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A Year After the Earthquake, Nepal Is a Man-Made Disaster

ICE Graveyard 25/04/2016 Gordon Brown
NEPAL CHILD © Tom Van Cakenberghe via Getty Images NEPAL CHILD

LONDON -- Mamita was 9 years old when, exactly one year ago, the worst earthquake in nearly a century struck Nepal. Alongside hundreds of thousands of other children, she was forced onto the streets.
Unable to find safe shelter and schooling in her devastated village, she ventured with her 16-year-old sister's family -- a husband and newborn child -- to Kathmandu. There they found jobs at a brick factory, taking shifts from late night into the early morning. Mamita is a victim twice over. First an earthquake took her home, school, family and friends. Then, left only with her life and standing at the intersection of crisis and need, she became a victim of exploitation, forced into child labor and denied her right to an education.
In light of the alternatives, Mamita's story is hardly surprising. We have all come to know the images of young boys and girls stacking bricks in Durbar Square where temples once stood tall. And how what started off as a catastrophe wrought by nature has become a man-made disaster. Orphaned after the earthquake, far too many children live on the streets, making them easy prey for traffickers. Estimates from the United Nations place the annual figure of those trafficked out of Nepal and into India and Gulf states between 10,000 to 15,000 persons. Many of these individuals are women and children who face lives in the commercial sex trade or in bonded labor. Recent independent estimates accounting for dislocations borne out of the earthquake place the annual female trafficking figure closer to 20,000 -- or 54 women and young girls trafficked daily -- and there are reports of girls sold into Europe from Nepal. This is not to speak of the horrors confronting other out-of-school children left behind in Nepal. As some stack bricks, others have become addicted to sniffing glue or paint. While these tragedies existed before the earthquake, the depth and damage has only intensified.

The real culprit is not an individual but the structurally flawed system of humanitarian aid.

The education picture is hardly brighter in the earthquake's immediate aftermath. 24,000 classrooms in Nepal were heavily damaged or destroyed, leaving some 950,000 children without a school. The best hope for many of these children are temporary learning centers constructed out of bamboo and tarpaulin. Recent figures estimate some 250,000 children have found an academic home in these glorified tents. Where schools are open they are often still unsafe. Following the earthquake, government inspectors placed stickers, either green or red, on damaged structures -- schools included. As one might expect, a red sticker marked a locale unsafe for schooling. But even in schools given a red sticker, children are being taught. With resources and manpower spread thin, the Nepalese government -- which is trying hard to respond -- can hardly shoulder full responsibility for this academic roulette. In fact, the real culprit is not an individual but the structurally flawed system of humanitarian aid. While roads were cleared and new homes constructed, humanitarian aid for education dried up -- evaporated. Schools targeted for reconstruction have remained as they were the day after the earthquake -- dangerous and uninhabitable. In rural mountainous areas outside Kathmandu, children who have always traveled vast distances to reach school now walk longer and farther to find an education.
The Nepal tragedy brings to the fore the need for a seismic shift in humanitarian aid. When a crisis strikes, be it a civil war or natural disaster, the first call on capital -- in both fiscal and human terms -- is to provide the basic minimum necessary to live such as food and shelter. In turn, a humanitarian aid system focused on survival carves out less than 2 percent of aid for education. Here the gulf separating assumptions and reality is revealed. General development aid takes the long view and is not crisis-driven. Conversely, humanitarian aid rests on the belief that a crisis is a short-term event lasting days, weeks or months, not years. From Syria to Sudan, history says otherwise. Faced with life on the streets, children impacted by a crisis need more than the basics for survival. They need to be able to secure skills for the times ahead. And they need hope. An education -- the prospect of being able to plan and prepare for the future -- is most likely to secure this hope.
It is both a failure to act and allocate that impels us to learn from the last year in Nepal and create a humanitarian fund for education in emergencies. After boosting primary school enrollment rates from 64 percent in 1990 to more than 95 percent in the minutes prior to the earthquake, it took only several hours of seismic activity to unravel decades of social progress in Nepal. Charities like the Himalayan Foundation which do so much good work can do their best but it's never going to be enough.

Humanitarian aid rests on the belief that a crisis is a short-term event lasting days, weeks or months, not years. From Syria to Sudan, history says otherwise.

Surely an insurance policy guaranteeing progress during times of stability -- and sustainability during times of crisis -- would be a worthwhile investment. Establishing a fund for education in emergencies would fill this insurance void. Capital, in conjunction with a mandate to deploy funds at the first sign of smoke, would ensure schooling goes uninterrupted during times of crisis.
When disaster strikes, we may think that we have the luxury of time to circulate the humanitarian aid begging bowl. Displaced children and their families do not. A failure to fund education in emergencies means that too many of the 30 million out-of-school children worldwide due to crises are likely to spend their school-age years without ever entering a classroom. But if we do act, we could ensure that whatever the crisis -- and whatever the extent of the damage -- schooling will go uninterrupted. Such a fund would shift the discussion. It would signal that an education is a universal affirmation of hope -- that whatever your circumstances and wherever you are -- the international community supports you and looks forward to a brighter future.
All natural disasters start off as just that -- natural. Many do not end that way and instead become man-made fiascos like Nepal today. When it comes to funding education, humanitarian aid gets a red sticker. Our best hope to arrest a disaster's momentum and ensure schooling goes uninterrupted is an "education in emergencies" fund. Rather than picking at the rubble, or getting spirited away to a dark corner of the globe, children impacted by disaster need to see their education continue. We want them to turn their eyes skyward and keep climbing up the ladder of opportunity. For the Syrian families taking to the seas, for the dispossessed in Sudan and the DRC, for the enslaved in Bangladesh and Myanmar and for girls like Mamita in Nepal, such a fund would be a badly needed signal flare of optimism in today's darkening sky.

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