Local Solutions for a Global Economy

NYC Event Highlights Responsible Rebuilding in Nepal

Panelists with Humanity United CEO Randy Newcomb

NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER 27 - On September 27, 2015 GFI and Humanity United presented the joint panel discussion “From Response to Responsibility: Protecting Human Rights and Preserving Cultural Integrity in the Rebuilding of Nepal” at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC. The goal of the event was to facilitate an active discussion on how to integrate a lens of decent work while advancing social and cultural protections during post-disaster recovery. Given its ongoing rebuilding efforts, Nepal was seen as a good example of the challenges and opportunities that come to light in post-disaster reconstruction.

The opening discussion highlighted the work being done through Better Brick Nepal (BBN), a collaborative effort of the Global Fairness Initiative, Humanity United and GoodWeave to eradicate child and forced labor within the brick kiln industry. Humanity United CEO Randy Newcomb provided an overview of the philosophy and motivation behind the BBN project, and described how the April earthquake had forced GFI and HU to take a closer look at existing strategies and adapt to the changes in demand for labor and supplies. He noted the challenge in advocating for fair, sustainable, ethical building materials in a market where demand is high, labor supply is low, and time is of the essence.

Dr. Danilo Türk, Former President of the Republic of Slovenia and GFI Board Chair, then introduced the members of our expert panel who represented a range of perspectives from NGOs, academia, and government. The panel included:

Dr. Neil Boothby, Allen Rosenfield Professor and Director of the Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University

Catherine Chen, Director of Investments for Humanity United and head of the Partnership for Freedom

Steven Feldstein, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State

Ashok Gurung, Nepal native and Director of the India China Institute at The New School

While the bulk of the discussion focused on the challenge of maintaining international attention and involvement during the long, slow, ill-defined process of recovery, our panelists each had cause for optimism. In describing his 20 trips to Nepal since the April Earthquake, Ashok Gurung noted, “For the first time you see strong collaboration across political parties, class, and ethnic lines. Everyone has to work together. Youth Groups, who have traditionally been written-off as unimportant, are performing a key organizing role and are now being treated with high regard in society.”

Steven Feldstein talked about the resiliency he witnessed having served with the State Department in Nepal at the time of the disaster. He posed the questions: “How can Nepal embed resilience into its rebuilding?” “What does sustainable recovery, beyond just infrastructure, look like?” “How do we bring about inclusive recovery?” Mr. Feldstein reminded audience members that on a psychological level, the earthquake and its aftershocks are going to continue to affect people for a long time, therefore it is imperative that recovery efforts be sustained and include social protections for individuals, families, and communities struggling in the aftermath.

Catherine Chen also drew on the theme of “resilience,” asking more broadly, “What does resilience mean for Human Rights?” She went on to say, “The earthquake didn’t come out of nowhere. What I mean by that, is it enhanced a lot of the social and economic issues already there.” Having done fieldwork in Nepal, Ms. Chen described the shortage of labor and the pervasive predatory lending practices that have arisen to make up for the shortfall. “Most adult males are leaving the region to work in Gulf Oil fields,” she said. “That shortage of labor has been counterbalanced by a child and forced labor situation where families with emergencies, say illness or disaster, will take out loans with 36-40% interest, which results in them having to work at these brick kilns for 10-20 years to pay off their debts. More often than not, the amount of money that could save families from this fate is less than $20.”

Dr. Neil Boothby closed the presentations by drawing on his experience with INGOs and local partners. He stated, “In the aftermath of the earthquake I re-engaged with the international organizations I had come to know on the ground in Nepal. Not one had received funding.” He related the story of colleague complaining, “This response and recovery effort is not a partnership, it’s a subcontract.” Dr. Boothby cautioned “You can be generous and ineffective at the same time. Organizations like the UN, Western NGOs, and ICRC receive by far the most money. However, that checkbook accountability is not leading to local action, innovation, and efficacy.”

Having worked with survivors of trauma, Dr. Boothby addressed the psychological needs underlying recovery and relief efforts. “In order to cope with tragedy, survivors need to be able to transfer tragedy into altruism. We have to make sure that local people on the ground are given the opportunity to activate altruism.”

After a short Q&A session, Dr. Türk concluded the event, thanking our panelists and summarizing “We have to define what resilience is possible, in what time. How can local energy transform the country in the long term? How will governments and INGOs define relief and recovery? Most importantly, how will we know when recovery efforts have been successfully completed?” The event proved to be a lively discussion, and our hope is that it fuels many more conversations in the coming months around disaster relief and sustainable planning.

For more details, check out the event’s live Twitter feed @globalfairness using #R2RNepal