Swiss Solidarity is an NGO that raises money from the general public for emergency and humanitarian appeals.
They raised more than 30 million Swiss francs from the general public and private donations in response to the earthquakes that devastated Nepal in April and May 2015.
Using these funds, Swiss Solidarity entered into a contract with Helvetas and Solidar
as implementing agencies to reconstruct homes and some essential infrastructure in Sindhupalchowk distrct, one of the worst affected by the earthquakes.
Integrity Action entered into an Open Beneficiary Partnership with Swiss Solidarity to give voice to the victims of the earthquake and to enable them to report openly on how well their implementing partners are doing and to ensure that are meeting the needs of beneficiaries.
I have described the features of an Open Beneficiary Partnership in an earlier post about our work with the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Armenia here.
The earthquake claimed the lives of 9,000 people and destroyed more than 600,000 homes. Reconstruction in Nepal is made even more challenging than in other countries because general poverty, a very poor road network and infrastructure are combined with the tallest mountains in the world, making many locations in need of resources very hard to access.
This hamlet, pictured below, which my colleague Dimitri Katz visited, was reached after a two-day drive and day-long hike.
Our volunteer community monitors, who are all from within the district, have to travel four days to reach a village in some cases.
The Nepal Reconstruction Authority is the government agency with overall responsibility for earthquake reconstruction. They have set minimum standards for how homes need to be rebuilt.
They have also set ceilings for how much assistance families can be given. This means implementing agencies like Helvetas have quite tight terms of reference within which they must operate. Most schemes require the beneficiary to provide some in-kind contribution, either in the form of labour, building materials or with cash. This elderly widow (pictured to the right), whose son has moved away from the village, was one of the poorest people in her village. She had moved her animals into the home, which was in utter disrepair from the earthquake. Despite her home being unsafe she felt she could not make use of the assistance because she would be unable to make any contribution of her own. Nor did she believe she was likely to live long enough to benefit from the work.
Another ground reality is that Integrity Action does not pay people to monitor the projects in their communities. We find that doing so introduces entirely the wrong incentives into the process. We reimburse costs for transportation and communication. Payments also guarantee that there will be no sustainability once the funds end. Despite this, we found when we started to look for monitors that many other international organisations were providing payments, even to attend training workshops. Finding genuine volunteers under those conditions was and remains a challenge.
Nepal Reconstruction Integrity Pledge: one setback along the way
We started working in Nepal about seven years ago. A few weeks after the earthquake hit we consulted with our Nepalese partners about what we could do. It was clear to us that once infrastructure and homes were going to be rebuilt we would seek to deploy our approach to monitor these projects. We thought we could be proactive about this.
With our partners, we drafted a short document we called the Nepal Reconstruction Integrity Pledge. We would ask organisations that were likely to be implementing reconstruction projects to agree to two things: (1) that the beneficiaries of their projects would be allowed to monitor these projects and (2) that they would make all relevant documents available upon request. The second point was in some ways redundant because Nepal's Right to Information Act already guarantees such access.
Our local partners then reached out to relevant organisations. They were only able to sign up a dozen organisations to the pledge. The overwhelming majority of organisations, including almost all international NGOs in Nepal, turned it down. They said that they had their own monitoring procedures and that they could not make contracts available to local populations.
We share these setbacks openly because they are part of our own learning process.
A small Swiss foundation, the Fondation Pro Victimis, was willing to support our endeavours to introduce and scale up Open Beneficiary Feedback in a humanitarian situation. We were able to kick this off in 2016.
The new SindhupalCheck app
To support community monitoring of home reconstruction, we created a customised smartphone app to support the monitoring that would enable monitors to easily report on problems that arise in house reconstruction. We are focusing our efforts on the district of Sindhupalchowk, one of the worst affected districts. This is why the working title of the application is SindhupalCheck.
At the time of writing, 584 homes had been monitored by volunteer community monitors. All the monitors are youths and two thirds of them are young women. Each of the five stages in the reconstruction of a home is monitored and reported separately.
One of the innovations we piloted in this project and that will be rolled out across DevelopmentCheck shortly is a Community Monitoring Score. This is a 10-point score that categorises projects or
services on a range from FAILED/ABANDONED to EXCEPTIONAL. The Community Monitoring Score is generated by an algorithm of the following factors: access to information, community participation, project effectiveness and responsiveness to identified problems.
Each individual home is scored. The overall score at the moment is GOOD. I am hopeful that the final score will be higher. On "Satisfaction" Helvetas, the main implementing organisation, is already scoring very well. At the time of writing Helvetas only had a week to respond to the identified problems.
What is really new about Open Beneficiary Partnerships?
This open, positive and real-time approach to beneficiary reporting is, as far as we know, a world-first for humanitarian and development projects.
We have already been working in Nepal for several years. On DevelopmentCheck post-earthquake reconstruction projects from the likes of the Norwegian Red Cross, PLAN Nepal, Caritas Switzerland,
Care Nepal, UNDP and the Japan Red Cross can be found. In these cases monitoring was initiated by people in the community without seeking prior permission from the donor or implementing contractor. This can be compared to TripAdvisor not asking permission from a restaurant or hotel before opening it up to public reviews by customers.
An Open Beneficiary Partnership is just as transparent as our normal approach to Open Beneficiary Feedback, but it has a few added advantages for the donor and implementer (I have written about the benefits and risks of Open Beneficiary Partnerships in another post as well):
Our platform is able to identify problems early and in real-time; when problems are fixed early it reduces costs and enables management to take corrective action sooner
It gives them direct, structured communication between management and the beneficiaries; to the extent Helvetas responds to genuine complaints and problems fairly and promptly this will increase satisfaction among the beneficiaries (the very high satisfaction scores for Helvetas may be an early signal for this)
It reduces their monitoring and evaluation costs, and enables their team responsible for tracking results to focus on problem areas and hard-to-reach populations
They are able to use the evidence from the feedback in their advocacy with governmental authorities, notably the Nepal Reconstruction Authority, which has to sign off each stage of reconstruction.
For Swiss Solidarity,
This platform gives them independent, real-time verification of the results reported by Helvetas
They will, in due course, be able to show the Swiss public exactly where their money is going, how it is being spent, and how satisfied the beneficiaries are with the assistance they are receiving
They may, eventually, also be able to benchmark Swiss Solidarity's performance with other implementing agencies
For the beneficiaries,
They gain clear, easy to understand information on their rights and entitlements.
They have an organised way to voice both issues and complaints directly to the project implementer, as well as to express satisfaction with the project delivery and assistance they receive.
Despite the obvious risk - everyone can see that some things are not working - we are hopeful that other implementers and donors active in Nepal will become open to working with us to ensure that beneficiaries have a voice, that funds are well spent and projects are well implemented.
In an upcoming post my colleagues will be featuring some of the remarkable monitors we have had the pleasure of working with.