As the death toll from last week's Nepal earthquake soars over 5000, my heart breaks at the anguish and struggle facing the Nepali people in the days to come. I am also fired up at the injustice that underpins this tragedy.
Ten years ago, I toiled in Thailand and Indonesia in the days following the Asian tsunami. Dressed in a bio-hazard suit, my first task was to lift the bloated bodies of those swept away by the wave. It was a harrowing experience - one that I will never forget.
I imagine those tasked with digging out bodies in Nepal and lifting them to where they will be processed and buried. Truly, they will never forget this awful experience.
But what differentiates the Asian Tsunami from this, is that an ocean wave does not discriminate based on socio-economic status. Among those drowned were rich tourists from North America as well as impoverished villagers from Aceh.
In contrast, victims of the Nepal earthquake were overwhelming poor - those who lived in older, brick and wood homes that, almost exclusively, were reduced to rubble. Like my neighbors in this Cambodian slum, those who live in these poorly constructed hovels cannot afford to live anywhere better, or safer.
As reported in the Guardian, “Outside Kathmandu it’s the rural poor. But in the city it’s the people in the older precarious housing. It’s obvious: the wealthier you are, the stronger the house you have,” says Bhaskar Gautam, a local sociologist.
So, as our hearts are moved, let our minds also be moved - to think more deeply about the causes and consequences of tragedies like this. Here are three important things to keep in mind:
1. Injustice underpins this tragedy
Almost all charities will present the earthquake as a natural, if tragic, accident, rectifiable only through other people’s acts of benevolent pity. That’s common in charity appeals, isn't it? That’s why charity, as an institutional response to poverty, is so dangerous: charity frequently downplays the political contexts of injustice.
But as we have seen above, it is overwhelmingly the poor, forced to live in unsafe housing, that died and were injured in this earthquake. It is overwhelmingly the poor who cannot afford to flee in the aftermath. And it is overwhelmingly the poor who cannot afford to purchase medicines and emergency supplies.
Inequality and injustice were the real killers in this tragedy.
Let's ask God for eyes to see how this kind of disaster is massively increased because of injustice, greed and oppression. Then let us apply ourselves to addressing the underlying causes of poverty and injustice, instead of merely applying another Band-aid. As a global community we must work to eradicate poverty, not just react to emergencies.
Suggestion: commit to giving to something in Nepal that is working to combat injustice and poverty in a deeper way than mere handouts. Suggestions in the comments please.
2. Long term commitment is needed
Sadly, we know the media will focus on Nepal for a few more days and then rush on to the next Kardashian crisis. In a year's time they will half-heartedly pump out a few Earthquake follow up stories.
But, could we commit to extending our attention spans beyond the weeks it will take for this story to play out? Nepal will not be rebuilt in a day, a week or a month. It will take years of consistent commitment to see transformation. And it will take people willing to walk alongside Nepali communities over the long term, to bring about the kind of change that is needed.
Are we willing to do that? To pay the cost?
Suggestion: commit to giving on a regular monthly basis to something significant for the long term rebuilding of Nepal.
3. It takes a spider to repair its own web
Cambodians have a wise and ancient proverb about spiders, that every foreign aid worker, donor and charity executive should have tattooed on their forehead: "It takes a spider to repair its own web". Yes, in emergencies like these extra funding from outside is required. But as hard and counter-intuitive as it might seem right now, it is not money that will save Nepal, it is the Nepali people. It is the Nepali people who must rebuild their own society, into stronger and more just communities.
So, in our giving, it is crucial that we weigh up how we can best strengthen THEIR hand, not swell the coffers of the charities whose budgets lurch from disaster to disaster. Outsiders will come and go, but long after the TV crews have departed, Nepali mothers and father and children will be working hard for a better future.
The words of Isaiah 61 resonate with me here:
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
THEY - the Nepali people - will rebuild. THEY will restore and renew. THEY. Our role is to come alongside and strengthen and resource them for the task.
Suggestion: consider giving some of your donation to smaller Nepali-led non-profits. If you have suggestions for such groups leave them in the comments. I can also make referrals if anyone is interested.
Finally, the outpouring of generosity in these times is heart-warming. We are bound together by our common humanity. But let us also engage our minds and realize that good intentions are very often not enough.