Prabha Thacker

Newspapers these days are rife with concerns expressed by donor agencies about Nepal’s disappointing state of affairs. A little over a year ago, development experts tolled the bell amidst war-nings of a “failed state.” The predicament of the past and the dilemma of the present are indeed worrisome. And might it be necessary to reflect on how much of responsibility each one is willing to bear for a situation described recently as “the abyss of humanitarian crisis?”

During our experimentation with democracy there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign donors in the form of multilateral, bilateral age-ncies, banks and INGOs. In Nepal the acclimatisation process for a foreign expert does not seem as difficult as assumed and one hears praises about the Nepali people in general, easy going bureaucrats, eager politicians, their hospitality, flexibility and the ease of reach to their chairs unlike elsewhere in the region. A culture with ancient roots wired and enmeshed into a tangle of modernity seeking to emerge into a globalised world cannot easily shed its old cloak woven into a system dictated by caste, ethnicity, patronage, to forge new links based on developmental rationale and ethics. This complex birth has brought with it an equally complex challenge for development assistance where the powerful have easy access to developmental decisions and processes. There are others in the middle that struggle for access and then there are those less fortunate ones that have no such access or say.

Drawn into this vortex in the recipient country, experts must have experienced during the past decade some of the worst forms of governance, politicisation of development projects, corruption, widening social and ethnic gaps despite attempts at social inclusion and “diversity” and much talk of “grassroots development.” The result in general has been rising expectations among local communities about project benefits, for personal gain. A natural consequence has been the disintegration of voluntarism and philanthrophy in rural areas. The grassroots tag became a ticket to political, social and economic previleges while the real grassroots population languished. The issue is — what does the word “grassroots” mean in the Nepali context? Is it defined by origin/birth in rural or remote areas, by level of poverty, by caste, by ethnicity? In the absence of a commonly understood definition, goalkeepers in the developmental assistance playing field have more often than not been the grassroots elite who have called the shots for the donor pie.

So let the cry be for the politics of justice. We should learn to call a spade a spade, call for an overhaul of the values based on money in the name of economic opportunity. Development assistance provides support to the country’s policy for development. Even then that golden dawn is certainly not incumbent on development assistance but upon our honesty and genuine will to seek it. Fairness, transparency and accountability in development are the right of every citizen and not of the few. Pulling the political muscle out of development aid is a means to achieving a balanced democracy that can avoid the intolerance and the unprecedented levels of financial and political power over daily life. Looking back, we may wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs.