Print Edition - 2014-09-06  |  On Saturday

Kathmandu laid bare

  • Thomas Bell, a British journalist based in Kathmandu, recently came out with his first book Kathmandu, which interweaves social, cultural, political and historical themes. Below is an exerpt from the book and an interview with the author
Kathmandu laid bare

Sep 5, 2014-

The Nepali development laboratory was inaugurated by the Americans’ ‘community development’ concept in 1951, which was implemented through their Village Development Projects. They regarded Nepal as a blank slate (the notion of awakening villagers to improve themselves apparently owed something to the self-help manuals of the time).1 The first Five-Year Plan was launched in 1956, designed by a UN expert and three-quarters funded with American, Indian, Chinese, and Russian contributions.2 Foreign money built the rapidly expanding bureaucracy.

Foreign aid’s contribution as a percentage of GDP blossomed during the Panchayat years.3 Multilateral donors and lenders such as the UN, World Bank and Asian Development Bank joined the scene; and new bilaterals, such as the Japanese, the Germans, and the British joined the Indians, Swiss, and US. In the sixties capital investments would let Nepal ‘take off’. ‘Poverty reduction’ was the mantra in the seventies, but less for any reason specific to Nepal than in consistency with global currents, such as renewed concern at the spread of communism in peasant societies. There would be ‘growth with equity’ and ‘the basic needs approach’, and Integrated Rural Development Projects not unlike the old Village Development Projects, except this time they were integrated. The projects had little benefit of course, for reasons including that powerful people ate the cash. By the eighties, new old ideas were going around again, like ‘community empowerment’ and ‘participation’. Development workers were ‘change agents’, working with communities to form ‘users’ groups’, or to teach villagers that they’d asked for the projects that were about to be given to them.

The eighties and early nineties also brought Structural Adjustment, which was being pushed everywhere by the World Bank and the IMF to create growth through privatization and liberalization. The benefits would trickle down. As it turned out the anticipated results didn’t materialize, the benefits were captured by a few, and rural incomes went into absolute decline. The cold war ended and the 1990 People’s Movement happened. The donors that had supported the monarchy supported democracy instead. A 1992 USAID publication, marking the anniversary of Four Decades of Development the previous year, reckoned that

With the changed political circumstances of the past few years, and an increased understanding of the need to follow market principles and to rely more on the private sector to stimulate economic growth, we are hopeful that by the year 2001, the 50th anniversary of Nepal’s entry into the modern era, we will see Nepal graduate from the ranks of the world’s relatively least developed countries.4

By now there were 32 bilateral and multilateral donors, but the poor were still there, in increased numbers. GDP growth per capita hovered around 2 per cent and economic inequality was widening. Four years later a journalist wrote

The powerful aid-givers, all strong believers in the trickle-down theory, are of the belief that when the dust settles the public as a whole will benefit. More likely we will have a revolt on our hands, but by then of course the aid agencies will be on to the fad of the next half decade—which will in all probability be, and not at all incongruously, the rediscovery of the role of government in national development!5

So it proved. Structural Adjustment didn’t cause the Maoist insurgency, but as those words were written the first shots of the war were being fired in the mid-western hills. Rural poverty and discrimination, failed development and dysfunctional state institutions helped to incubate an uprising that would exceed all expectations. Between 1977 and 1996 the number of Nepali people in absolute poverty had nearly doubled.6

The next donor paradigm was Human Development, which was a worldwide move away from neo-liberal theories towards ‘community self-reliance’ and ‘local management’, rejoining the battle for ‘poverty eradication’. Under foreign tutelage a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper was produced, which was ‘nationally owned’ and ‘country driven’ and became the country’s tenth Five-Year Plan. Projects addressed infrastructure and ‘social sector development’, ‘social inclusion’, and ‘good governance’. Growth and poverty reduction targets were set and missed.

Throughout these years a parallel development had been taking place, and lending itself to whatever happened to be the donors’ best practice at the time. Since the eighties NGOs had been established in growing numbers, which were private, supposedly non-profit agencies devoted to social work. The NGOs would help to build ‘civil society’ and make power answerable to the community, deepening the democratic culture.7 As Kathmandu opened up in the nineties the NGO sector boomed. There were, and still are, thousands of them.8 (It’s been said, going by the number of signboards of development organizations in the city, that Kathmandu must be the most developed place on earth.) The NGOs produced studies and reports and mid-term evaluations, and ran training programmes and awareness raising workshops, and did human rights advocacy, and provided whatever other services were required, to and on behalf of the donors. Those NGO people who were successful in attracting funds could speak English, which allowed them access to the donors. They were adept at using the jargon of the moment (‘code phrases’), which won the foreigners’ trust and made their project proposals attractive. They also spoke Nepali, which meant they were operating in networks the foreigners couldn’t understand.9

Many of the new NGOwallahs were associated with the moderate communists of the first people’s movement, the Unified Marxist Leninist party. The NGO boom helped pave their way into the political mainstream, with gold, as it were.The common view was that many of them were ‘farming dollars’.

In the late nineties the Millennium Development Goals were seized upon as the solution, committing the world to cut a swathe through the spreadsheet of grim poverty statistics by 2015. (‘Of course the next problem will be the MDGs,’ a lower-level European aid official told me in 2011. ‘For years we’ve been showing progress towards ending X, Y, and Z. What’s going to happen in 2015 when X, Y, and Z still exist?’)

The al Qaeda attacks on America in September 2001 inaugurated the war on terror and made third world poverty a global security issue again. The US secretary of state came to Nepal, and the Nepali prime minister visited the White House. The American administration believed that ‘Nepal could easily turn into a failed state, a potential haven for terrorists like that which we have transformed in Afghanistan.’10 British development aid was bundled with military aid, to fight the insurgency.

Thanks to the king’s stupidity, and some clever Indian fixing, (and despite American misgivings) the war ended in 2006. The Western spooks and military advisors left and the democracy experts and mediation gurus came, to teach the Nepalis about constitution writing and conflict resolution. The city swelled with peace-building advisors and post-conflict specialists, organizing conferences and junkets to study the peace processes in South Africa and Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka and Guatemala. In 2007–08 the donors (by now called ‘development partners’) numbered forty-five.

The experts talked about governance, and institutions, and ‘building state capacity’, or ‘building a more inclusive state’, as if they had no idea (in fact, they had no idea) that the state’s institutions had been built, funded and twisted out of shape with the help of foreign aid for the last sixty years. They were understandably confused by Nepali politics and society, but they knew what they were doing. They punched ‘root causes’ and ‘triggers’ into their conflict analysis formulas like they were casting a horoscope. ‘We just persuaded them to buy us a new sports centre,’ a friend in the police said. ‘They’ve got all this money to spend, they’ll say yes to anything, as long as it’s for peace building.’

Published: 06-09-2014 09:01

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