Following the devastating earthquake in April 2015, government officials put stickers on all schools across the affected areas of Nepal. Green stickers reflected safe structures; red marked schools unsafe for use due to structural damage.
In the community of Baneli, no stickers were placed on its school. The pile of rubble that remained left no questions.
When emergencies like this occur, it is urgent rescue missions and the courage of responders and survivors alike that capture our immediate attention. But in the following day’s focus quickly shifts to an equally daunting challenge, the slow rebuild. That means sheltering those without homes, running hospitals and schools services without buildings, restarting economies where harvests were lost and businesses destroyed, and caring for people who have suffered extreme trauma and loss.
Baneli is a Dalit community, home to members of the ‘untouchable’ caste who even before the earthquake had lower life expectancy, literacy rate, and were generally disadvantaged by society. Community leaders shared that ninety percent of Baneli’s homes were damaged in the quake. Situated alongside a winding river at the bottom of a dramatic valley, its former school was reduced to rubble. A small tent was erected for teaching but could not house many students. As a Dalit community, Baneli would certainly be the last to receive formal funds for recovery.
Nabraj Pahadi, along with colleagues Hiran Adhikari and Amin Raya, didn’t wait. They took action. All in their twenties, they created a grassroots organisation called the Collective Concern Society and set out to rebuild the schools in the area. From the poorest of communities, they raised 1.5 million rupees (~£9000) worth of donated material, building one temporary structure before needing help to acquire the scarce metal pipe needed to frame more sturdy structures.
With only 350 thousand rupees (little over £2,000) of assistance from Restless Development, Nabraj and his team bought the outstanding materials, built 10 temporary schools throughout the area, and gave almost a thousand children a chance to return to school and to a degree of normality.
Where schools can’t be built, vitally important Temporary Learning Centres are built instead. With investment from UNICEF, we have built over 450 temporary learning centres across 7 of the 14 affected districts and are working toward 500 through a platform of locally-led organisations and young leaders like Nabraj.
But it’s not just about construction. Equally important is the deep work of mobilising community-led action. This social mobilisation sees local networks of young volunteers supported to mobilise children and their families in return to school campaigns, to train teachers in psychosocial care and counselling for students, to run school sessions, to rebuild damaged toilets and water sources, and to generally lead their communities to recover.
For many organisations rebuilding schools in Nepal, finishing construction is what counts and then teams move on to the next site. But recovery is also about community. We have to support the agency of local young people to lead change and to catalyse their communities to recover.
The temporary learning centres are one important piece of this picture, but real impact is achieved when we unleash the potential of young leaders. I asked Nabraj what was unique about the support he received. He answered with four key points: help to develop his organisation’s business skills; access to a network of young leaders like himself across Nepal access funding from big partners who would not be able to directly invest in small organisations like his; and the chance to add their voices to bigger national and global decision-making spaces where they wouldn’t normally be heard.
The anniversary of the earthquake is here. It is a time to total up the impressive work done, but we must also use this moment to reflect on the difference between transactional programming and transformative change that Nabraj’s story embodies. While the number of schools built and children returning to education are critical in their own right, when development actors tap into communities to lead change it points to a better way of ‘doing development’.
Bridging this gap means going beyond simply counting Temporary Learning Centres and people reached. It means seeing our partners for who they truly are: hubs and leaders of community-led change. These same people can go on to leverage change on issues like girls education, child marriage, chaupadi and gender-based violence.
Nabraj and his colleagues are the development workers of today. Their agency is core to community-led change. Not just in recovery from emergencies, but in driving sustainable communities. This includes holding decision-makers to account and building a just and sustainable world for all. The lesson is that we need not wait for the next emergency and for international aid to fly in. Young people are already leading change at depth and scale across this world, something the people of Baneli know well.
Find out more about Restless Development’s response to the Nepal earthquake here.