Humanitarian Health Action

Interview with United Nations Resident Representative in Nepal, Matthew Kahane

Matthew Kahane is the United Nations Resident Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal. He spoke to IRIN about the hardship facing Nepali villagers and the measures being taken to prepare for a possible worsening of the humanitarian situation in the Himalayan kingdom.

QUESTION: As you know, there are people in the international community who think that we are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis?

What's your view of the conditions of Nepali civilians - particularly those living in mountain areas?

ANSWER: What we have had over the long term in Nepal is that a large part of the population living in the higher hills and lower mountains, those furthest from roads, rely on crops. But if you're living at that altitude, you are not going to be able to grow a large crop which feeds you all year. You grow enough to keep you going for a few months, and then some people stay, some of them go trading with Tibet, some of them bring flocks down to the Terai [the plain along the Indian border], or they go and work in India. That is fairly standard behaviour.

So drought or floods may well wipe out your crop. Or in the case of war, make it too expensive, that is, the transaction costs get too high because the Maoists tax you; or the army delays you and you don't get your goods to market; or it takes you longer to get your animals out; or you can't graze in traditional places because other people are now occupying those and don't want strangers in their neighbourhood. So, many of these traditional ways of dealing with things are much less reliable than they used to be.

On the other hand, it is very clear that many people have abandoned their villages. That is what is said by everybody who walks into the mountains. You go to villages and there are no young men or middle-aged men. They're not there. They've gone to get away from [Maoist] recruitment, or recrimination or retaliation by the army. They are also working somewhere else and are remitting money back by various channels.

Is the international community concerned? Yes, and it has been for quite a long time. When I came [to Nepal] two years ago, a number of UN agencies said to me "we believe the situation here is much more precarious than we had been hearing". This is partly because there has been this long UN engagement on the development side, and our colleagues are used to looking at development programmes. We need to look at that and ask if that [development] is indeed the situation...

...We're saying "there is a risk of humanitarian vulnerabilities greater than has been traditionally the case, to the extent that they would overtake people's coping capacities, and that we must do the very best we can to be prepared for those".

We don't have famine. We don't have massive epidemics. But we do have lots of areas where people have the most fragile access to health services. And in village health posts, if you have someone with a serious condition, they can't wait for those two to three days until the health post worker shows up with or without a full supply of medicines.

If someone breaks a leg and you need to carry them for two days' walk from some remote village to a health post - that's not adequate healthcare. And you see this particularly with peri-natal problems, pregnancy problems and women's health...

Q: Could you explain [the conditions that could precipitate a humanitarian crisis]?

A: Our worst-case scenario had been that the government based on the political parties would fall; that there would be a takeover of an authoritarian nature with the army, in effect introducing martial law or some emergency rule; [and] the suspension of a lot of human rights. And that's exactly what we had on 1 February. It continued for a good three months, and then some of the more obvious manifestations were lifted.

But much of the spirit remains as we have seen.

Q: When IRIN visited remote villages in Rukum and talked to villagers about their hardship, the solution to the crisis very quickly came back to a political solution in Kathmandu. They maintained that there had to be a political solution before there could be any progress in the mountains. Is that your analysis?

A: Yes, that is. One does need a political solution. And that's not a political solution of the "centre knows best and tells the rest what to do". The political solution has to based on "hearing what's being said and listening to it". That's not an easy thing in many countries...It's a difficult thing for many societies, many elites, and many governing classes to actually listen to what is being said. But that is very necessary here because you have large parts of the population which have been traditionally excluded from power or even participation through the caste system because of their status as ethnic minorities, [as] non-Hindu Nepalis or because they are women.

Q: You said that the 1 February takeover by the king met the criteria for a worst-case scenario. What we've seen since is a verbal commitment to democracy but in practice a series of ordinances [decrees] coming out to control the media, a code of conduct for NGOs and so on.

To what extent has the UN tried to influence that and open up a dialogue with the palace?

A: We have been constantly engaged in discussions in many ways; through supporting civil society for discussion and through normal programmes; through repeated visits from a number of higher level officials like the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights of IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons]; the Special Rapporteur on Torture; the establishment of the large mission of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; the visit of [the Secretary-General's Special Adviser] Lahkdar Brahimi; by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, in January. And at least one meeting that the [United Nations] Secretary-General has had with his Majesty. Plus our own ongoing discussions with the political parties, with people who are with the government and whom one believes are counsellors or advisers to the palace.

The palace itself is a different issue. There we have had very little direct discussion on an ongoing basis with people that might be advisers or the equivalent. One doesn't see them around very much and I don't think they particularly wish to talk with us.

Q: Coming back to the humanitarian situation: should it deteriorate, do you think the UN is sufficiently prepared and has systems in place to respond?

A: That is what we're looking at by putting together the CAP [Consolidated Appeal Process], to be prepared for humanitarian crises, particularly with regard to internal displacement. Also contingency planning for health, food security and education, if more people are displaced.

We have to be ready. We can't wait until the disaster is here. And, of course, contingency planning for natural disasters. This is a country which is very subject to natural disasters. There have been many initiatives over the years to develop national capacity. Many of these work fine for a while, [but then] there isn't an earthquake, and after a few years the officers move on to their next assignment and the capacity begins to dissolve.

I think we will have the capacity if the various activities mentioned in the CAP do get the funding to get underway.