Making Emergency Relief Programs More Responsive and Resilient

Most wage earners in Nepal relied on the government’s food assistance program during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Photo credit: ADB.

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Strengthening the database of the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable households can improve delivery of relief packages.


The COVID-19 pandemic that began in late 2019 imposed unprecedented challenges that affected countries worldwide. As the virus was found to be lethal and highly contagious, governments focused on treating those infected, while aggressively preventing it from affecting others. Apart from directing resources toward the health sector, this also involved temporarily limiting the movement of people to help prevent the spread of the virus.

On 24 March 2020, the Government of Nepal imposed a nationwide lockdown. It earlier initiated various containment measures—such as procuring essential supplies, equipment, and medicine; upgrading health infrastructure; suspending classes in schools; and canceling on-arrival visas and international flights—following its first case of COVID-19 on 24 January 2020.[1]

While the lockdown helped contain the spread of the disease, it adversely affected unorganized occupational groups and migrant laborers, resulting in food insecurity, particularly in urban areas.[2] To address the situation, local governments in Nepal distributed food to the poor and vulnerable households between 24 March 2020 and 21 July 2020. Based on a publication by the Asian Development Bank, this case study looks at the impacts of the lockdown in terms of food insecurity and efforts made at the local levels in distributing the relief package. It makes recommendations on how emergency relief programs can be more responsive and resilient.

Based on a publication by the Asian Development Bank, this case study looks at the impacts of the lockdown in terms of food insecurity and efforts made at the local levels in distributing the relief package. It makes recommendations on how emergency relief programs can be more responsive and resilient.

Project Snapshot

  • 26 May 2020 : Approval Date
  • 20 November 2021 : Closing Date

  • $250 million : Cost


Local levels made great efforts to identify those persons or households needing urgent food relief during the lockdown in Nepal. However, food distribution was entirely unanticipated and all three tiers of government were not ready for a long lockdown period. The following were the risks and challenges involved in addressing the food requirements of vulnerable people:

  • difficulty in selecting eligible beneficiaries due to insufficient data profile maintained at the local levels;
  • difficulty in collecting information on migrant workers and students for food distribution;
  • insufficient budget for food supply as regular budgets and disaster management funds could not meet the rising demand for food from the poor and vulnerable;
  • weak internal control practices on food relief expenditure in the absence of a budgetary control system;
  • limited coordination and mobilization of nongovernment organizations and the private sector due to restrictions on mobility and people’s fear of going out;
  • absence of mechanism to monitor food distribution and quality;
  • absence of formal mechanism to address complaints; and
  • risk of insufficiency of food relief as the lockdown lasted 3–4 months, depending on the severity of the pandemic in the locality.

In Nepal, the health crisis disproportionately impacted on the poor, informal sector workers, migrant workers, households depending on remittances, and women. The informal sector accounts for 84.6% of total employment.[3] Women comprise 66.5% of informal sector workers in Nepal and the lockdown increased their household and care work. Returnee migrant workers remained unemployed because of the pandemic’s adverse impact on the domestic economy and employment market. As the nationwide lockdown in 2020 disrupted all social and economic activities, it created a situation wherein most wage earners, including impoverished and vulnerable households, had to rely on the government’s food assistance program.

The National Relief Program announced on 29 March 2020 aimed to mitigate the adverse impacts of the pandemic by focusing on three key areas: (i) tackling health emergencies; (ii) addressing social protection for the poor and vulnerable by providing immediate food relief and employment assistance; and (iii) providing economic relief measures.

ADB supported the government’s initiatives through the COVID-19 Active Response and Expenditure Support (CARES) technical assistance that covered program implementation, monitoring, reporting, and evaluation. The CARES team conducted a study at nine local levels to assess the impacts of the lockdown in terms of food insecurity and efforts made in distributing the relief package.


The Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration facilitated and coordinated food relief support, and issued a general guiding framework to help local levels effectively implement the National Relief Program. They devised their own system depending on the local context, the urgency, and the logistics available to support the program within the broader guiding framework issued by the government.

Five local levels developed their own criteria for selecting beneficiaries (households of the ultra-poor, persons with disabilities, students, and migrants), while three followed the government’s guidelines. In general, local levels (i) solicited a list of beneficiaries at the ward and/or municipal level; (ii) held discussions with respective ward offices and stakeholders, such as tole (section of the city) development organizations, NGOs, and female community health volunteers; and then (iii) finalized the list of beneficiaries at the ward and/or municipal level.

Six out of the nine local levels provided non-cooked and cooked food items, while three provided cash support to buy food. Food items distributed included rice, lentils, oil, and salt.

Almost all sampled local levels initially identified the needs of women, pregnant and lactating mothers, PWDs, and marginalized communities, including migrant workers. Apart from specific food support, the local governments gave out sanitary kits and clothes for women, as well as free transportation for PWDs. Five local levels coordinated with NGOs and community-based organizations, which provided different forms of assistance, such as delivery allowance to mothers post-birth and nutritious food to newborns, PWDs, and single women.

As incidents of domestic violence and gender-based cases increased during the pandemic, local levels and organizations launched initiatives to address this problem. These included activation of local-level judicial committees, mobilization of trained mediators, counseling via telephone, intermediation and counseling by local elected representatives, and awareness-raising activities through local media and social networks.

Budget for the relief programs came from (i) internal resources of the local levels; (ii) transfers from the federal and provincial governments; and (iii) contributions from the private sector, NGOs, and individuals. Budgetary support from the federal government was nominal in the total resources of each fund. Out of the nine local levels, eight received cash support from the private sector, NGOs, and individuals. The nine local levels spent 37.16% on food relief out of the total available NRs282.7 million (about $2.12 million) in their COVID-19 fund.

Six local levels adopted a direct purchase method, while three opted for a sealed quotation method to procure food items. Few open shops, low food supply, price hikes, and unknown quantities of food stock at the local level hampered procurement. Most local levels purchased food from local private shops and suppliers and some used government-owned entities.

Municipal or ward staff and elected representatives visited and observed distribution centers and held discussions with beneficiaries to seek their comments and suggestions on relief work. There was no formal mechanism for registering and resolving complaints but local levels attempted to address verbal grievances received, most of which concerned eligibility for food relief, food requirements, and distress due to limited mobility.

Local levels coordinated with stakeholders and adopted different practices to collect resources, mobilize human resources locally, and distribute through a single door system. This system helped track resource mobilization and expenditure, maintain safety and security, expedite beneficiary selection, and minimize overlaps and gaps in distribution.

The Local Government Operations Act 2017 assigns specific responsibilities to respond to the impacts of disasters and pandemics. Local levels formed disaster management committees that performed effectively during the pandemic and are in the process of preparing disaster fund mobilization guidelines.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Nepal managed its food relief program successfully, with active participation of the local levels and generous support from development partners, NGOs, and the private sector. Its strategic mobilization of the private sector helped achieve the desired results, including procurement and distribution of food relief items to the vulnerable groups and the communities, and resource collection. The private sector, individuals, and civil society at the local levels extended support to the vulnerable groups and families, complementing government work in food assistance during the crisis.

Following the “single door” process—where all aspects of food relief were handled through a single entity—enabled local levels to successfully identify and manage resources. Aside from providing food assistance to people in quarantine, in isolation centers, and in communities, local levels also addressed the food insecurity issues of women, children, PWDs, senior citizens, and those from the lowest strata.


Policies that can help local levels effectively plan and implement relief programs in the event of future crises are

  • Improving the database of the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable households, and establishing and operationalizing appropriate targeting mechanisms for identifying beneficiaries at the local levels
  • Designing and implementing capacity development measures for all functional levels, including for municipal and ward-level disaster management committees, to prepare them to cope with future disasters
  • Strengthening operations of judicial committees by mobilizing trained staff, hiring legal domestic violence and/or gender-based violence experts, digitizing information with confidentiality, among others
  • Strengthening the capacity of the local levels to manage and mobilize resources by allocating sufficient resources to disaster management funds and coordinating with the private sector, NGOs, and civil society to collect additional resources and mitigate crisis impact
  • Strengthening procurement capacity and food quality control by making provisions on “procurement under special circumstances” (such as pandemics, floods, earthquakes, and other disasters) more specific.
  • Establishing a third party monitoring monitoring system and grievance redressal mechanism (i) to monitor the selection of vulnerable people and distribution of relief, and track the proper use of relief support; and (ii) to register and resolve grievances and address hardships faced by women, poor people, and vulnerable people.
  • Strengthening the capacity of municipal and ward-level disaster management committees by forming a dedicated disaster management section with trained human resources, supported by volunteers for immediate response.
  • Exploring and adopting alternative means of food support during crisis as per the local context, such as food-for-work, cash-for-work, and cash transfers or cash vouchers.

[1] Asian Development Bank. 2020. Report and Recommendations of the President to the Board of Directors: Proposed Countercyclical Support Facility Loan for the COVID-19 Active Response and Expenditure Support Program in Nepal. Manila.

[2] The Sample Relief Standard for Informal Sector Workers and Destitute 2019 of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration (MOFAGA) defines unorganized occupational groups as follows: porters carrying goods from shops/business stores to home; tourism porters; construction-related porters; porters in hard-to-reach areas (where there is no means of transportation); loaders on trucks, trippers/trucks for carrying construction materials, or vans; agri-laborers who work for daily wages on others’ agri-farms; persons working rearing children and persons with disabilities on a daily wage; laborers working in brick factories and brick crushing; masons/carpenters/ helpers working for a daily wage; small shopkeepers; magazine sellers in the street; small shopkeepers selling goods on carts or cycles; persons working in others’ shops for a daily wage; drivers/helpers who drive others’ vans and vehicles; taxi drivers who drive others’ taxis/ three-wheeler rickshaws in a mutual contract with the owners; rickshaw and cart movers; laborers working in motor garages; laborers working in garments, carpets , tailoring, embroidery, fabricating, etc.; laborers at local level who work for a daily wage.

[3] Government of Nepal, National Planning Commission, Central Bureau of Statistics. 2019. Nepal Labour Force Survey 2017/2018. Kathmandu as cited in Asian Development Bank. 2020. Report and Recommendations of the President to the Board of Directors: Proposed Countercyclical Support Facility Loan for the COVID-19 Active Response and Expenditure Support Program in Nepal. Manila.

Rudi Hendrikus Louis Van Dael
Principal Social Sector Specialist, Human and Social Development Sector Office, Sectors Group, Asian Development Bank

Rudi Van Dael was a Principal Portfolio Management Specialist based in the ADB Nepal Resident Mission, and was the ADB focal for COVID-19 support in Nepal. From 2010 until 2019, he was a social sector specialist in ADB on various education projects in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Nepal. He was involved in studies on using human-centered design, entrepreneurship programs, skills for the electricity sector, minimum service standards in education, and subsidized employment programs. He has a diploma in computing science, a master’s in public administration, and a PhD in sociology. 

Manbar S. Khadka
Senior Economics Officer, Nepal Resident Mission, South Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

Manbar Singh Khadka has been with ADB since 2017 and has contributed to economic analysis of projects and the preparation and publishing of flagship analytics reports. He has effectively supported the preparation and administration of various technical assistance and loan portfolios at ADB. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Wabash College in Indiana, USA and a master’s degree with research in Agricultural & Resource Economics from the University of Maryland at College Park, USA.

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