Over the last 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters in rich and poor countries alike. Today, there are more people at risk from natural hazards than ever before, with those in developing countries particularly at risk. This essay series is intended to explore measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...

In April and May 2015, two large-scale earthquakes struck Nepal, killing almost 9,000 people, damaging over half a million houses and displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. 

Natural hazards are indiscriminate: earthquakes have no regard for social hierarchy, gender, age, disability, religion, ethnicity, or caste.  But the impacts of natural hazards—and the humanitarian response to them—tend to discriminate against the very people who are most in need.  When a disaster hits, vulnerable and marginalized groups have fewer and more fragile livelihoods options, less access to social and economic resources, less ability to influence the relief effort, and face more barriers accessing assistance—often without the political voice that would enable them to advocate for those barriers to be addressed. Unless these challenges are purposefully addressed during the relief effort, humanitarian crises can exacerbate and entrench social disadvantage, leaving already marginalized people even further behind. 

In November 2015, Save the Children conducted a review of the response to the Nepal earthquake, examining these issues. We conducted 16 semi-structured group discussions and fifty interviews, altogether canvassing the views of more than 200 people in five districts. The results are described in our report: Did the Humanitarian Response to the Nepal Earthquake Ensure No One was Left Behind? A Case Study on the Experience of Marginalised Groups in Humanitarian Action. This essay focuses on a particular aspect of that research—namely, the use of the ‘blanket’ approach as a basis for the distribution of relief. It suggests that while blanket approaches are commonly used in the immediate aftermath of rapid onset disasters, unless replaced as soon as feasible with approaches that target vulnerability, they can very easily result in the exclusion of those most desperately in need.

Decision to Use the ‘Blanket’ Approach

Shortly following the earthquake, the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT)—in discussion with the Government—made a decision that needs assessments should not be conducted as standalone exercises. It was felt that the extent of devastation was such that everyone needed assistance, and that assessments should be conducted where necessary to supplement already available information, but that otherwise distributions should proceed without delay.[1] As such there was not, in the first six months, a coordinated multi-sector needs assessment. This direction by the HCT coincided with a general push from district authorities that agencies engaged in distributions should follow a ‘blanket approach.’  As explained by one Chief District Officer, “the government has to respond quickly during every disaster … and usually support is done … with an understanding that everyone is affected. They may be upper caste or lower caste, poor or rich … For government everyone is victim.”[2]

Assistance available during the relief phase included a cash grant of NPR 15,000 (USD 150) provided by the central government to families whose houses had been damaged by the earthquake, and distributions of food, non-food items and various other cash grants provided by both government and non-government actors. The blanket approach was applied (to varying degrees) to cash and non-cash assistance, and both types of assistance proved difficult to access for many of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.

The Selection of Beneficiaries for Cash Distributions

Eligibility for the Government’s NPR 15,000 cash assistance was determined following a damage assessment carried out by technical assessment teams. Based on the assessment, home owners were assessed as either eligible or ineligible for an ‘earthquake victim family identity card’ (‘red card’). The cards themselves could be obtained upon presentation of relevant identification, and then presented at village-level distribution points in return for cash.

Vulnerable households faced a number of hurdles. First, the assessment teams did not always go house to house, but in some cases collected information from ward (the lowest level of local government) representatives.[3] As described by one man in Rasuwa district, “they didn’t go to the remote scattered areas, they just go to the central location to ask questions. And then everything depends on the information they’re given at the central location.”[4] In other cases, teams did not consider it feasible to visit each affected ward, and so collected information from neighboring wards.[5] Needless to say, the likelihood of already marginalized households being missed through this process is high.

The second and more significant problem was that the cash was payable to the owner of the damaged house. This excluded a significant number of people living in a diverse range of situations. To cite just a few examples:

• female-headed households living in a house registered in the name of an absent male;
• families living in rental accommodation damaged by the earthquake;
• multiple families living under a single roof because they could not afford to live alone, in which case only the owner of the house would be eligible for  assistance; and
• multiple wives and families of one man, whether living under the same roof or in separate houses, in which case only one head of household (the man) would be eligible.

Almost invariably, it was households with pre-existing vulnerabilities who were most likely to be excluded ...

Almost invariably, it was households with pre-existing vulnerabilities who were most likely to be excluded: Tamang women and children, who are more likely to be living in extra-marital or polygamous situations; poor households who are more likely to be sharing a house with others; Dalits (low-caste) who migrate more frequently and are less likely than higher castes to own land;[6] and all female-headed households.   

The third problem for vulnerable households was the requirement that even if they made it onto the list, in order to receive the ‘red card’ they had to produce either a citizenship certificate from the village in which they were claiming assistance, or a citizenship certificate from another area together with a migration certificate. Obtaining citizenship in Nepal can be difficult. Children are not eligible for citizenship certificates until they turn 16,[7] by which time many girls are married. Once married, while legally a woman may apply for citizenship based on the citizenship of her parents,[8] in practice a woman applying for citizenship is required to submit marriage papers plus the citizenship documents of her spouse[9]—difficult for women whose husbands are either absent or unwilling to cooperate in their applications. Similarly, it is almost impossible for a woman who was married as child, because she has no way of producing a legal marriage certificate. As for those who prior to the earthquake had migrated between districts, obtaining a certificate of migration is not generally possible unless they can show they own property in their new district.

A final problem with the blanket cash distribution was that not only was the cash meant to be available for everyone, it was also the same for everyone, regardless of actual need. In any disaster, families with pre-existing vulnerabilities generally require more support to meet immediate needs than those without such vulnerabilities. For example, for households headed by persons with disabilities, or single women with children, the NPR 15,000 cash assistance covered the cost of basic shelter materials, but not the additional cost of hiring porters to transport the materials, and labourers to rebuild. Some wealthier families, on the other hand, had no immediate need for the cash, and used it to pay off debt.[10] One woman in Ramechhap district said: “the NPR 15,000 … were taken by all, including the one who didn’t have any necessity of it. My house is half destroyed and I don’t know how to demolish.”[11]

The Selection of Beneficiaries for Food, Non-Food Items and Other Assistance

The general preference for a blanket approach applied also to distributions carried out by non-government actors, who had little choice but to take direction from the district authorities regarding where to work and whom to assist.[12] The blanket approach was based on an assumption that there was enough to cover everyone, but the challenge for non-government actors and the local bodies with whom they worked was that in fact there was not enough, and decisions had to be made about who needed it the most. A village official in Rasuwa district explained: “there weren’t enough resources to reach everyone, so [the ward committees] had to develop a targeted approach. They decided who was vulnerable, who needed assistance, and based on that came up with a beneficiary list. There wasn’t a formal criteria.”[13]

But while village representatives said they developed targeting processes, many community members felt that people missed out simply because supplies ran out. One community health volunteer in Bhaktapur said “people gather in a queue but those relief materials are not sufficient for half of the people … they wait all day without any food and when they don’t receive anything, they go back with huge disappointment.”[14]

In short, while at the national and district levels it was felt that relief should be distributed to everyone, in fact this was often not possible, and targeting policies were developed by local bodies following ad hoc, often politicized processes, largely unfettered by national- or district-level oversight—often with detrimental results for those least able to advocate to get the assistance they needed.

Implications of the Blanket Approach for Vulnerable and Marginalized Groups

Blanket approaches are commonly—and appropriately—used in the immediate aftermath of rapid-onset emergencies. What is less common is for this approach not to later be replaced by a targeted approach based on assessed needs and vulnerabilities. This did not happen in Nepal, and our research suggests that many of the most vulnerable groups missed out. One woman in Rasuwa said: “the stronger, more powerful people got assistance, those who could push and got ahead in the queue. We were shy, we couldn’t push, and when our turn came, they said there’s no more left.”[15]  A man in Bhaktupur stated “we are uneducated people so we are backward, we cannot raise our voice; that also creates problems in getting aid.”[16] A ward representative in Bhaktupur agreed: “there might be cases where people are left out … because people from marginalized communities don’t have self-confidence to speak out for their rights and talk about what they need.”[17]

Put simply, unless vulnerable groups receive targeted attention, they are likely to miss out. This is recognized in existing humanitarian standards.

Our research must be understood against the backdrop of the particular social and political context of Nepal; however, it also highlights a fundamental problem with blanket approaches, applied anywhere. Put simply, unless vulnerable groups receive targeted attention, they are likely to miss out. This is recognized in existing humanitarian standards. Among others: the Sphere Standards state that special efforts are needed to assess people in hard-to-reach locations and “people less easily accessed but often at risk;”[18] the Minimum Inter-Agency Standards for Protection Mainstreaming call upon agencies to analyze context and disaggregate data at a minimum by age and sex, and to define targeting criteria;[19] and the Core Humanitarian Standard states that programs should be designed and implemented based on an impartial assessment of needs and risks and an understanding of the vulnerabilities and capacities of different groups.[20] These standards do not require that assistance be targeted based on vulnerability assessments immediately following a disaster, but they do require that programs be based on needs assessments and disaggregated data as early as possible.

Communities consulted during this research had numerous recommendations, almost all of them broadly reflective of humanitarian standards, regarding how relief could be better targeted to prioritize those most who need it most. One ward representative in Bhaktapur said, “we have to prioritize which groups or individuals are more vulnerable, for instance, checking the condition of children in the community, single women, elderly people or disabled people.”[21]  A community health volunteer in Ramechhap suggested that “to ensure the distribution of aid is as fair as possible, relief committee should go to the ground to collect the actual data and should mobilize the local committee.”[22]  A community health volunteer in Dolakha suggested that “any organization which comes to help, they have to seriously visit and identify the community who are really ultra-poor, Dalit, Janajati, marginalized, disabled, or otherwise the aid goes to the hand of the rich people.”[23]  What these comments recognize is that if blanket approaches are not phased out and replaced with targeted approaches as early as is feasible, vulnerable groups will likely pay the price. 


Nepal has made substantial efforts—and progress—in recent years towards gender equality and social inclusion. But the context remains one of deeply entrenched social hierarchy and extreme and often multifaceted vulnerabilities—a context in which there was always going to be a risk that vulnerable and marginalized groups would face difficulties accessing assistance. Against this background, the earthquake response highlighted the critical importance of identifying and assessing vulnerability, and the consequences of not doing so.

At the national level, the lessons from the earthquake come at a time of significant opportunity.  Reconstruction has just begun, contingency planning is being reviewed, and new national disaster management legislation is being drafted. In short, there is a significant opportunity to draw upon the lessons from the earthquake response to ensure an equitable and inclusive reconstruction process, and to ensure that preparedness work undertaken now enables a more inclusive and equitable disaster response in the future.  

Perhaps more importantly, the earthquake response provides important lessons for humanitarian action anywhere—in all regions of the world, and in the context of both natural disaster and conflict.  Specifically, it highlights the limitations of blanket approaches, and that despite the best of intentions, unless vulnerable groups are not identified and specifically targeted, they will likely miss out. This is already well recognized in global humanitarian standards. What is needed now is for humanitarian practice to catch up with rhetoric, so that future humanitarian action really does guarantee—in both policy and practice—a more effective response for the world’s most vulnerable people.

[1] See Nepal HCT, Meeting Minutes, April 30, 2015; see also Nepal HCT, Meeting Minutes May 2, 2015, reporting on a meeting chaired by the MoHA and attended by government ministries and U.N. agencies, during which it was “further agreed that assessments should no longer take place; however, clusters are to initiate plans which will be consolidated through the UNDAC assessment team, to ensure these assessments will go hand in hand with distribution and be integrated across clusters.”

[2] Interview with Chief District Officer in one of the earthquake-affected districts covered by the research.

[3] Interview with Village Development Committee (VDC) Secretary in Rasuwa district, November, 2015.

[4] Focus group discussion with men in Rasuwa district, November 2015.

[5] Interview with VDC Secretary in Rasuwa district, November, 2015.

[6] As of 2012, just 30 percent of Musahar, Panjabi/Sikh and Dom Dalits owned a house, compared to over 90 percent of Brahmin and Chhetri households: Yogendra Gurung et al., “Nepal Social Inclusion Survey 2012,” Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal (2014) 56, accessed May 12, 2016, http://www.siaep.org/uploads/resourceDoc/6208_d41d8cd98f00b204e9800998ecf8427e_1400561164_N.pdf.

[7] Government of Nepal, Nepal Citizenship Act 2016 (2006) s 8.

[8] Government of Nepal, Nepal Citizenship Act 2016 (2006) s 3 (provides that a person shall be a citizen of Nepal by descent if at the time of the birth either their mother or father was a citizen of Nepal). Nepal’s new Constitution also provides that a person will be deemed a citizen by descent if either their father or mother was a citizen of Nepal at the time of their birth: Government of Nepal, Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal (2015) s 11(b). 

[9] See Nepal Civil Society Network of Citizenship Rights, Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights and Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, “Joint Submission to the Human Rights Council at the 23rd Session of the Universal Periodic Review” (2015). Moreover, studies show that Madhesi and Muslim women, due to cultural practices, cannot apply for citizenship on their own, but must rely on male members of their households to take them to apply: Forum for Women Law and Development, “Acquisition of Citizenship Certificate in Nepal: Understanding Trends, Barriers and Impacts” (February 2014).

[10] David Sanderson et al., “Nepal Earthquake Appeal Response Review” (September 2015) 11.

[11] Focus group discussion with women in Ramechhap district, November 2015.

[12] Government of Nepal, MoHA, “Nepal Earthquake 2072: Situation Update as of 11th May” (May 2015), accessed May 12, 2016, http://drrportal.gov.np/uploads/document/14.pdf.

[13] Interview with VDC Secretary in Rasuwa district, November 2015.

[14] Interview with Female Community Health Volunteer, Bakhtupur district, November 2015.

[15] Focus group discussion with women in Rasuwa district, November 2015.

[16] Focus group discussion with men in Ramechhap district, November 2015. 

[17] Interview with WCF representative, Bakhtupur district, November 2015.

[18] The Sphere Project, “The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response” (2011) 63, accessed May 12, 2016, http://www.spherehandbook.org/.

[19] World Vision Australia, “Minimum Inter-Agency Standards for Protection Mainstreaming” (2012) 23, accessed May 12, 2016, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_Report_37….

[20] Groupe URD et al., “Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability” (2014) 10, accessed May 12, 2016, http://www.corehumanitarianstandard.org/files/files/Core%20Humanitarian….

[21] Interview with ward representative, Bakhtupur district, November 2015.

[22] Interview with Female Community Health Volunteer, Ramechhap district, November 2015.

[23] Interview with Community Health Volunteer, Dolakha district, November 2015.


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