Nepal needs Hong Kong's help, but we need to know where our money is going
Two weeks ago I took part in a Hong Kong fundraiser for the victims of the earthquake that has devastated Nepal. It was held at a well-known bar in Lan Kwai Fong, offering all-you-can-eat Nepalese food and cocktails for an entrance fee which would serve as a donation.
It was a colourful and successful event, organised by young Nepalese workers from the local food and beverage industry, and supported with much enthusiasm by many Hongkongers and expatriates. For my little part, I spent the day making momos, the ubiquitous dumplings that you get in every Nepalese restaurant in town – for the record, they’re a Tibetan delicacy that the Nepalese have embraced as their own and made famous around the world.
I was invited to several other charity events to help raise money, but I chose this one because friends were involved and the money collected would be personally delivered by some of them to two remote villages that were hit hard in Nepal.
I’ll have to ruffle a few feathers in explaining why the latter part was important for me.
Quite simply, it’s a trust issue. I don’t have much faith in the Nepalese government to hand over my hard-earned money to those who desperately need it. You saw what happened after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, when many in Hong Kong wanted to send donations to the victims, but were worried the funds would be pocketed by corrupt officials. Multiply that by 10 for me when it comes to Nepal – and India next door, for that matter.
I’ve already read reports and heard complaints about blatant corruption, gross inefficiency, and unnecessary bureaucracy holding up foreign aid. Even if orders are coming from the top to get cracking on delivering the aid pouring in from around the world, shipments have been bottlenecked by customs red-tape and convoys blocked by local officials. What’s even more unacceptable to me is the Nepal government’s requirement that all donations must be made to the bank account of the so-called Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund. So a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats will control and decide how much money goes where? Yeah, right.
This is a desperately poor country, an economic basket case, where corruption is endemic, starting with daylight robbery going through customs and immigration at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport. The government’s novel solution back in 2009 was to order airport staff to wear trousers without pockets so there would be no place to stash the cash.
International aid has been siphoned off by shamelessly corrupt state agencies for decades – long before this catastrophe – and will continue to be hijacked long after. The dysfunctional monarchy has been kicked out, as it so richly deserved to be, but the politicians and bureaucrats who have taken over are just as bad, if not worse. It’s hard to have any faith in the weak, ineffective and lethargic coalition government currently running the show. Frankly speaking, life is cheap in this part of the world, already devastated by a Maoist uprising and decade-long civil war that has left the country in tatters. Public safety has never been a priority.
Now Kathmandu has been hit hard, with its population of more than one million living in a crowded urban jungle of badly maintained historic structures, shoddily built modern houses and sprawling slums. But I’m not too worried about the capital. I went to school with some of Nepal’s elite – children of ministers, top politicians and tycoons. Most of my friends in Kathmandu are very well to do, to put it modestly, and I’m glad to report they’re all safe and sound. Their fortunes are intact as well, I would imagine, and I’m sure they can help others who are less fortunate to rebuild their shattered lives. I should also point out that the people of Kathmandu are a spirited bunch, and jaded as they are when it comes to tolerating official incompetence and corruption, there are limits. They know their rights and they’ll take to the streets in anger if you push them too far.
It’s the countryside that I fear for. Remote, poverty-stricken villages that have always needed help are now more desperate than ever. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people in all those hamlets dotting the mountainsides that you’ve seen in the pretty picture postcards from Nepal during happier days.
Looking at Hong Kong’s Nepalese community, represented by those young men and women who invited me to the fundraiser, I’m reminded why I have so much affection and respect for these people. They’re brave and they’re beautiful. And right now, they need our help. Let’s just make sure it reaches them.