Fair trade community rallies around Nepal

Editor’s note: The fair trade community has been mobilizing support for the people of Nepal after the devastating April 25 earthquake. One of the unique qualities of fair trade is businesses need to develop long-term partnerships with artisans and businesses in the producer countries. In other words, it is not a quick-buck relationship, but one that goes through good and bad times together as the following narrative illustrates. Taylor McCleneghan is production manager at Mata Traders, a Chicago-based fair trade fashion business and wrote the following in response to several questions sent to her by People’s World on May 6.

I have been in regular contact with the CEO and production manager of Mahaguthi Craft with a Conscience, the fair trade group that we work with in Nepal. We have received word that all staff are safe, though due to power and cell network outages communication has been difficult and word is still coming in. Many have suffered losses in their extended families and there is extensive damage to their homes and communities. Mahaghuti Craft, aside from assessing the safety / effects of their own staff, are working with Fair Trade Group Nepal – since they have been long time members.

The production unit for the clothing that we make there is in central Kathmandu and so luckily their facilities were not hard hit, but there are several staff members who commute from farther outside the city who have lost their homes. Immediately after the earthquake there was a chaos of people trying to flee from Kathmandu and return home to find their loved ones and assess the damage. It was very scary because there was severe cuts to the cell service in the area and so many could not communicate with loved ones – they simply had to start making the journey out to their villages and wait to see the damage. 

Right after the earthquake, the biggest concern was the aftershocks and whether or not it was safe to go back into their homes. The whole city and surrounding areas were sleeping out on the streets for several days, for fear of returning shocks. In addition, all of the markets / shops were closed as business owners didn’t know if their facilities were safe – and may also have been fleeing to the rural areas. As a result, there was an immediate shortage of any fresh foods – people were sharing what packaged dry goods they had. Access to water was also a major issue immediately after the earthquake – as the power supply to operate pumps at private residences was down, and the safety of city water supply had been compromised as well. 

Mahaguthi staff in Kathmandu started to feel safe and return home by April 27, but they knew they had to start reaching the villages outside Kathmandu where some of their smaller artisan craft units are. Fair Trade Group Nepal immediately started pooling funds to buy food packs, tents and water to deliver to the worst hit areas. They spent entire days trying to reach villages just 20-40 miles away. When I spoke to Sunil, the CEO of Mahaguthi, he said that one village that they came to on Friday May 1, had not seen any outside people or aid  – in nearly a week after the earthquake. Of course he had stories to tell about the resilience of the Nepali people – that even without receiving any aid for that long, and having everything destroyed, they were still smiling and found a way to offer their team lunch. 

I heard reports that the government response seemed to be nonexistent for several days after the earthquake. They had no systems in place and any systems that they might have had were never shared with the public – so as to inform them what would happen in the event of a disaster. There was no evidence that the government was prepared to deploy any aid themselves – nor to help international aid groups navigate the country and assess the needs. I have heard that because the government lacks even contact details for people in these smaller villages, they aren’t able to advise or lead international aid groups to those areas. It is hard to describe just how non – existent so many of the government / social systems that we have in the United States are in Nepal. The base organization of the government to support these kinds of systems just isn’t there. I think this is a direct result of how new the government really is there. I encourage people to read a little history on the political battle from Monarchy to Republic.

The people of Nepal seem to be really fed up and disappointed in the government, almost like the government is holding them back from taking care of each other. Another story that describes this: Sunil also said that in a time when aid (government / international / local/ etc) is having so much difficulty reaching the areas outside of the city that were hardest hit, mostly due to damage to the roads and a lack of large machinery to clear it. Sunil recalls passing a government construction project on [Kathmandu’s] Bagmati bridge in the middle of the day, where he sees the machinery they need, just sitting unused at the site. Furthermore, shortly after the Fair Trade Group Nepal started taking international donations, they received a notice from the government asking them to stop taking international donation, and only point aid to the government. Now I can understand the government encouraging people to donate to them, if they showed any evidence that they would actually be able to use it effectively, but unfortunately most people just can’t trust them to do so. 

(We also put Worldview on Chicago’s local NPR station, WBEZ, in touch with Sunil. You can listen to his interview on the show here.)

I spoke today with Anita the production manager at Mahaguthi, and she reported that people are just now starting to go back to work in Kathmandu, but half of the women who work in the stitching unit are still out in their extended family villages and will be for another several days. Transportation back into the city is now very difficult and overcrowded, with so many people returning to the city. She said that the repair of people’s homes would be a long process. Many plan to be living in the tents that they have received from various aid groups, which will prove to be quite difficult as the strength of the rainy season begins to build. Anita said that the government has said that they will be going around to assess home damage, but can only then start repairing once those results come in. 

For donations, we like to recommend:

Fair Trade Group Nepal  

SERRV (Donations to SERRV are also being contributed to Fair Trade Group Nepal.) 


Red Cross

Church World Service

Photo: The people of Nepal respond after the devastating earthquake.   |   wnpr.org/Sim Central and Southeast Asia Creative Commons