ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Contextualising Disaster Aftermath

Some Interdisciplinary Insights from Nepal

Epicentre to Aftermath: Rebuilding and Remembering in the Wake of Nepal’s Earthquakes edited by Michael Hutt, Mark Liechty, and Stefanie Lotter, Cambridge University Press, 2021; pp xviii + 464, £90 (hardcover).

The earthquakes that hit central Nepal on 25 April and 12 May 2015 resulted in the loss of lives and livelihoods in 14 severely affected and another 17 neighbouring districts. With 9,000 people killed and approximately 10% of Nepal’s population in need of humanitarian assistance, these earthquakes disproportionately affected the poor and those in remote rural ­locations. Beyond the immediate suffering and humanitarian response aesthetically presented and circulated in international media, the aftermath of the earthquake has been characterised by challenges and aspirations for rebuilding and reconstruc­ting the damaged inf­rastructures, lives, and livelihoods. Epicentre to Aftermath: Rebuilding and Remembering in the Wake of Nepal’s Earthquakes aims to capture the context of the disaster’s aftermath that is characte­rised not only by physical reconstruction but also by people seeking to build new lives, meanings, social relations, and memories in the face of state action (or non-action) and outpouring external aid to support the recovery process. The narratives are also laid out in the context of another Herculean task of “state restructuring” following the decade-long Maoist insurgency (1996–2005) and protracted political transition that followed Nepal’s peace process since 2006.

Varieties of Perspectives

Approaching the earthquakes from the vantage point of the aftermath, this 464-page-long edited volume with 15 chapters contributed by 33 authors and co-au­­thors, approaches the consequences of the Nepal earthquakes from different disciplinary and methodological vantage points. The individual chapters are based on the field research in earthquake-affected sites and offer thoughtful observations on a range of themes, including livelihoods, state intervention, international aid, labour market, expertise, law, community participation, heritage, memory, and art among others. Despite this expansive coverage, this volume does not cover other obvious issues in the post-disaster aftermath context, such as mental health or the enga­gement of the Nepali diaspora, for which the readers may look elsewhere. In the introduction, the editors make a strong call for a collaboration between disaster studies and area studies. Given such a call, it would be great to see some disaster studies scholars or practitioners comment on this volume.

The editors have organised the 15 chapters under four sections. Part I (int­rodu­ction) consists of two chapters. Chapter 1 by Mark Liechty and Michael Hutt sets the scene by introducing the scope of the volume, its conceptual framing and a brief four-page background on Nepal for those not familiar with the country’s context. Chapter 2 by John Whelpton gives a historical overview of the series of earthquakes in the entire Himalayan region, with a particular focus on their consequences/impact on social, political, and cultural change. Part II titled “Rebuilding Lives and Livelihoods” consists of five chapters.

Chapter 3, authored by 12 experts, based on fieldwork in three districts around Kathmandu Valley with a particular focus on private housing projects, shows how the reconstruction work has affected social relations at the local level. Chapter 4 shows that the displacement of labour in a major hydropower site and the arrival of international experts and volunteers following the earthquake had contradictory implications for the local labour market. Chapter 5 offers damning criticisms of an integrated settlement of the Majhi community in Sindhupalchok for its coercive approach to community participation and calls the approach flaw­ed. Chapter 6 continues with criticisms of international non-governmental organisations’ (INGOs) work as “show-and-tell” and how they fail to take sociocultural contexts, which contributes to further aggravate the issue of caste and untouchability.

Chapter 7 offers a clear and engaging discussion on the need to value different knowledge systems to mitigate the risks of landslides, which are a regular occurrence in the region. Part III titled “Building Structures” consists of four more chapters. Chapter 8 examines the politics of participatory governance of disasters. Chapter 9 claims that there has been a significant change in the perception of external aid by the Nepali state following the earthquake, which sought to assert itself for greater control. Cha­pter 10 shows the conflict between community’s claim to rebuild with government programmes that seeks to encode norms of heritage into rebuilding. Chapter 11 focuses on the contested politics of heritage activism.

Part IV titled “Building Memories” contains four essays that focus on commemoration as an active process of expression and articulation. Chapter 12 focuses on curatorial decision at Patan Museum. Chapter 13 focu­ses on artists’ role as activists in the aftermath. Chapter 14 explores memory work through their visual ethnographic work in Langtang. Chapter 15 focuses on literary response as a way to understand end­ogenous response from the exogenous one.

Why Does Context Matter?

Overall, the book takes an issue with failure of relief and reconstruction in the context of the disaster’s aftermath. The editors ask:

Why is it that bilateral and INGO-driven relief and reconstruction—however well-intentioned—frequently flo­under and fail in the chaotic context of a disaster aftermath? Why do disaster aftermaths so often stymie the best-laid plans of international experts who sweep into disaster zones earing not only tents and blankets but also elaborate predetermined reconstruction protocols and best practices? (p 9)

As the editors state and the authors show in different chapters, what gets rebuilt, how, and why is never predetermined. Rather it is alw­ays worked out and often contested. This suggests that it is not useful to take the failure (or success) of disaster res­ponse as self-evident; they are socially constructed through interpretation.

The editors and the authors argue that the complex realties of the aftermath context matters. Ideas about the importance of contextual insights are not new, rather across disciplines from int­erna­tional development to peace stu­dies scholars have maintained a consensus on the primacy of “context.” As early as 1989, in her book Policies, Plans, and People: Foreign Aid and Health Development, Judith Justice claimed that international organisations fail to take local sociocul­tural contextual knowledge into account, and then she went on to explore why so much of sociocultural knowledge available in Nepal remained unused by policymakers.

It is a big claim to make that international experts, including INGOs and aid agencies, rush to intervene without contextual knowledge. Rather, international development and humanitarian practitioners today find themselves under the avalanche of “contextual knowledge,” and do not know what to make of the “context.” Or in other words, the logic that having contextual knowledge will somehow lead to effective actions might be flawed. I have found that international experts are often conscious of being labelled as parachute humanitarians and experts, and thus spend a considerable time and effort to appreciate the local context, and often consult local experts (many of them being sociologists, ant­hropo­logists, and political scientists), and involve them as experts, advisors and consultants and engage local research organisations and researchers as their partners and collaborators. It is almost impossible for international organisations to work on the ground without working with intermediaries and local brokers. Thus, one must interrogate the role of intermediaries and knowledge brokers and their politics in our quest for contextual knowledge and post-disaster interventions. Thus, while the collaboration between area studies and disaster studies is certainly important and should be encouraged, it is not sufficient.

Given the long history of planned dev­elopment in Nepal, which is intimately tied to external aid, this context would have served as an excellent background to the volume. Many of the political–economic dynamics that the authors desc­ribe in this volume are not only limited to the aftermath of the earthquakes but also resonates closely with the dynamics of development politics at the local level, whether these relate to building of roads, dams, embankments, school, and health post buildings, or other development interventions. A very good example of this is given in Chapter 4. Likewise, disaster aftermath is a regular phenomenon for many people in diffe­rent parts of Nepal, albeit at a different scale, as people regularly cope with annual floods, landslides, or other hazards and their consequences.

Overall, the book offers a variety of perspectives on the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. It will be of interest to scholars interested in the Nepal earthquakes as well as those interested in disaster studies. The editors must be praised for undertaking a challenging task of bringing together a host of themes, methodo­logies, disciplines, researchers, and perspectives in a single volume on the 2015 ­Nepal earthquakes.




Updated On : 11th Jul, 2022
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