‘Stealing from earthquake victims’-a tale of laptops, overheads and journalism from Nepal

Representations of the aid industry in mainstream media and how journalism communicates development are a recurring theme in my work and on this blog.
The current debate in the UK featuring the Daily Mail was part of my last post, but the fantastic 50 Shades of Aid facebook group highlighted an article from Nepal
’s MyRepublica platform that led to an extensive discussion on aid transparency, ethical journalism – and overheads.

Sangeet Sangroula
’s article Nepal Red Cross spends millions from quake funds on 'luxuries' seems to aim at provoking exactly the kind of comments that were posted underneath the article: This is a case of blatant misuse of donated funds!

I am fully aware of the problematic relationships between local and global elites in Nepal and the development industrial complex (not least because it was a key part of my PhD research), but I also firmly believe that calls for transparency and accountability should be met with professional, ethical journalism and reasonable discussions.

Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) has been found splurging millions meant for earthquake victims on administrative activities and the purchase of various luxury items instead of channelizing the hefty amounts into the real tasks of earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation.  
As has been pointed out numerous times, overheads are not the same as ‘stealing money from beneficiaries’.
The figures that the article states in terms of salaries, laptops or scooters sound quite reasonable-even if I have not further insights as to what happened to said 200 scooters or laptops worth about 200.000 Euros.
But that’s also not the point of the article:
Sangeet Sangroula automatically seems to qualifies such expenditures, including a 60.000 Euro week-long meeting in Nepal as ‘luxuries’ (although putting it in inverted commas makes it difficult to understand whether the author refers to them as real luxuries or so-called luxuries-but I guess it is the first).

To cut a long story short: From these figures alone it is difficult to maintain the discourse of ‘waste’-it seems to be sensationalist reporting that is not intended to provide a nuanced understanding to the readers that professional development and professional aid workers working in professional environments costs money. 


In an interesting article Gail Picco recently outlined Ten reasons why the 15% charity overhead myth prevents any social change. She is referring to the Canadian charity sector, but her message is very clear: Meaningful social change is complicated-and a race to the bottom of who spends the least on overheads will not be conducive to a professional, critical and impact-ful third sector.

But according to the figures stated in the articles, NRCS spent about 12% on overheads-and since they state that they channeled about 19 million Euros through their projects, the sum appears to be quite high in absolute terms.


Open data to confirm stereotypes?
It seems that Nepal’s Social Welfare Council (SWC) was informed by the initial article and promised an investigation (
SWC to investigate Nepal Red Cross activities). Quite interesting how similar the dynamics of outrage work in London as they do in Kathmandu, but the aid industry is a globalized endeavor after all:

We are concerned about the reports that have appeared in the media regarding the Nepal Red Cross. We will hold an in-depth investigation into the issue and find out whether those allegations are true or not.
It is always an easy and political move to call for ‘greater transparency’ or ‘more accountability’ – and there is certainly room for improvement in Nepal.

But openness and transparency should be encouraged and rewarded-not seen as a disadvantage that leads to tabloid journalism and very unbalanced debates that equate overheads, salaries and proper offices with ‘waste’. The debate in the 50 Shades of Aid group focused a lot on
‘the people have a right to know how much money is spent’ argument. While that is certainly true, it is also important that data and expenditure are put into context as they do not tell a story by itself. After all, all the digital data that is collected needs to stored on laptops and pen drives and discussed in detail at staff retreats.

Digital media capacity building
The mistrust in the Kathmandu-based elite is deep-rooted in Nepal and insights from large-scale natural disasters such as the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2013 typhoon Haiyan or the earthquake in Nepal show that they come with particular challenges as vast sums of money are entering weak governance systems and overwhelmed aid structures. The response will never be perfect no matter how much data is available or whether or not we can be accountable for every last scooter or laptop.
Yes, spending more than 500.000 Euros on salaries and allowances sounds like a lot, but it misses the time-frame, number of recipients and individual salaries.
As more and more young, well-qualified Nepali professionals enter the development sector they should be able to work in an environment of constructive debates-not one of mistrust and jealously. The development sector is an important aspect of Nepal
’s economy and it deserves local professionals who can build a career in the industry, rather than looking for well-paid employment elsewhere-including outside the country.
As more digital communication and data challenges emerge, journalists, activists and traditional aid actors, including the government, need to have constructive dialogues, build capacity and treat overheads as an investment in more accountable organizations and motivated, well-paid professionals-ideally the next generation of local experts.

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