context of deeply entrenched social hierarchy, and associated with that hierarchy, deeply entrenched social exclusion – with vulnerable and marginalised groups having suffered a history of discrimination due to caste, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, language and/or geographical remoteness. This context of social exclusion had profound significance for the earthquake response, because the overwhelming majority of the affected population were from vulnerable and marginalised groups: 41 percent of houses damaged in the earthquake belonged to Dalits (lower caste) and indigenous communities, 26 percent to female-headed households and 23 percent to senior citizens. Also significant for the earthquake response was the fact that these vulnerable and marginalised groups were not meaningfully engaged in local governance structures and decision-making bodies, nor proactively engaged in the earthquake response by international responders.

Informed by consultations with affected communities and government and non-government actors, and focusing on the first six months of the earthquake response, this report identifies two components of the response that were particularly significant in exacerbating the challenges faced by vulnerable and marginalised groups in accessing assistance:

• the identification and selection of beneficiaries (‘targeting’), and specifically, the lack of a multi-sector needs assessment and agreed vulnerability-based targeting criteria, which together with the significant authority vested in local decisionmaking bodies, the lack of representation of vulnerable groups on these bodies and a lack of accountability to the affected population, served to undermine the inclusivity of the response; and

• the way in which distributions were conducted, specifically, the lack of information provided to vulnerable groups prior to distributions taking place, and the often prohibitive distance that vulnerable individuals were required to walk to distribution sites, which in many cases made it difficult for them to benefit from the distributions.

In 2015 the Government of Nepal approved a new Constitution committed to ‘ending discriminations relating to class, caste, region, language, religion and gender’. The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals commit world leaders to working together towards a ‘just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met’, and to ensure ‘no one will be left behind’. The Report of the UN Secretary General for the World Humanitarian Summit says that ‘honouring our commitment to leave no one behind requires reaching everyone in situation of conflict, disasters, vulnerability and risk’, and describes the Summit as the ‘first test of the international community’s commitment to transforming the lives of those most at risk of being left behind.’ The response to the 2015 earthquake, occurring in a context of such deeply entrenched vulnerability and hindered by such enormous geographic challenges, provides a timely case study of just how difficult it can be to honour these commitments, despite the best intentions of those engaged in the relief effort.

The lessons learned from the earthquake response come at a time of significant opportunity. At the national level, the reconstruction process has just begun, the international humanitarian community is continuing its roll out of the ERP Package, and new disaster management legislation is in process. At the international level, humanitarian actors are thinking through how best to use the World Humanitarian Summit to improve humanitarian action for vulnerable and marginalised groups.

This report seeks to leverage the lessons learned from the earthquake and make recommendations aimed at ensuring an equitable and inclusive reconstruction process, that preparedness work under taken in Nepal now enables a more inclusive and equitable disaster response in the future, and that new developments in the international humanitarian system enable more effective and targeted humanitarian action for the world’s most vulnerable and marginalised people.