Quake-hit Nepal appeals for aid to rebuild country

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Nepal is to host a major meeting of donors on Thursday to raise funds to rebuild the quake-devastated country, hoping to dispel doubts that money will be lost to corruption and reconstruction hamstrung by red tape.

The twin earthquakes that struck in April and May killed more than 8,800 people, destroyed nearly half a million houses and left thousands in need of food, clean water and shelter.

Nepal says it needs around US$6.7 billion (S$9 billion), equivalent to nearly a third of annual output, to recover from the disaster, with the economy now forecast to grow just 3 per cent, the lowest in eight years.

Foreign ministers from regional rivals China and India and representatives of other countries are to attend the one-day conference to discuss donations, along with World Bank, UN and EU officials.

Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat said the government wants all aid channelled through a new body to be set up to ensure "uniformity" and coordination of the rebuilding effort.

"We are trying to streamline our procedural requirements," Mahat told AFP ahead of the conference starting at 8.30am.

But there are concerns Nepal will not spend the money quickly and efficiently. The Himalayan nation regularly fails to spend budgeted funds each year on projects because of bureaucracy and poor planning.

Dev Ratna Dhakhwa, secretary-general of the Nepal Red Cross Society, said frustrating delays occurred in the aftermath of the April 25 quake as aid poured in from around the world.

"There were bottlenecks at the airport, issues getting permissions to land, issues getting visas for relief workers, it was chaos," Dhakhwa said.

He was also sceptical of the government's planned "one-window policy" for reconstruction, saying political parties were already trying to manipulate the system to siphon off funds.

"People are using political influence to pressure officials and access funds meant for quake victims, by getting their names added to government-managed records," Dhakhwa said.

CHECKS AND BALANCES NEEDED

The World Bank has pledged up to US$500 million for reconstruction efforts and other agencies are expected to announce initiatives after the meeting kicks off.

The money is needed to strengthen the hard-hit banking system, rebuild homes, schools and medical clinics as well as repair damaged roads and hiking trails in the tourism-dependent country.

The UN's humanitarian coordinator for Nepal, Jamie McGoldrick, said "any pledges made must be followed up with a real commitment to Nepal's future development".

"We cannot repeat the example of Haiti in Nepal and I don't think we will," McGoldrick told AFP.

The international community pledged several billion dollars in aid to Haiti after a catastrophic earthquake struck the Caribbean nation in January 2010.

But the pledges yielded little tangible progress as donors delayed implementing projects due to concerns over corruption and political instability, leaving thousands living in temporary shelters five years on.

Although Kathmandu has called for control over funding and operations, experts say it has so far failed to provide clarity on its plans.

"What is lacking right now is a clear strategy...the government needs to come up with a credible plan to implement reconstruction projects within a stipulated time," said Chandan Sapkota, economist at the Asian Development Bank's Nepal office.

"If it fails to incorporate a robust checks and balances system, the government will lose credibility," Sapkota told AFP.

Finance minister Mahat said concerns about corruption were overblown in a country long plagued by graft.

"There are so many parliamentary bodies looking at everything with a magnifying glass... nothing can be hidden. If there is misappropriation, irregularity or corruption, there are enough mechanisms to take care of that," Mahat said.

"Every donor will have to work with the government. If they have no faith in the government they have no business to come here."