A school under reconstruction post the 2015 earthquake, photo from a visit in Feb 2017
I have been thinking to write my thoughts about this country Nepal. I have visited this country number of times for different purposes- treks, pilgrimage, family trip and just as a youngster with cash enough to explore a new country which suited my pocket. Because of all these visits I have always been dove-eyed about this country. I have always appreciated warm, strong , welcoming Nepalese people and have been awed by the strength of the hill people.hey fly through the hills while we plain people huff and puff. The tile and brick building architecture, the streets of Thamel with all the gears- name any company from across the globe, the old ways of greeting people, the culture of following the old hindu calendar, the apparent harmonious presence of hinduism and buddhism and what not.
While a colleague here writes about the policy landscape of the country, I would like to reflect on seeing this country while traveling around on work.
Durbar Square, Feb 2017
Most development work driven by grants: I am living in India, a developing nation or a middle income country based on which ever terminology one wants to use. I am looking at Nepal from a lens that is not developed but not really “under developed” as well. It was quite fascinating to see that the sizes of the budgets; to lay roads or water pipelines; for this country mostly comes from multilateral grants rather than their own tax payer money. Also the quantum of operating budget the government departments responsible for delivering basic services is too low. The 4 way junctions have boards saying ” From the people of Japan”, the main highways that act as arteries to the country is from Japan International Cooperation Agency, some water project in the hills is from a Norwegian fund, the main outer ring road of Kathmandu is from a world bank money and built by a Chinese company. Restoration of earthquake affected architecture is also supported by some Japanese funding.
Election driven by international aid: May be its my ignorance about LDCs, but this one came as a surprise to me. Yes, I have read about external funding of elections in Sudan, but I never expected this to be the case for Nepal. What will be the percentage of democracy that will pan out with a country’s election being funded by external agencies. These agencies are not answerable to any people of any other country too. This is influencing the country’s fate at a very different level with no accountability or answerability by these agencies.
Tourist driven: For me it is interesting to find snickers, variety of international brand of beers, and many other international products find their way from Kathmandu, Pokhara and all the up to Annapurna Base Camp and all the villages that dot the trekking routes. The trails to treks are well paved, exactly they are all paved with well laid stones all the way to the camps. If given a chance they will pave it with the stones even up to the hostile peaks of Himalayas. Although tourism contributes to less than 5% of the economy, there is a heavy focus on this sector.
Upper himalayan region bias vs Terai region ( more like the plain regions): In India the development and attention of the governments usually is more to the plain regions than the hill regions. I always thought the reasons for this could be : logic of number of people reached with a given budget and easy of implementation. In the case of Nepal the focus is upper Himalayan communities and the communities in the Terai region are neglected. This challenges my understanding, and makes me wonder why? Few of the reasoning why this could be from what I observed are:
- First one, Nepal and its image to the granting/aid agencies is that of the Himalayan country, so agencies want to fund the so called Himalayan areas , which are difficult to work in too. “A village nestled in some high hilly region, where some meaningful work got done” makes a pretty picture.
- Second one, because the hills are what tourist get to, the government also wants to pay attention to the upper regions first.
- The terai region people have little representation in Kathmandu, in the government, in the aid sector. The number of aid agencies working in Terai region is far less than the ones working in upper Himalayan region. Thus funds do not get channelized to this region.
Natural disaster distracting long term development work: Himalayas is one of the most volatile of geographies. Natural disaster of some form or the other keep happening all the time. The country has almost no contingency plan to address disasters if and when they happen. This haphazardness actually stalls and affects the other development work that should have been continues in spite of the disasters. The bandwidth allocation of work gets skewed with most of the money and human resource getting diverted to address effects of natural disaster and the other unaffected regions hence suffer.
Aid sector is mature, but is driven by funders at every level: In a LDC its not a surprise that aid sector and INGOs are present in good numbers and almost work like governments and are mature in their operations. But the INGOs drive every aspect of all the programs they implement through local NGOs. There is very little capability with the local NGOs.They only do the job of taking orders and doing whatever is told to them by their funders.
Heavily primary sector driven : The country has almost very little secondary or tertiary sector. Most of their vehicles ( cars, trucks, bikes, vans ) come mostly from India and China and people end up paying almost 100% import duty on it.
Air pollution in Kathmandu is just out of control: Kathmandu’s air is now rated one of the most highly polluted in the world. While on one side the city establishment is rushing to finish the 15 year old Melamchi water supply project , on the other side the Chinese company is rushing to finish paving the outer ring roads. I keep wondering and worrying about what is going to come of generation of toddlers who are born and raised in such dusty conditions early in their life.
In short, after visiting this country on work, I don’t know if I can still be dove-eyed about it all and enjoy the snow peaks like my friends who visit this country for its natural beauty and adventure sport. But, having visited the country enough number of times in my twenties, I would like to see it stabilize and achieve better living conditions for its people.