From Community Libraries to Earthquake Reconstruction: Innovator Interview with READ Global Nepal

Duncan McCullough
 

Earthquakes in Nepal have devastated the country.  Thousands have lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands have lost their homes.  The damage has been heartbreaking, but the Nepali people have refused to despair.  People across the country are working against the clock to help those still at risk.

READ Global has worked in the country since 1991, providing community libraries to people throughout Nepal.  After the crisis though, READ Global has adapted with amazing speed, leveraging its experience in the country to respond to the disaster head-on.  Their work is notable not only for its impact in Nepal, but for the lessons it can provide for practitioners working in fragile, challenging contexts around the world.

We asked Sara Litke, Senior Program Officer for READ Global, to speak with us about the organization’s tenacious response to the crisis, as well as plans for recovery strategies moving forward.  To learn more about this amazing organization, visit their website here

Your updates since the first earthquake have been incredibly moving and vitally informative, so first, we want to thank you for your continuing work in such challenging circumstances.  How was your organization adapted so quickly to these new conditions?

Thank you. READ has deep roots in Nepal, where we began our work more than 24 years ago. Our 30+ staff members in Nepal are all local, and they have strong connections to our 127 rural partner communities. We’re not a disaster relief organization, but we saw quickly after the first earthquake that local, community-based organizations like ours are well-equipped to reach some of the more remote communities in times of crisis, since we already have such deep relationships in these communities. Our strength has been in coordinating relief efforts with other NGOs and municipal agencies that may not have that kind of direct access, and in mobilizing local resources to provide direct relief ourselves. We have a strong network of rural libraries across the country with committed local leadership. This network of READ Centers support each other and they set into motion an earthquake response mechanism very quickly. For example, the READ Center in Jhuwani, Chitwan (an area that wasn’t heavily impacted by the first quake) sprung into action immediately – calling their counterparts at 59 READ Centers across the country to assess damage and coordinate relief efforts in each community.

What are some of the biggest challenges currently facing your work?  How are you and your partners confronting these obstacles?

A lack of safe space and physical infrastructure in these communities is a huge challenge – families have lost their homes, roads have been damaged by landslides, schools and health facilities have collapsed. With the monsoon season quickly approaching, this will create further obstacles to rebuilding. We know that the earthquakes damaged at least 22 READ Centers across Nepal: Centers which in many cases served as the sole public space for access to the internet and other information, as well as providing a safe space for doctors to provide care, and for other NGOs and government agencies to provide a variety of programs and trainings. These Centers will need to be repaired – and in some cases rebuilt – so that READ can continue to provide access to information, training, and services in all of our communities.

Nonetheless, it has been amazing to see the relief work some Centers have coordinated despite the Center being damaged. For example, Kumari Village in Nuwakot district was extremely hard-hit by both earthquakes. All of the 2,100 houses in the community were damaged, and most have collapsed. In partnership with our country office in Kathmandu, the READ Center began providing relief just days after the first earthquake, even though part of the roof caved in and we couldn’t use the physical building. Our team in Kathmandu delivered food, medical supplies, and tents and mats as temporary shelter, and the Center’s management committee and volunteers coordinated the distribution efforts. The Center’s solar panels provided the only electricity in the village for weeks, helping people charge their mobile phones: a critical life-line. We are in the process of distributing hundreds of solar lamps to the community through a partnership with Empower Generation.  Our impact will be even greater in this community once the physical space of the Center is restored.

What kind of immediate action would you like to see taken in the communities in which you operate?  Are there ways you think the international community can contribute?

The most pressing need is getting people into temporary housing before the monsoon rains begin. We are already working with the local government and other relief organizations to help distribute temporary housing materials such as tarp, tents, and corrugated sheets for roofs, but the scale of the problem is large, and the solution is only temporary. For example, Kumari village that we mentioned will need hundreds if not thousands of temporary homes. READ is looking for partners with expertise in cost-effective earthquake-resistant architecture and building.

Another immediate need is providing trauma counseling for adults and activities for children to help them to heal. Many children can’t go to school right now because the buildings were destroyed. Parents need a safe place for their children to learn and play while they work to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.  READ Centers like the one in Kumari have begun setting up children's areas outside of damaged Centers, so that children can safely learn and engage in activities to help them recover from the trauma of the earthquake. READ is also offering trauma counseling for children and women in particular.  We are eager to partner with other organizations offering specialized programs for both youth and adults to help them to grieve and to recover from the trauma they have suffered.

How has your approach to working with and engaging communities prior to the earthquake aided your efforts to mobilize communities in relief efforts immediately after the earthquake?

Our model is built on a foundation of community ownership and co-management. These two things are critical for the sustainability of READ Centers. Each Center has a management committee, women’s and youth sub-committees, and local staff and outreach volunteers dedicated to the development efforts of the village.  On a larger scale, each of these Centers is connected to the wider network of READ Centers across the country. This volunteer leadership structure and deeply-rooted network has meant that the communities are already organized and well-equipped to respond to the evolving needs of the people. After the earthquake, it meant that READ Centers could quickly mobilize relief efforts to help their own communities and other communities that suffered more damage.

Eventually, when some of these more immediate circumstances are addressed, what kind of priorities will an organization like you hold for long-term development plans moving forward?

While the full extent of the damage across our 59 READ Centers is not yet clear due to ongoing aftershocks, we know that at least 22 Centers will need repairs, and a few may need to be completely rebuilt. Our long-term goal, following the monsoon season, is to repair these Centers so that they can continue to provide essential services and trainings to their communities. Once READ Centers have been repaired, READ will work with them to offer programs to help community members recover their losses through income-generating activities such as sewing and weaving, beekeeping, and poultry/dairy farming, as well as job skills training. Because many families will have lost a key opportunity to grow crops, READ Centers will organize agricultural extension outreach, provide seeds and fertilizers where necessary, and offer longer-term agricultural trainings to help families continue their livelihoods. Many READ Centers in Nepal have local savings and credit cooperatives, so we will provide guidance and training to cooperative members to help them disburse loans for home rebuilding and the set-up of small enterprises.

 

Your updates have conveyed an amazing resilience among local Nepalese, how do you think that resilience will affect recovery efforts?

The Nepalese are an extraordinarily resilient people. Our Nepal Country Director Sanjana Shrestha told me after the quakes that she felt she had been granted a second chance at life, and that now more than ever, the people of Nepal will work together to rebuild and create better lives. They have a long road ahead to rebuild their country, but Nepali culture is deeply rooted in family, community, and a passionate love of life, and I believe they will come through this even stronger than they were before.

What have been some of the surprising lessons your organization has learned in these past trying weeks?

Never underestimate what people will do to help others, even when they are suffering themselves. We never expected that our team in Nepal would be acting as a disaster relief organization, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. In the first hours after the initial quake, our team in the US felt paralyzed because we couldn’t get in touch with our staff in Kathmandu to make sure they were OK. But as soon as the lines of communication opened up, we were inspired by how quickly our Nepal team and network of READ Centers had responded to the disaster, even though most of them were living outside under tarp tents.  We were inspired how some of our communities took it upon themselves to raise money, collect food, and drive several hours on dangerous roads to deliver disaster relief to communities they knew through the READ network.

We’ve also learned that when a disaster like this happens and the international community responds generously, there is a critical need for coordination. Nobody can do this kind of work alone. Partnership is key.  READ has partnered with a number of international NGOs, local NGOs and government agencies to distribute relief during the last few weeks, and READ Centers will provide a unique platform for organizations who are interested in assisting with the long-term needs of communities as they begin to rebuild.  We would love to hear from development organizations interested in partnering for greater impact.

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