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The Orwellian logic of the international aid effort in Nepal

As the shockwaves from the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal have rippled across the globe, so too have international and multilateral pledges to provide the country with financial and humanitarian aid. While there is no denying the desperate need of Nepal’s most remote and vulnerable populations, many of whom have yet to be reached by relief teams, not to mention the appalling destruction that has ravaged the country and left more than 5,000 people dead, there is also some element of cruel irony in the aid pledges of the international community – especially in the case of the oil rich nations of the Middle East.

Dozens of countries and international organisations have pledged millions of dollars in aid and supplies to Nepal, including a reported $10 million from the United States, £5 million from the UK ($7.6 million), $15 million from the UN and 1 million Qatari riyals ($280,000) from Qatar (whose Red Crescent launched an emergency appeal to raise a further 12 million Qatari riyals ($3 million)). Several countries have also sent rescue missions, including the UAE and Israel.

Notwithstanding the altruistic intentions of many of the international aid efforts, and the commendable efforts by those desperately battling to save lives and provide much-needed relief, there is a sense in which Nepal has become the newest cause celèbre of the global elite. The country has become so flooded with do-gooders that the sheer number of aid missions is actually serving to hinder, rather than help, the relief effort. Planes carrying medical equipment and emergency supplies from countries across the globe are so numerous that they have created a permanent bottleneck at Kathmandu airport, while those supplies that eventually do reach the ground are unable to be transported to where they are needed most because of traffic jams caused by well-wishers and volunteers all rushing to help.

The situation is fast developing into a mirror image of the aftermath of the Haiti disaster in 2010, which in the words of the Telegraph’s David Blair rapidly became “a byword for waste, vanity and sheer incompetence.” The legions of unskilled volunteers and voluntourists who descended on the typhoon and earthquake-ravaged country placed incredible strain on Haiti’s already devastated infrastructure, with reports of many aid workers making use of the food and shelter intended for survivors.

What is needed right now in Nepal more than any well-intentioned aid missions is channelling the necessary funds and supplies into the hands of those most able to bring relief on the ground. These include skilled rescue workers, military engineers, doctors and helicopter pilots. The sad fact is that almost three million of Nepal’s own skilled workers are abroad working as labourers in the Middle East and South Asia. Nepalese migrant workers make nearly a third of the workforce in countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, with the vast majority working in construction and other forms of physical and manual labour.

Qatar is home to an estimated 400,000 Nepalese migrants, making them the second-largest expat community in the Gulf state. The Guardian reported at the end of last year that Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar died at the rate of one every two days throughout 2014 while building the infrastructure of the 2022 World Cup. In the UAE and other Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Nepalese workers face similarly appalling standards of safety and human rights, often forced to work long hours in gruelling conditions and suffering abuse and beatings under the exploitative kafala visa system.

This is not to single out the Arab Gulf states alone; many countries in the region and internationally have a complex history with Nepal and the surrounding region that casts a murky shadow on their current (commendable) efforts to help the stricken nation. The UK, for one, has been exploiting Nepalese Gurkha soldiers for the past 200 year, and an estimated 43,000 were killed fighting on behalf of Britain during the two world wars. As part of the British Empire’s colonial project, Nepal’s human and natural resources were “siphoned off” for use by the Great British public with no benefit to the Nepalese themselves, the ripple effects of which have been felt in the aftermath of the recent terrible earthquake whose death toll could have been greatly reduced if the country had been allowed to develop a more stable economic and political system capable of building adequate housing and emergency strategies – rather than constantly having the best of its workers and resources channeled abroad.

Israel, too, has rather questionable motives when it comes to helping those stranded in Nepal. The country is currently the destination of choice for childless Israeli couples who do not have access to surrogacy in Israel (which is unavailable for same-sex couples and single parents). Since the earthquake struck Nepal last weekend, Israel has scrambled to evacuate 26 surrogate Israeli babies from the country, but refused to rescue the mothers who were simply left behind to fend for themselves.

In light of such facts, the minimal pledges made by such countries (the largest estimate of $4 million pledged by Qatar, the world’s richest country per capita, amounts to just over 0.001 per cent of GDP, while the UK’s pledge of £5 million is equivalent to just 12 pence from every citizen – pittance) are frankly rankling in the face of their long-term and systematic exploitation of Nepal.

To these governments, it is preferable to make grandiose gestures of goodwill and humanitarian relief to the Nepalese people (at little or no cost to themselves) than address the suffering and exploitation of Nepalese people on their own doorsteps. Orwellian logic indeed.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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