Oct 25, 2015

The People You Meet: The Chaudhary Foundation & Encouraging Private Sector Investment to Rebuild Nepal...

"We rise by lifting others." 
~ Robert Ingersoll (American lawyer & political leader)

Immediately after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked central Nepal on April 25th, Nepali businessman Binod Chaudhary rushed from Chitwan National Park to back to Kathmandu.  As the dust from the earthquake settled, the full devastation of the quake became apparent. The death toll rose steadily day by day to reach nearly 9,000 people with over 25,000 people injured. According to UN estimates, 8 million people — more than one quarter of Nepal's population — were affected by the disaster.

In addition to being a businessman and one of the 1,500 richest people in theworld, Binod Chaudhary is also a proud Nepali who recognised that now, more than ever, Nepal needed his support. Eight schools operated by one of his businesses were turned into shelters and a large-scale campaign was kicked off to distribute his company’s famed Wai Wai instant noodles and other food, as well as juice, water and medical supplies.

Deeply affected by the earthquake and seeing first-hand its devastating impact, Binod committed to supporting the rebuilding of 10,000 homes and 100 schools across the country.  Through his Foundation, $2.5 million was pledged to restore schools and homes destroyed or damaged by the quake. Since that day, through its global network of businesses, the Chaudhary family have worked tirelessly to make the Foundation a hub for private-sector donations, achieving traction and results where the government, IGOs and NGOs have struggled or failed. The Foundation has already been successful in building an initial 1,000 transitional bamboo-and-plaster homes and has committed to working with partners and donors globally to construct another 9,000.

Binod’s localised approach and promise of transparency has drawn pledges from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and South Korean company LG Electronics, SEEDS India, Tata Group and the PwC Foundation. The Foundation maintains an open appeal for increased private sector support in helping to provide homes and schools to the vulnerable.

“Our hope is that very quickly we’ll be able to find the right partners who will support us in doing jointly the 10,000-home target that we’ve set for ourselves, and hopefully much more than 100 schools that we’re planning to restore.”

I was introduced to the Chaudhary Family at a Nepal Round Table Discussion hosted by global professional services firm, PwC. We met to discuss ways in which the private sector working with governments, IGOs, and NGOs could provide resources to support the Foundation’s resilience and rebuilding efforts.  Having been in Nepal during the April and May earthquakes and having seen the scale and complexity of the relief and rebuilding efforts required, I was inspired by his approach where one organised locally driven effort can be more effective than many well-intentioned disparate efforts.

I had the opportunity to visit one of the rebuilt communities in Nepal earlier this month. I confess, I approached the visit with mixed feelings fuelled by the negative reports in the media about the Nepal government’s floundering reconstruction efforts amid political disturbances, partisan fighting and stories of $4.1 billion in aid unaccounted for.

But what I found was incredibly uplifting. Through their extensive network in-country and relationships with businesses around the world, The Chaudhary Foundation have been successful in helping to build what are called “transitional shelters” that cost $750 each. The shelters reflect a quake-resistant design with bamboo sticks embedded a few feet into the ground.  The beauty of the approach is that it’s both simple and scalable.

The Chaudhary Foundation team attribute their success in being on-the ground with first hand communication and engagement with local communities. They work with local people to identify those most in need, including single women or those who have no means of earning a living. Building materials are delivered and building experts train and help local people to build their homes, closely supervising the tasks of creating bamboo grids for a sturdier foundation and plastering the walls for better protection from hot summers, wet monsoons and cold winters.

Following a tour of his modest home, one of the residents of a ‘transitional shelter’ village just outside of Bhaktapur, proudly told me that his structure will last at least five years, giving him and his family time to make arrangements for more permanent residences without having to take loans or cut back on food. Holding his baby daughter in his arms he beamed, “I am so proud and happy with my new home.” His was one of the biggest smiles that saw during my visit to the country and one that I’ll not soon forget.

No country, community, government or company can ‘go it alone.’  What becomes clear from conversations with organisations working to deliver change in Nepal is that in today’s complex, hyper-linked environments and communities, no single entity – government, public or private – possesses all of the necessary powers, resources, or expertise to assure resilience against natural disasters and catastrophic events – be it earthquakes, floods, tornados or tsunamis. Key ingredients to effective solutions include collaborative and organised approaches, leveraging the capabilities and capacity of stakeholders from government, the private sector, local communities and society as a whole. As highlighted by The Chaudhary Foundation’s efforts in Nepal, both short term and long term, as a global community, we’re all going to have to work together with everyone’s best interest in mind to respond quickly and efficiently to current challenges and to prevent such disasters from happening again in the future.

Oct 17, 2015

Rebuilding Dalchoki School - "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step..."

Our jeep climbed higher and higher via the winding dirt road, the trees parting occasionally to reveal a panoramic vista of cloud covered mountains and the sprawling bustling capital city of Kathmandu far below. From our vantage point we were offered breathtaking views of rolling green hills dotted with temples, small farms and local people forging a life out of the earth. After weeks of planning and countless conversations, lots of worrying, we were on our way to the picturesque village of Dalchoki to take the first steps to Rebuild Dalchoki School.

I’d never visited Dalchoki before. Up until that point, the village had been no more than an unpronounceable name on a map – 2.5 hours south of Kathmandu, high in the hills and far from the more familiar terrain of the Khumbu. I’d seen pictures of the crumbling, windowless classrooms, ‘temporary’ bamboo classrooms, and wide-eyed, eager students walking for up to three hours over the hills to sit on the long wooden benches and build their educational foundations – Grades 1 - 9, ages approximately 6 - 13.
These temporary classrooms are cold, damp and susceptible to the elements – wind, rain, and snow. It seemed like a world so incredibly far from one that I’d been fortunate enough to experience as a student.

In Dalchoki, over 90% of the houses collapsed in the earthquake on April 25th, 2015. Dalchoki’s main school, 'Shree Goth Bhanjyang’ once welcomed approximately 450 students and 17 teachers from surrounding villages. In the earthquake, the school and its 11 classrooms were either badly damaged or completely destroyed.

My colleague and friend from Sherpa Adventure Gear, Rijuta, taught in Dalchoki for two years and spoke passionately of her experiences in the village, detailing numerous ongoing challenges faced by the school and its students in the aftermath of the earthquake. Together with the wider management team we all agreed that supporting the rebuilding of Dalchoki School would be a perfect project for the Paldorje Education Foundation’s ‘Earthquake Relief Fund’, established by Sherpa Adventure Gear.

Arrival in Dalchoki

Arrival in Dalchoki felt like arriving at ‘base camp’ at the start of an expedition. We rolled out of the jeep and navigated our way down a muddy path past old farmhouses, goats and chickens, and curious children greeting us with the traditional ‘Namaste’. Initial views were breathtaking… The school is perched on the rolling ‘summit’ of a hill overlooking the Kathmandu valley. The views it offers make up the ‘patchwork’ of breathtaking vistas that personify Nepal – green terraced fields cut into rolling green hills, set against the Kathmandu valley and framed by a panorama of the snow-capped Himalayas and some of the highest mountains in the world.

A narrow dirt path leads to the shared area of the school, a large and solid concrete courtyard fronted by a steps leading up to a temporary classroom made of bamboo, the principals office and teachers quarters. Much of the courtyard is occupied by a temporary classroom and remaining rubble from the damaged classrooms. To the right of the courtyard are two long single story buildings. Most of the classrooms in these buildings have been declared unsafe and are closed, awaiting demolition.  Students now receive their studies in the temporary bamboo classrooms. 

To accommodate the student numbers and ongoing educational needs, ‘unsafe buildings’ have been made ‘slightly useable’ by removing the windows, doors and most of the walls so that the classrooms are deemed to be safer and, in the event of another earthquake, the students can evacuate more quickly… Whist the evacuation will be easier, the average winter temperatures is about 5 degrees and the hill receives a cold, damp breeze, the downside of removing the walls, windows and doors are that students will soon study in completely unsuitable conditions. There is a double-story classroom which backs onto the courtyard which retains structural damage and cracks but still being used.

We spoke with the students about ‘going to school’, many of them sharing that they walked between 2 – 3 hours each way and up hill just to get to school, to learn, to be with their friends, to see their teachers, to have fun and follow their dreams of becoming teachers, doctors, psychologists and engineers.

The school principal outlined some of the challenges faced both before and after the earthquake. Even before the earthquake the school faced space-constraints. The numbers of students continue to rise but the school infrastructure can’t accommodate. Additionally, due to its remote location, it’s difficult to find teachers to teach certain subjects, particularly the sciences. As a result, many of the students are falling behind the national averages and struggle to pass the national exams and failure rate is disproportionately high compared to the rest of the country.

Whilst the government has ‘promised’ to make funding available to support the rebuild, 6 months have passed and there has been no sign of commitment or progress. Only politics and excuses. And a ruthlessly cold, bitter winter is on its way.

Children continue to live in fear, many still suffering trauma and stress. Support is needed through counseling and simple motivation – e.g. through the provision of food after their 3-hour walk to get to school, and a safe and fun learning environment – to get them back into the classrooms and provide them with collaborative, safe learning environments. One student commented, ‘"I'm so glad that I can go to school and see my friends, but I'm also feeling anxious to think that my school may collapse when an earthquake happens again. I will be more glad if we have a safer place to study."

During our visit to the classrooms, our conversations with the principal and teachers, and our engagement with the students, it became crystal clear that the support of the Paldorje Education Foundation, ‘Earthquake Relief Fund’ can make a tremendous difference to improving the quality of life for 450 bright young minds in Dalchoki. The incredible and generous support received from donors around the world, can and will, provide these bright young minds and their families with a stronger foundation upon which to build their future. 

Next steps

We'll continue to engage at the local level through ongoing site visits to ensure that the relevant planning and conversations take place and that the appropriate registration and building procedures followed to ensure that there is local engagement in driving the rebuild. As much as this is a 'rebuilding project' with the objective of having a safe haven for education, it is also a tremendous opportunity for local employment and skills-training. There is a lot of work to be done before we put shovel to soil...

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step..."
-Lao Tzu

Oct 15, 2015

The People You Meet Along the Way: A Nation Rebuilding

Nearly six months have passed since the devastating earthquake struck Nepal on April 25th, 2015. Life in the streets of Kathmandu has returned to normal. The easy-going ‘buzz’ has returned with the familiar honking of horns, cars kicking up dust and shops once again open with colourful smiling local people selling their trinkets on the streets. Rather than the ‘great quake’, the topic on everyone’s lips is the current fuel crisis in Nepal which has resulted in fuel rationing,  line-ups of hundreds of thousands of cars and motorcycles along the streets and the cost of fuel sky rocketing.  

Flying into Kathmandu last week I was relieved to note that the tapestry of bright orange, blue and green tents and tarps which once formed a patchwork across the country was significantly less prominent. Today, shiny tin and corrugated iron roofs shine brightly against a lush green backdrop of trees in the countryside and amidst the brown dust of the city. 

Organised piles of bricks, wood and other debris now sit alongside the once iconic historical sites. On Tuesday I visited Bhaktapur, once home to some of the most beautiful examples of ornate terra-cotta and carved wood Nepali monuments, temples, palaces, pagodas and religious shrines. The neatly piled bricks brought back vivid memories of a chaotic and hot day I spent helping to clear bricks and clamouring over devastated homes in early May, shortly after the earthquake. The atmosphere then was of shock and disbelief. Today the atmosphere is one of gratitude for what was left behind, hope for the future and a deep rooted determination to move forward. A brick pedestal that once served as the foundation to an ornate monument, now provides the perfect perch for groups of boys to fly their kites, rising high against the warm breezes.

Aftershocks are now the ‘new normal’. It’s not uncommon to pause mid-conversation, raise an eyebrow and comment, ‘Did you feel that…?’ Only to then continue on as normal as the shock was deemed to be nothing more than a 3.5 or a 4…  

Whilst there are inspiring signs of progress in Kathmandu, in the more rural areas, thousands of people are still living in tents and under tarps which provide little warmth and protection from the elements. Many communities are still missing the vital parts of a daily life: schools, stores and monasteries. There are continued promises of aid and respite from the government, but things move slowly here and often times the local agenda is buried among the tectonic shifts of a constantly moving political agenda. The current fuel crisis is an example of this.

I’ve spent the week working with Sherpa Adventure Gear’s Paldorje Education Foundation and focusing specifically on a school rebuilding project in the remote and rural village of Dalchoki. The school is attended by approximately 445 students, many of which travel up to 3 hours (each way) to get to and from school.  According to UNICEF estimates, almost 24,000 classrooms were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, impacting at least 950,000 children. My work this week has focused on understanding what rebuilding activities are taking place at the local level, the processes that underpin these activities, and the level of community engagement and ownership. What I’ve found is that ultimately, for any rebuilding project to succeed and to have the greatest possible impact in the community (employment, skills transfer, and local empowerment) there needs to be significant local ownership and engagement. This has now started in Dalchoki and it’s inspiring to have been part of the first steps in bringing positive change to this friendly rural village. 

A wonderful example of positive change and engagement at the local level was sharedduring a visit to the Chaudhary Foundation’s Bhaktapur shelter site, just outside of Kathmandu. As part of its commitment to supporting the rebuilding efforts, The Chaudhary Foundation has pledged to sponsor the building of 10,000 transitional homes and 100 schools. During our Bhaktapur site visit, we chatted with the local people who showcased their community of 60 transitional shelters. It was inspiring to sense the pride in their eyes as they shared the features of their simple yet comfortable homes – one solid room with two windows and a roof over their heads. As most of their lives are spent outside in the fields, working the land or interacting with others in the community, there’s little need for anything more. Happy people don’t have the best of everything. They make the best of everything.

I learn something new with every adventure to this amazing country. Having been on numerous expeditions in Nepal I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the Sherpas, from my guides and team mates and from those people I’ve met along the way to the summits of some of the highest mountains in the world. These lessons have been about teamwork, decision making, and agility. During my topsy-turvy time in April /May this year, the theme of my journey was resilience as I learned from the local people that life isn’t about how high you climb but how well you bounce. On this trip, I’ve learned about gratitude.  Whilst it’s clear that there is still much to do here in Nepal and that the challenges facing its people are significant, there is a deep-rooted sense of gratitude. For the local people, this gratitude has transformed common days into days of thanksgiving, routine jobs into joy, and ordinary opportunities into blessings. 

Oct 3, 2015

"Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple." -Dr. Seuss

I’m not going to lie to you. I’m bloody nervous. As I pack my bag for my return to Nepal I can’t help but reflect on everything I’ve learned over the past few months since I unpacked this very same bag in June. As soon as the wheels of the plane hit the tarmac, I began planning my return journey. And here I am. About to return to with a new project – albeit one more daunting, complex and impactful than any I’ve ever attempted. 

A lot has changed since I returned to the UK and Canada from Nepal. I’ve been busy trying to find my feet again after what was a topy-turvy few months. Not long after I came back, someone commented, ‘I bet your entire life will change on account of your experiences’. At the time I didn’t really understand what they meant… But I’m starting to. 

I still enjoy the challenges of my job, I’m still climbing mountains of sorts, loving the outdoors, and trying to find that healthy work-life balance. The highlight of my summer was climbing in the Alps and an attempt on the notoriously temperamental Eiger. But all the while, since my return, I can’t help but reflect and process those intense 5 weeks in-country where I saw, felt and experienced things that moved me to the core. I originally traveled to Nepal in April on a record-breaking project to climb of two of the highest mountains in the world and, having survived the earthquake, returned to Kathmandu to immerse myself in providing humanitarian assistance in a disaster of a global scale. It would have been impossible for the experience not to change me.

The changes and challenges I’ve faced pale in significance to those endured by those in Nepal where local people face mountain after mountain. Immediately after the earthquake there was the challenge of ‘relief’ – getting life’s essentials to the outstretched arms of the vulnerable and marginalized. All the while the aftershocks, over 1000 since the earthquake, rocked the country. Since the earthquake a lethal mix of torrential monsoon winds and rains have continued to bring down landslides, rockslides, avalanches and subsequently homes and schools. Entire villages have been wiped out. Life has been redefined for millions of men, women and children across the country. 

Onward and upward.

The ‘relief’ phase following the earthquake has transitioned to ‘rebuilding’ and ‘recovery’. And despite the many challenges along the way – environmental, political, economic, cultural - the Nepali people have been resoundingly resilient.

Over the past few months I’ve wondered how I can help, knowing firsthand how easy it is to make an immediate difference in-country but how longer-term change is both slow and testing. I can’t help but think back to those rather desperate days in April / May as we worked so hard to raise money and awareness for the Paldorje Education Foundation so that when the ‘headlines’ disappeared, there would be resources available for rebuilding. During those long days and nights, for every step forward it sometimes felt like two steps back. Positivity and optimism were tested to the extreme.  

In July, in line with our vision of transparency and accountability, the Paldorje Education Foundation produced its first Donor Report to send to the thousands of people who helped to raise over $220,000 for the charity to distribute in-country. I could not help but be moved by the fact that through our global efforts, with the support of Sherpa Adventure Gear, the Foundation was able to directly help well over 11,000 people. 

And that was just the beginning.

So it’s with a tremendous amount of responsibility and trepidation that I return to Nepal to pick up where I left off. Not to climb a physical mountain but rather, a proverbial mountain for a change. Sitting here staring at my kit-bag packed full of clothes rather than climbing equipment feels strange. I usually feel excited, positive, and ‘free’ as I roll up my sleeping bag, pack my crampons and print out my boarding pass, mentally preparing for another perhaps ‘selfish’ adventure to become – to quote the French climber Lionel Terray - a ‘conquistador of the useless’.

This time I have a job to do that is perhaps more important than any job that I’ve ever done before – and it doesn’t involve walking up a big hill whilst wearing lots and lots of clothing and eating freeze-dried food. This time I’ll be working with the Paldorje Education Foundation to begin the groundwork for the rebuilding of a school to over 450 students in the village of Dalchoki, located about 2 hours outside of Kathmandu. 

In Dalchoki, the school and its 11 classrooms were completely destroyed in the earthquake along with about 90% of the homes. Today the students of Dalchoki are in need of properly equipped classrooms that go beyond lines of make-shift benches and temporary structures which are susceptible to the arrival of winter. An environment which is once again viewed as a ‘safe haven’ which encourages learning, group work and activities is desperately needed. 

But OMG. I’ve never built a school before.

It’s kind of ironic – just this week I did a motivational talk to a corporate group, ‘From Basecamp to Boardrooom’ reflecting on the many lessons learned from mountaineering that can be applied to ‘real life’ – or to boardrooms for that matter. I spent a considerable amount of time talking about planning and the importance of breaking down complex projects into bit-size pieces or milestones… a bit like the various camps enroute to the summit of big daunting mountains like Everest. 

Perhaps the thing that most scares or overwhelms me with this trip is the size and scale of the objective that I’ve set for myself. In my more familiar ‘comfort zone’, if I don’t summit the mountain, I can walk away, return to work and reflect on the lessons learned. But the stakes are so much higher this time. And I’ve never wanted to ‘summit’ a mountain so earnestly before.

I need to take some of my own advice.

I’m excited, nervous, and anxious – and will do my best to make a long-term and sustainable change – why? Because I know that I can. I know that the experience will be more impactful than any summit that I’ve ever planned for, attempted, stood on or dreamed about. 

So watch this space.. and please wish me luck..!

To donate to the Dalchoki school rebuilding project please follow the link below: