Nepal has been receiving official development assistance from various countries for the last six decades. Over these years, billions of rupees have been poured into the country. Yet over one-fifth of the population is still living below the poverty line, social sector, though improving, is in a fragile state, governance is weak, and economic prosperity is a far-fetched dream for many. These results have led many to question whether Nepal needs foreign aid to become strong and prosperous. Of course, overseas assistance is not a panacea for everything that has gone wrong in the country. But the practice of accepting foreign assistance without assessing the outcomes, many fear, may further deepen Nepal’s aid dependency. The Kathmandu Post caught up with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Country Director Renaud Meyer to discuss these issues. Excerpts:
You’ve been here for a while and one of the things you may have noticed is the critical lens through which foreign aid is viewed. What is your take on the issue?
You start noticing the country’s development needs soon after you land in Kathmandu. This is where development assistance comes in. There are multiple ways of providing development assistance. Non-governmental organisations and foundations are some of the means through which development assistance can be provided. Then there are those who provide bilateral assistance, which means aligning development assistance with political agenda. Then there are organisations like the UNDP, which provide multilateral assistance. The agenda of multilateral organisations is aligned with the common agenda of the country that receives aid, because these agencies enter a country only after getting an invitation. So, it’s difficult to draw general conclusions.
Can foreign aid at some point in time become a self-perpetuating industry whereby donors begin to justify why foreign assistance is needed and hence aid dependency of countries like Nepal deepens?
Nepal is in a situation where it needs development assistance. Look at the percentage of Nepal’s overall resources that is dependent on official development assistance. Having said that I think this is the right question to ask. And Nepal is now in a position to be a bit more demanding. However, bilateral donors that very much align their development assistance with political agendas may want to justify their support to stay in a country forever.
So, do you think foreign assistance has helped Nepal?
Nepal is a country that is facing many challenges. Yet its social indicators have improved over the years. Of course, you cannot exclusively attribute these results to development assistance, because nothing trickles down to people if policies, intentions and practices of a recipient partner are not sound. But development assistance has helped Nepal strengthen its social sector.
During the 2015 earthquakes, donors and development partners came up with a narrative that the government was dysfunctional, while the government officials blamed donors and development partners for trying to impose their value system. Clearly, both the sides were trying to outsmart each other, which created a huge disconnect. This is not good for people, is it?
The first criterion for those providing development assistance should be recognition of Nepal as a sovereign nation. So, it is Nepal that should make the decision first. But if development practitioners come across a weak counterpart, words can be put in the mouth of that counterpart. So, it is essential for the government to speak one voice and take a common approach to an issue, which is not the case here most of the time.
Does government’s inability to speak one voice provide donors and development partners an opportunity to manipulate the situation?
Of course. Let’s take the example of setting up of local judicial committees. I strongly believe in the value of this system because it provides the community a better chance to have access to justice. This view is shared by others as well. So, everybody is rushing to say ‘we are launching so and so project in so and so provinces’. In my view, it is too premature to talk about these issues. Of course, the sooner we launch the project, the better for locals. But if we start without a coherent approach, we may do more harm.
This brings us to the question of accountability on the part of donors and development partners, which is rarely discussed. Shouldn’t donors and development partners, like development assistance recipient countries, be accountable for their acts?
This is doubly important for us. When I chair the governing body of a project, I hold my implementing partner, which is usually a government entity, accountable. This is because I expect results from resources that I’ve put into, as I’m accountable to taxpayers [of countries that provide money]. But ultimately I’m accountable to the people where projects and programmes are implemented. Now, when you are a donor country yourself, the approach can be a bit different; and some bilateral donors are very upfront about this. Just look at the US government to name one. It has created the USAID [United States Agency for International Development]. If you look at those who win USAID contracts, you will find that majority of them are American companies or NGOs that are American. But that’s their government policy. And there is nothing wrong with this practice as long as it is out in the open.