A guest article by
Suvi Sillanpää

An earthquake struck Nepal in April and May of 2015, resulting in the deaths of more than 9,000 people and leaving over 750,000 houses destroyed or damaged (according to UN figures). The destruction is estimated to amount to seven billion US dollars. Two years after the earthquake, the reconstruction is yet to start full scale.

In this blog, I look at how the political processes in Nepal shape the reconstruction process in rural villages and how uncertainty in politics trickles down to the foundational structures of the society: the homes.

Last year, one year after the earthquake, I visited several villages and spoke with representatives of numerous NGOs working there in order to map out the progress of the reconstruction. In February of this year, I visited a settlement of Dalits (previously referred to as Untouchables) in Nuwakot district with the Nepali NGO South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy (SADED) to get a better understanding of the current situation.

The Nepal Government has been criticized heavily for the lagging reconstruction process. Soon after the earthquake, a conference was held at which donors agreed to give aid worth 4.1 billion US dollars (3.75 billion euros). However, the proclamation of a new constitution in Nepal sparked months of protests and a border blockade preventing the import of fuel and gas from India. As a result, the process of reconstruction slowed down in the winter of 2015–2016 as transportation came to a halt.

The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was established in December 2015 after delays caused by the inability of politicians to agree over its leadership. The NRA took over the responsibility of assessing the damages caused by the earthquake to private houses and distributing grants to the eligible households. The political debate surrounding the NRA has continued between and among the governments that have changed twice since the earthquake. According to the NRA, currently 98 percent of the beneficiaries in the 14 most-affected districts have received the first instalment of the grant, 50,000 rupees (440 euros).

The Dalit basti (basti means settlement) is comprised of forty households located on a hillside in a village inhabited by several castes. The journey up the hill from the main street plain market area of the village on the plain is made longer by the muddy road which, with its huge potholes, resembles a riverbed.

A view from Dalit basti.

All the houses in the settlement, built of stone and mud, are uninhabitable and people are living in cattle sheds or temporary shelters made of wood and sheets of metal. Some houses were reduced to rubble in the earthquake and many of them are severely cracked but still standing. Twenty three out of the forty households in the Dalit basti have received the first instalment of 50,000 rupees, and nine households whose documents lack the necessary information are still waiting for a decision.

Eight households in the Dalit basti were not included on the list of households eligible for the grant although their houses were damaged like other houses in the village. The government officials have not provided an explanation for why these households were excluded. The house owners have been told that the engineers have filled and submitted their documents, but their processing after that is unclear. They are planning to file a complaint.

The majority of men from the Dalit basti have migrated to Kathmandu or abroad for work, so women are responsible of taking care of the temporary shelters that have become their homes. “During the day it’s alright, but when it starts getting dark I am worried that someone may try to harm us or thieves may come”, says a woman called Bishnumaya whose two adult sons live in Kathmandu. Some robberies have occurred in the market area of the village after the earthquake. In the summer time, snakes come inside the shelters, causing concern, since one young boy from the community has already died of snake bite.

Despite the difficulties of living in the temporary shelters and although more than half of the households in the Dalit basti have received the first instalments of the grant, the reconstruction has not yet started because several aspects of the use of the grant remain unclear to the recipients. The government has published a list of 17 earthquake-resistant model houses and guidelines for building, which people should follow in order to receive the entire grant of 300,000 rupees (2,700 Euros). The second instalment is paid after the first phase of the construction has been completed as per the regulations. 

Damaged houses and temporary shelters in Dalit basti.

The residents of the Dalit basti have heard about the models from the government engineers who conducted the survey of the damages and from the engineers of an NGO, but the designs that have been distributed the VDCs (village development committees) in poster form were not found in the VDC office when the Dalits visited it. Three people in the village out of 2,000 households have been given training related to the government models, but so far the Dalits have not heard from them. They are worried that if they fail to build according to the models, they may not be eligible for the second instalment of the grant. The political uncertainty and the swift changes of government also make them wonder if they can rely on receiving the full grant as promised.

“We don’t have a plan”, says a young man named Bharat when asked about the options the community has for rebuilding. The lack of up-to date official information has left space for misinformation and circulating rumours. There is a strong impression among the residents of the Dalit basti that the use of modern materials is required by the government. The general preference is also for modern pillar houses made of cement as they are considered strong unlike traditional houses, but problem is that people cannot afford the expensive materials and the associated transportation costs. “The grant is not sufficient [for building a house], Bharat explains. “And we [Dalits] don’t have any savings that we can use in addition.” The residents of the basti earn meagre wages by working on a day-to-day basis as agricultural workers and construction workers.

According to SADED’s engineer Ram Sharan Sapkota it is possible to construct a house according to the regulations by reusing the old material and adopting local materials. This way the expenses remain within the limits of the grant and people can use the local skills. Compressed bricks of soil and small amount of water and cement that the community itself can manufacture are an affordable option. The spatial plans of the designs provided by the Government can also be modified according to the needs of the people.

Migration from the Dalit basti has not increased after the earthquake, but it has remained an important source of livelihood. According to Uddhab Pyakurel, a researcher and a member of SADED, migration to Arab countries, Malaysia and other foreign countries may increase if affordable and safe options for reconstruction are not provided. As he has pointed out to me, reconstruction is closely connected to what kind of society the Nepalis want to build.

The lack of information is not the only problem faced by Dalits. The deplorable condition of the road to the basti makes it difficult to transport materials. Money has been allotted to its improvement, but no one knows when the work will begin. “Otherwise we could start building, because we can reuse the material from our old house,” Bishnumaya says. 

Cracks in the wall.

Traditionally, the community has built houses through the exchange of labour between families. Only men can take part in building each other’s houses, so for Bishnumaya whose sons live in Kathmandu, this reciprocal help is not an option and her family has to find paid labour for the construction. Migration has disrupted old support networks. Before, one needed social relationships to build homes, now one needs money. An elderly man, Gopal, is a mason by profession and he and his brothers have agreed to help each other to build houses. As a mason and having brothers, he is in a good position to start the work, but the uncertainty over the government grant has discouraged him.

Migration from the Dalit basti has not increased after the earthquake, but it has remained an important source of livelihood. According to a researcher and a member of SADED migration may increase if affordable and safe options for reconstruction are not provided. As he pointed out to me, reconstruction is closely connected to what kind of society the Nepalis want to build.

Since the earthquake, people in Nepal have been constantly waiting for something: official decisions, the survey, the instalments, the information. The reconstruction of the Nepali homes is entangled in the workings of the Nepali politics and its volatile processes as the adoption of the new constitution has not helped unify the political parties. Marginalized groups such as Dalits suffer the most from poor governance and administration as they have to pull together their limited resources and to wait the longest to receive correct information.

The first instalments of the grants have been distributed, but uncertainty continues. The best time for building will be soon over as the monsoon rains arrive. It remains to be seen if people will have to face yet another monsoon and winter in temporary shelters.

Suvi Sillanpää holds a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from the University of Helsinki. She is associated with several Finnish international development organisations. After the April 2015 earthquake, she lived in Nepal for a year and followed the reconstruction process in liaison with local NGOs.

Photos © Suvi Sillanpää.



A guest article by
Aili Pyhälä

It is the 18th day of our expedition*, and the time has come for us to go and stay with one of the local communities surrounding the Ranomafana National Park in Southeastern Madagascar. We have already scoped out a possible community that is suitably located: just outside the border of the park, far enough from the road so as to be fairly "isolated", but close enough for us to access in a few hours. A few days earlier, I have already paid a visit to the village and spoken to the chief and representative elders in order to obtain their "free, prior and informed consent"; in other words, to introduce myself and my team, to tell them of our study course, and to ask if it is alright with them that we visit their community for some days. After all, we are quite a herd: about 30 people altogether, students, teachers and assistants included. They have given us their sincere welcome.

Madagascar National Park placard.
The community is called Amboasary, located at about a two hours’ hike from the roadside, and on either side of a stream that runs through irrigated rice fields. Rice is the main staple crop of these villagers. In fact, so much so that sometimes rice is all they have to eat, and sometimes not even that. Hence, understandably, most of their time and energy goes to tending to their rice fields. They do cultivate a handful of other crops, such as beans and cassava, some of which they occasionally sell at the nearest market in Ranomafana in order to get just enough cash to pay for their basic necessities (i.e. salt, cooking oil, medicines, etc).

Our first day goes to setting up our campsite on a flat patch of land that we've spotted just outside the village. For the next five nights, we will all be sleeping in tents, eating mostly rice and beans cooked over an open fire, using our self-dug outdoor long-drop, and basically blending in with the elements of nature. Our "shower" is a pristine, precious waterfall and clear-water pool about 1 km walk from our campsite.

A woman fetching water.
The main reason we have come here is to better understand how local people live, so that our natural science students can get a deeper and more experiential understanding of the local realities behind biodiversity conservation (and threats), and introduce them to fundamentals (approaches and methods) in social science. By getting to know the local villagers, their livelihoods, and their relations to their environment (including the national park), our students are also given new perspectives on what conservation planning needs to take into account. 

We are curious to know what drives local peoples’ everyday choices and behavior. What knowledge do they hold with regards to their ecology and ecosystem? What are their needs and preferences? What kinds of values and belief systems do they hold? And how do all these factors affect their surrounding environment, and hence, ultimately, their own future, health, and wellbeing? 

On the second day, we are invited by the village to attend a traditional rum ceremony, an official meeting commonly held in Malagasy rural villages when outsiders come to visit. The ritual involves asking for protection from the ancestors. In honour of these ancestors – and of each other – a very strong local brew of rum is shared. Speeches in the local ethnic language are first given by the village elders, and thanks and respects are paid to the ancestors. The glass of rum is passed around, and with this gesture (i.e. all of us drinking from the same glass) we show that we are all equal and open to sharing. This opens the door to trust, a fundamental point of departure for ethical social research, and gives us the official welcome to work in the village over the coming days. With this trust, and blessed and protected by the spirits, we can start our work.

Our days consist of waking up at the crack of dawn, and spending long days (and sometimes even part of the night) doing biodiversity inventories of the local fauna and flora, but most importantly, getting a glimpse into local realities. The next few days we split up in groups, and while some are out in the forests measuring trees or in the rivers counting frog species, others are meeting in small focus groups with local villagers. We gather with women and men, elders and youth, and sit with them for several hours, hearing about their lives. Fortunately we have our Malagasy students to help translate for us! We are particularly interested in knowing about how aware they are, and how they feel about – and relate to – deforestation and biodiversity loss.

That said, what is most mind-opening and rewarding for us is just allowing them to share whatever they want to share, and in each meeting we learn something new. It is deeply humbling to listen to these local villagers open up about both their challenges and their future aspirations, from a people that have been ranked amongst the “poorest” in the world. Madagascar has consistently over the past few years ranked amongst the top 10 poorest countries in the world, and this community is undoubtedly one of the “poorest” in Madagascar, if measured in monetary or income terms, but also in terms of food security and nutrition.

Our campsite.
We are all deeply touched by the way the local villagers have received and welcomed us into their community and into their lives, and shared with us so much of their knowledge and insights. Even over the course of only five days, we feel we have made new friends. Despite enormous differences in lifestyle, culture, and language, we feel that something connects us. We now understand that little bit more genuinely what drives local people to do what they do, even when it comes to slashing-and-burning their last remnants of surrounding forest that outsider conservationists are so desperately fighting to protect. Yes, because only some 5% of original forest cover still stands in Madagascar, and that forest is home to some of the world’s most threatened species endemic only to this nation island. 

Meanwhile, the local mothers and fathers we speak to are struggling to feed their families. With such limited resources and in tremendously challenging conditions (ever more so with climate change), they are often able to think only one day at a time, concerned only with how to get enough food on their plates that day to keep themselves and their children alive. 

The day before our departure, we are asked whether we will come back next year. The villagers would like us to set up a research station in their village, and have more students and researchers like us visit them and stay with them, so that they can learn more from us, and us more from them. They also tell us that they would very much like to have a proper school, where their children can learn more about things most relevant and useful for them - including environmental awareness, but also English language.

Students at work.
We leave with opened hearts and minds, eager to share what we have learned with the local organisations and project teams who are better placed (than us, anyway) to work more closely and continuously with Amboasary and other local villages. Two days later, we extend our learnings and reflections to the local development and conservation organisations, and hope that we are taken seriously.

We hope that we have played some instigative role to help Amboasary become one of many villages with thriving environmental education and local initiative not only to combatting poverty, but beyond: to locally and sustainably managing natural resources and thereby also becoming more self-sufficient in terms of health and wellbeing.

* These were my notes from one of many expeditions carried out for the annual RESPECT course. For close to 10 years now, University of Helsinki has been running the course in Madagascar, bringing together an inter-cultural exchange amongst students from the University of Helsinki, and two Malagasy universities: University of Antananarivo and University of Fianarantsoa. The aim of the course is to train students in conservation science, but also in related socio-economic aspects such as the interaction between conservation priorities and the needs of peoples living in and around protected areas. The highlight of the course comprises 5 weeks of fieldwork in Madagascar to bring to light the on-the-ground reality to the theory learned. During these 5 weeks, one important component is the visit to a local community to understand the social drivers of forest loss, local use of resources and the interaction that local villagers have with their natural environment and conservation strategies.

Aili Pyhälä is a Senior Lecturer in Development and International Cooperation at Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä.

Photos © Aili Pyhälä.



A guest article by 
Stephan Treuke

Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’s first capital until 1763, is a good example of socio-spatial segregation mirroring the expressive disparities within the population’s income and housing conditions. There is the common center-periphery dichotomy, where the middle and upper class have mostly settled in the central areas while the least fortunate tend to live in the outskirts of the city. Then there are the borders between socio-economically distant classes that have emerged both in central and peripheral regions, fostering the city’s socio-spatial fragmentation in a smaller scale. 

These spatial constellations have aroused increasing attention of Brazilian sociologists, inquiring whether the geographic closeness promote interaction between classes and help to attenuate social distances, or whether residential segregation generates a more conflictuous relationship and nurture territorial stigmatization.

Drawing on empirical data collected in Nordeste de Amaralina, a centrally-located shanty-town located in an area of affluent condominiums (Orla Atlântica Norte), I wanted to find out whether the opportunities of interaction between classes, particularly in the realm of employment relationships, could be verified. I asked twenty randomly selected interviewees to provide information about their social networks in various spheres of sociability: family, neighborhood, friendship/acquaintanceship, work, studies, associative life, religious associative life and leisure, in situations of job seeking and the provision of financial, social and emotional support. The main objective of my research was to analyse the so-called “inhabitants portfolios of risk management” or the ethnographic data on family livelihood strategies, and networks between classes and communities. 

Since the 1960s the neighborhood’s strategic proximity to the nearby affluent summer houses and condominiums of Rio Vermelho, Horto Florestal, Amaralina has attracted immigrants coming from Bahia’s poor rural hinterland regions. Gradually, this led to the region’s demographic densification and illegal land occupation, mostly by informal settlements.

The mostly precarious housing situation together with above-average unemployment rates is made worse by endemic violence and insecurity which are due to local drug conflicts and repressive police incursions. The harsh reality reflects on my interviewees’ social networks and economic integration, which underline the strong relevance of what I call the “primary units of socialization”, like family, neighborhood and friendship/acquaintanceship.

Primary social ties, based on frequent contacts between rather close relatives, neighbors and co-residents, are important in short-term socioeconomic activities and are mobilized in situations of emergency and daily adversities, including drug dependence and unemployment. Moreover, these bonding ties serve as main communication channels transmitting valuable information about employment opportunities, mostly located in the low-skill informal service sector, to in-group members.

According to the in-depth interviews, the geographical proximity to the middle- and upper-class condominiums is seen as positive as far as economic integration is concerned, and the short distances to work are regarded as an advantage compared to the more peripheral neighborhoods. Like Jose, a 34-year-old condominium guard affirms, the economic opportunities mostly belonging to the domestic sector offer good salaries and stable work conditions. 

Among twenty interviewees, four have jobs in the nearby affluent condominiums. In this sense, the two key-persons employed as security guards in the upper-class condominiums have an important bridging function. They have valuable job information and access to privileged contacts. Hence, they intermediate different low-skill informal employment opportunities like car washing and technical maintenance jobs that come up occasionally according to the demand of the wealthy condominium dwellers. “Almost everyone in the condominiums needs some small daily services, since the patrão (boss) comes home late from work and might be grateful for cheap car-washing or maintenance services”, Luiza, a 45-year-old maid contests.

Nevertheless, apart from these amplified employment opportunities the social distance between classes prevail in all the other spheres of sociability. “Our high class condominium neighbors don’t rely on people coming from our favela, given the bad housing conditions and a deteriorated public image. They mostly stick on their own and conversation remains restricted to work issues.” (José Antônio, 50 years old gardener) 

A wide range of social and cultural associations spread throughout the neighborhood, like community centers, capoeira and dance groups, football clubs and philanthropic third sector organisations, among others assume a crucial paper in the childrens’ and adolescentes’ socialization processes and strengthen the communitary identity. Nevertheless, these institutional-based networks mostly promote intra-groupal cohesion and solidarity without linking their group members to extra-local networks which possibly could give access to important job referrals.

The social networks built in the sphere of sociability religious associative life connect members of the same church congregation, strengthening the intra-groupal solidarity and providing a wide set of material and immaterial resources. These resources are mainly distributed in the context of social and philanthrophic communitary activities realized in the neighborhood, offering free lawyer counseling, health services and food baskets. For the majority of the interviewees, being part of a congregation turns out to be crucial for coping with economic deprivation. 

Apart from being a social safety net, in three cases, being a member of a church has increased their economic integration, though on the rather unstable informal labour market. Acquiring informal jobs often depends on having key contact persons within one’s institutionally-based networks. The key contacts often relay privileged information and contacts about local job opportunities. “In my local congregation, almost everyone relies on contacts drawn within the Assembleia de Deus church, as most of our members are hard-working, trustful people. Whether you find a job is just a matter of frequenting the daily congregations.” (Marta, 57 years old grocery owner)

In a way, the social segmentation and the class-hierarchized access to urban infrastructure and services (transport, hospitals, schools, leisure activities) limit inhabitants’ social interactions on the local level. This restriction within neighborhood boundaries leads to localism and make social ties more confined: “This neighborhood is quite self-sustaining and everything we need is located within our boundaries. My closest friend all come from the same street corner and I usually don’t trust people not coming from here, you have to know who to trust!” (Anna, 37 years old, informal street vendor)

Like in many lower-class neighborhoods of Salvador, public schools suffer from the State’s long-term disinvestment. Drawing from the adolescent interviewees’ self-report, public schools within neighborhood boudaries were unanimously depicted as potentially dangerous places, due to the presence of rival gang members and adolescent drug traffickers. Among three interviewed adolescents, only one confirmed that school served as his prime socialization unit in the process of social network building: “You have to be careful who you’re hanging with, since most of our classmates pursue gang activities. Poor school quality and failing job perspectives make it much easier to engage in drug business, bringing social status and fast money.” (Antônio, 15 years old student).

Moreover, the class-stratified access to public recreational spaces that could promote cross-class interactions (shopping malls, plazas and public parks etc.) in many cases practically exclude the Nordeste de Amaralina dwellers close by because they don’t have enough money to participate in those spaces, and thus fear stigmatization. “The last time I entered their fancy shopping mall, I permanently had to deal with security controls and scared faces, even though I dressed up quite conveniently!” (Andreia, 19 years old student) 

Thus, leisure activities are restricted mainly to local opportunities. The concentration of high-quality urban equipment (hospitals, private universities, sophisticated supermarkets etc.) along the main causeway Avenida Juracy Magalhães – the major dividing line between the favela Nordeste de Amaralina and high-class condominios of Horto Florestal – do not offer any locational advantages for the poor populations, except for the privileged access to public transport. The major field of leisure activities is the Praia de Amaralina, a close-by beach avoided by the middle and upper class due to the high frequency of assaults and robberies “Well, they have their condominiums with swimming pools, gyms and stuff, they don’t belong to our beaches. I think it is also because some adolescents assaulting in public streets have mostly scared the few that still visited our closeby beach” (Jacira, 61 years old unemployed).

Despite reduced sample size, my research offers an important insight into the rather ambigious relationship of cross-class interactions, oscillating between economic integration within the low-paid domestic work on the one side, and social avoidance due to residential segregation and social segmentation, on the other side. The idea that there would be an opportunity-enriching “symbiotic” environment, where socioeconomically distant populations live close to each other and cross-class interactions are encouraged within “vertically integrated institutional spheres”, doesn’t comply with the way Salvador is organized in a hierarchical way in terms of space and social sphere. Shiftings of residential segregation patterns have occurred in scale but not in function, and social distance is upheld spatially by the means of security devices.

While the local context remains important for social interaction and the mobilization of social capital, it is particularly the local school context that has a negative influence in the process of childrens’ and adolescents’ socialization and contributes to the internalization and reproduction of class division.

The affiliation to institutional networks impacts positively on the individual’s social and economic mobility. My study has confirmed the importance of the so-called brokerage positions in social relationships. They promote crucial information about job opportunities, whereas the “primary units of socialization” play an important role for the integration into the informal labour market.

At the same time, it seems that the social networks of family, neighborhood and friendship, with strong elements of localism and homophily, may reproduce and even reinforce poverty as they encourage segregation. This is particularly evident if there is less interaction between different social groups, and if there is low solidarity and trust within a neighborhood.

The Nordeste de Amaralina case demonstrates that high rates of crime and violence undermine the collective norms which support the neighborhood-level cohesion and weaken the community’s capacity to engage in informal social control, particularly when it comes to the supervision of deviant adolescents. 

Poverty mitigation might be more effective if instead of individuals and households it targeted neighborhoods as a whole. It has become increasingly evident that area-based neighborhood revitalization programs that “bring the resources to the people” generate more positive spill-over effects than traditional individual and household-allocated welfare policies. Many policy initiatives grounded on social capital theory and their application to poverty reduction initiatives in Latin American cities have focussed on slum upgrading programs usually involving the mobilization of community support, the expansion of local economic opportunities and investments in (social) infrastructure while improving the interaction between citizens and the state.

However, macro-economic strategies remain crucial in order to overcome the favela inhabitants’ social vulnerability in a long term. Going beyond neighborhood-scale improvements, a more holistic approach to urban poverty should be given priority within public policies. These would entail a stronger regulatory state intervention into the labour and housing market systems in order to face the challenges arising from the transformations within the socio-productive paradigm of post-fordism. By the same token, the implementation of socially integrative programs widening the access to education and social services remain crucial at local level.

Stephan Treuke is with the Programa de Pós-Graduação em Ciências Sociais (PhD-Program - Social Sciences) at the Federal University of Bahia, Estrada de São Lázaro, 197 Federação, CEP: 40.210-730, Salvador da Bahia - Bahia, Brazil. StephanTreuke@hotmail.de

Photos © Stephan Treuke.