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I Can't Cast Your Ballot for You, Ma'am

September 10, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“The fight of my life…”; ”Republicans take a sledgehammer to Medicare…”; “Triple your impact to STOP…”; “Lowering our chance…”; “What’s at stake? Everything…”; “Last chance…”; “Numbers don't lie…”; “They’re scared we’ll win...”, warns yet another slogan, and on and on. As if to say: “We (the Democratic Party) are scared, and we want you to be scared too”. Each threat is followed by appeals that we’ll win with just a $3. pledge; victory secured if you can manage five dollars. It seems the Dems hired a squad of copy editors blasting out five-word threats in the subject line of my (and hundreds of thousands, millions, of others’) email and twitter accounts.  

            You get the picture. Several times daily these bulletins promise that if I give even the price of a cup-of-coffee to Stacey in Georgia, Fred in Iowa, and Heidi in North Dakota (or is it Oregon?), then the good guys win, the Trump nightmare ends, and Democrats will provide all the nice things intelligent-college-educated-white Americans deserve (something for minorities too):—full employment, free universal healthcare, cancellation of student debt, repeal of the second amendment (gun rights), an end to big pharma’s control of politicians, pre-industrial era clear blue skies, reforested cities, and restoration of Obama’s post-racial America. (No mention of reduced military spending or freeing US foreign policy of Israel’s grip.)  

            Delete, delete, delete; this although I’m not a Republican and never knowingly voted for one, not even when, as often happens at state and district levels, they run unopposed.   

            Do people who run these campaigns really think fear tactics are effective? In 2016 the vote-Hillary-or-else strategy didn’t work; I doubt if it’s a winner this time. It’s a hollow, misguided device. As many concerned analysts evidence, the Party is simply out of touch.      

            At ground level Democratic Party managers claim the algorithms they employ guarantee victory. Formulae based on data amassed from social media posts, phone records and past balloting (adopted perhaps from Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica, initially exposed by Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr, a scheme Trump’s campaign reportedly used) inform Democratic campaign chiefs.

            So a bouquet of lists is presented to me and other volunteer fieldworkers; we’re mainly retirees, not the under 30s who prefer spectacles with celebrities offering graphic encounters to share on instagram. (Young people’s voting record is in fact shoddy.) I’m a sucker for joining local campaigns though. Toiling naively through a summer afternoon, I learn that few in my ‘registered voter list’ know whose running in upcoming (NY) state primaries or who’s challenging the incumbent congressman.

            And these lists? My paid teenage supervisor firmly believes that personally reaching out to algorithm-generated lists is a winning strategy. (Like scare tactics?) I’m presented with lists, and more lists: a register of under 50s; a list of anyone who may have voted across party lines; a list of over 70s, folks more likely to be home in the morning (no cell phones?); independents who usually don’t vote; dependable Democrats we will solicit to volunteer with us; those we’ll phone a month before; those we’ll phone a week before; those who are first time voters. Doubtless there are lists of Blacks, Latinos, South Asians, Evangelical Christians, maybe Jews too. Lists likely come in degrees of education as well.

            My Sunday morning was productive, sort of: 25% of voters I call respond in person: 40% of them disconnect abruptly, hearing the name of the candidate I represent; 25% are uncertain; one snaps “We don’t get involved in politics”, another asks “Who’s he running against?” The 20% who say “We support him; he’s got our vote” sustain me. Too many registered Dems really are unsure of which candidate is running in which race; it doesn’t help that lawn signs littering our roadsides don’t indicate if the name printed represents a Democrat, Republican, or Conservative. New York State registered Democrats are notoriously negligent in the primaries. Barely 25% cast ballots in any primary election.

            Voter ignorance about candidates, even if they peruse all their emails in what we call midterm elections, is common. Midterm (off season or non-president) elections somehow can’t attract voters; primaries seem inconsequential, like midterm exams or penalty shots in football. Nothing much happens in midterms, we suppose.

            Yet this semi-annual ballot determines all congressional seats. In November—435 seats are up for re-election. (63 of these, held by Republicans, are said to be vulnerable, and Democrats need to win 23 of those to take control of the House.) Primary wins like those by Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Tlaib in Michigan are generating excitement and optimism among some Dems. Yes, national media highlight even the most marginal state primary win, but for a day or two only.

            It seems our US public—voters, would-be voters, and those who “don’t get involved in politics”-- prefers to devote its time to the president and presidency. My neighbors and colleagues, following the media’s obsession with the leadership, spend hours gasping, chortling, quoting—they repeat his tweets; they shudder at his braggadocio; they weep over his legal proclamations; they opine on White House personalities. This compared to blank stares and ambiguity regarding the women and men they actually can vote in (or out) at their neighborhood polling station September 13th (NY primary day) and November 6th .

 

 

[ I Can't Cast Your Ballot for You, Ma'am ]

Literature Can Displace Anthropology-- A New Look

August 29, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When I found myself well into my career as an anthropologist specializing in Himalayan peoples, I came across an historical episode concerning two no-longer living but obviously brilliant women who had performed remarkable political feats in the early 20th century. I undertook to uncover their stories, determined first because inspired by feminist revelations, I myself was in search of women heroes, and second because I had had enough of anthropology’s imperialist claims of scientific impartiality. This meant my breaking from both traditional research methodologies and from academic writing conventions.

            I’d been a social anthropologist, (ethnographer, of the British School) relying on intensive interviews, and, as we claimed, ‘objective participation observation’. (Ethnography is in fact more akin to journalism than academics will acknowledge.)

            Since my subjects were no longer alive I could not apply face-to-face interviews or behavioral observation-- they were already becoming mythical characters-- and the few people alive who’d known them were quite elderly. Moreover, those leaders had been political activists at a time when criticism of Nepal’s monarch, its officials and the powerful Hindu priest class was prohibited; any resurgence of interest would be stifled for another decade after my arrival at the site of the early protests.

            Those women’s fantastic careers happened on the steamy shore of the roaring Arun Kola deep in the Himalayas. It was possible to imagine past glories there, however isolated and overlooked it now seemed. So I pressed on determinedly.

            I was dealing with individuals wildly unrepresentative of their culture. Both were outrageous, atypical characters. A sociological approach was out of the question. And, although the women died only four decades earlier, there was no written record I could find, not initially. My determination proved rewarding because at the time (1980-85) I was welcomed by a small community of ascetics, all women, who’d known both of those radicals. Now quite elderly, they felt impervious to any government retaliation for assisting me.

            These ladies enthusiastically spoke about Shakti Yogmaya and Durga Devi—the first a revolutionary, the second a reformer-- who they‘d once followed. Recluses, now in their 70s and 80s, they vividly remembered how fifty and sixty years earlier, they’d been filled with fervor and faith in social reform.

            Based on their accounts I managed two academic reports. But these stories needed a more creative approach and I began my first attempts at biography. I was aided by the contemporary Nepali poet Parijat who introduced me to the perilous political work she herself was engaged in. She and I worked on translating the provocative quadrants of the long dead Shakti Yogmaya which in turn initiated me into Nepal’s political history.

            Nepal was still a dictatorship in the 1980s and attention to events surrounding Yogmaya were risky. A known dissident across Nepal, Parijat was not to be intimidated and she encouraged me to persist.

            My book Heir to a Silent Song appeared 17 years ago, published in English in Nepal. That effort propelled me out of the academic world and set me on my career in journalism. Meanwhile more revelations about Yogmaya, the most radical woman who Nepal had ever produced, attracted a new generation of capable, dedicated Nepali scholars.

            Some historical characters, like this Nepali rebel of the early 20th century, are too wild and unwieldy for normal history to grasp. And today, we have a wonderful example of where literature can overtake and outshine scholarly efforts. Shakti Yogmaya, the subject of the eponymous novel published early this year, has just won The Madan Puraskar, Nepal’s most prestigious prize in literature. It’s authored by the US-based Nepali writer Neelam Niharika who writes in Nepali language and is already known for her ambitious historical novels.

            Of course I am thrilled that this novel builds on my and other scholars’ efforts starting almost forty years earlier. (It was a colleague of Niharika at Radio Nepal four years ago, who reading those histories, suggested she turn her creative energy to Yogmaya.)

            Niharika had no obligation to remain within the boundaries of our accounts. Yet, she undertook more research. In a recent conversation she explained how she interviewed whomever she could in the very hills where Yogmaya’s political campaign occurred almost a hundred years ago. Not herself from the Arun River valley region, Niharika launched a visit there to know more about where Yogmaya was born. (This, after she’d reached locals through social media and phone, to schedule onsite meetings.) The area is much changed but this novelist still conducted her own fieldwork, using modern communications to her advantage. Not only this; she made a video of her arrival in the area, its ecology, recording conversations with local notables of what they remembered of that history.

            The novel “Yogmaya” begins with an imaginary conversation between me and the novelist Parijat, thus emphasizing a line of women who helped shape Niharika’s own historical inquiry.

            “Yogamaya”’s recognition by the nation’s highest literary prize rewards not only a skilled young author. The subject itself—a local woman warrior—will gain wider traction, inspiring a following which no amount of scholarly articles might. At a time when Nepal is sodden with questionable gender development projects that dwell on the ‘poor and vulnerable victim’ and where many educated urban women, following western feminists, express hardly more than institutional sympathy for their ‘deprived’ rural sisters, this novel offers a fresh look at what a village woman can do.

             Perhaps anthropologists too may learn how to honor the natives they study with the creation of quality biographies they deserve.  

[ Literature Can Displace Anthropology-- A New Look ]

Morality Tales-What Are the Limits of Public Behavior in USA?

August 13, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 

          Many Americans who think their country is unquestionably the greatest have been chagrined by recent events that brought them to a new low point. The treatment of families seeking asylum at our southern border with forced separation of children from parents, some shipped to distant parts of the country, is shocking, embarrassing and reprehensible. Overwhelmingly, whatever their political leanings, people want that policy reversed. Some blame the Trump administration, others runaway ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement https://www.ice.gov/) procedures, others inept management.

            Do those gross measures mark the end of what was known as The American Dream? Most Americans are unwilling to see the morality of the policy, but a conservative British weekly views this immigration fiasco though a moral lens, referring to an “ill-fated moral debasement of American values”. The article attributes that state of disgrace specifically to the current US administration, pointing to the nation’s “moral shortcomings…. under Trump… Though America has experienced many moral corrections, from abolitionism to the civil rights movement, they have never come (to this) emetic moment…”, the feeling of revulsion, it charges. Notwithstanding many Americans’ disgust over the caging and separation of children, The Economist’s invocation of moral standards is largely unvoiced within the USA. Even though morality underlies many of our current woes.

            Why is it impolite to speak about moral markers in our society? Maybe morality is simply redundant today. Yet, without a moral compass, we may be becoming lost. Consensus is impossible; so too, any dignified leadership. Anything seems acceptable, evidenced by the ongoing gun violence and unattended massacres, uncontrolled police shootings of Black men and ugly online dialogue.

            We’re not talking about sin with its theological connotations. Morals can operate in the secular sphere too, within culture. Ask any parent, journalist or teacher.

            Right and wrong is a hard business for anyone to address nowadays, especially in so-called liberal circles. The perceived immorality of the US leader is answered by Robert DeNiro shouting “F..k You Donald Trump”, on stage at the Tony Awards. Is DeNiro exhibiting moral strength by this declaration? Did he reflect on his action beforehand? There were cheers from his audience; but then what? Did the Hollywood star suffer any retaliation? Would DeNiro have made the same declaration against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein or fellow actor Morgan Freeman when their crimes and misdemeanors were exposed? Has DeNiro now become an activist? And is this all his declaration signifies?

            And what about Roseanne Barr’s ugly tweet, her racist statement about former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett? Oh that’s different. Is it? Yes, to many of ‘us’, such utterances are offensive. Yet we are told Barr was already known for her indiscretions and personal attacks. With that tweet, she crossed a line and her show was cancelled. Yet Barr is still sought after by TV hosts and to many she remains a hero.

            Everyone seems to be pushing the envelop—to test today’s moral limits. How much can we offend? How wild can we look? How much dare we share of our phone snaps? How much violence can be created and tolerated as entertainment, or art? How much verbal abuse in the name of free speech; how much sexual or racial abuse to get or to keep a job?

The current occupant of the White house is a moralistic man. Yes. Calling others boorish names and winning accolades for his rudeness is nasty and insulting, but at the same time moralistic—to some. Your and my disgust is matched it seems, by others’ applause. Strange times.

           All this has me wondering: What is activism? And what’s the relation of political activism to cultural morality? I’m trying to understand this as a student of culture as well as a citizen of a country known for its openness. Can a healthy culture have no moral limits, whether it’s the behavior of its immigration officials, soldiers or celebrities?

            We speak about social behaviors as unethical or corrupt, decent or distasteful, respectable or dishonorable, progressive or illiberal (whatever illiberal means). Morality itself seems to be absent from our vocabulary, although it surely underlies all these attributes. Is there just too much borderline conduct flowing through our fluid, censor-free culture, that no mooring can contain it?

            Perusal of the Moral Monday campaign of Rev. William Barber started my reflections on morals. Moral Monday evolved into The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC): A National Call for Moral Revival led by Barber. Bruce Dixon writes critically of Barber, faulting him for blaming everything on immoral persons and policies, on lack of moral commitment. Barber calls for a cleansing of America with a “massive moral rest”, a “moral resistance”.

            “The problem”, Dixon maintains, “is that labeling your political opponents, their leaders, their misguided values and their persons as “immoral” is never a persuasive political tactic. It might make those already on your side feel nice and comfy to know they’re all moral and the other guys are not”. Dixon makes a worthy point. Especially today, when Americans are more aware than ever of increasingly economic, social and ideological polarization. So-called liberals have become sacrosanct about their own access to ‘truth’ while so-called conservatives, angry at how they are regarded and maligned, aggressively promote their own truth.

            Let’s not forget how yesterday’s immoral activists are later sanctified. Behavior (e.g. homosexuality) once attacked as sick and immoral eventually becomes codified into law. Our most esteemed American (moral) leader Martin Luther King Jr. was for many years vilified; then, when King moved beyond domestic injustices and called the American war in Vietnam immoral:-- well, that was unpatriotic which in some circles is treasonous. That charge was leveled at another memorialized leader, Malcolm X. He crossed a moral line when he defined Black Americans’ struggle for justice as not their civil right, but their ‘human right’. In that declaration Malik Shabazz (X) challenged American moral standards.

            During that same era when cultural standards were in flux, as they are today, and when military conscription was in force, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US military to fight against Vietnamese: “Shoot them for what? They never called me Ni..er; they never lynched me…never set dogs against me…”, he argued. Ali’s stand so challenged American morals that he was stripped of his boxing titles and banned from boxing-- punishment hard to fathom today.

            Or is it? Ali’s now forgotten moral stance is in my view comparable to football star Colin Kaepernick’s decision to place a knee on the ground instead of a hand on his heart as others do for the US national anthem. The moral principle on which he acted – injustice, specifically police brutalization of Black and Latino citizens--was eclipsed in the ensuing controversy. (In time, it will become enshrined in US history.)

            Try to put yourself in Kaepernick’s position leading up to his declaration. He felt compelled to speak, somehow. Did he consult others--his religious guide, his family, fellow players? Did he ask others to join him? Did he consider the repercussions? What a supreme moral act! It made Kaepernick a hero for many (including this non-football fan); he was Amnesty International’s 2018 Ambassador of Conscience. Meanwhile he was fired from his job, and, I would argue, in its moralist retort, the National Football League banned players from ‘taking a knee’ in public. Although we don’t hear any charge of immorality against Kaepernick, some call his action unpatriotic-- a grave allegation in the USA. Kaepernick himself, accepting the AI award, invokes moral issues behind his action, just as Ali did in his defense after his banishment from boxing in 1966.

            That the names of music, sports and film celebrities come into our discussion of activism and morality may not be accidental. Favorable or not, celebrity is where morality today is defined and disseminated. Author Peter King has 4.8 million followers; actor Anne Hathaway has 12+ million instagram fans; Sean Hannity’s FB friends may exceed those numbers. Then there’s The Donald. Look what his celebrity led too. END

 

[ Morality Tales-What Are the Limits of Public Behavior in USA? ]

Nepal Migrant Labor: A Central Pillar of Nepalís Grim Economy

July 30, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            They appear a hapless collection of desperate village lads lured by false promises, making their way to a hostile place fraught with peril. A small but significant number perish while working abroad, shipped home in a stark wooden box. Yet millions of Nepal’s youth take imponderable risks involved. They remain away four or more years, subjected to severe climate conditions, often misled about their assignments and salaries, dismissed for minor infractions. Their numbers swell year-after-year, with remittances back to their families mounting correspondingly.

            After almost two decades of accelerating numbers feeding this global labor market and the growing dependence on cash remittances home, up to 44% of Nepal’s GDP derives from young citizens’ flight abroad.

            Is this trend inevitable? And who really benefits? 

            Inevitable, if a) merchants in Nepal’s cities continue to reap benefits by renting lodgings and supplying goods and food for a lopsided consumer economy generated and sustained by migrants’ remittances, and b) the home government continues to disregard chronic joblessness, avoiding a genuine commitment to develop industries and enhance agriculture. That’s what’s needed for real growth and jobs at home.

            Given the poor economic prospects for the vast majority of Nepalis and their disenchantment with a new democracy where parties dish out generous grants to friends, one needs to ask if Nepal’s government itself may be exploiting foreign labor demand to keep citizens’ energies directed elsewhere.

            The lure of jobs overseas is irresistible for Nepal’s able young men and women. They leave wives, parents and children; many with jobs at home relinquish them; students abandon schooling and take on debt -- all to become one of the daily 1,200+ migrants who board a plane for the Arab Gulf or Malayasia. (A 2015 Nepali Times report notes 2,500 arrive or leave daily)

            Ganesh is one of them. He set off on his Dasain holiday to the village four years ago, but never returned-- not to his part time job in Kathmandu, not to continue his schooling, not to free lodging at his cousin-auntie’s house. “He’d stayed with us since class two; he was a good student with only a year left to complete class 10. Had there been a family crisis”, she recalled, “I’d have known.”

            Her suspicion that Ganesh had gone to the Arab Gulf was confirmed after six months. His sister Didi visited Auntie-Ma’m to collect Ganesh’s bedding. She herself had left their village for Kathmandu with her baby and Ganesh’s mother. “They rent a room here in the city; she says life is easier now; there was no one to work their fields and anyway they can live in Kathmandu on what her husband and Ganesh send them.”

            Didi’s husband was in Qatar too. “Every Nepali family has someone in The Emirates, Qatar, Saudi, Malaysia” sighs Aunti Ma’m. “Here in Nepal, we can’t find carpenters to repair our building; no helpers in the kitchen; no boys to serve in the local cafes; a shortage of motor mechanics. 

            Ganesh is one of more than 4.5 million --some estimate 7 million, if migrants to India are included -- Nepali youths working in the inhospitable atmosphere of Arab Gulf states. They choose hazards abroad over farming their terraced hillsides, over whatever a middle class family may pay them as gardeners, cleaners or drivers, over the ten dollars a day they can earn (in season) as a porter hauling trekkers’ supplies through the mountains.

            This exodus of healthy young men and women from Nepal increased sharply twenty years ago when Malaysia and Arab Gulf states were recruiting unskilled laborers. At home, the situation looked unpromising, with Nepal entering a period of instability; the Maoist revolution was spreading through the countryside; development projects produced insufficient jobs and anti-monarchy protests were widening. 

            Overseas work for low wages seems to be the best option for millions of workers in a country with no industrial development and where farmers produce barely enough to meet household needs. In the 1980s, young people left villages to work in an expanding Tibetan carpet industry in Kathmandu Valley. Factory managers were unconcerned if workers were as young as 12, if they had no education and if they slept on the floor near their looms. Eventually, exploitative conditions and heavy use of child labor in the industry drew international ire. A human rights campaign on behalf of underage workers essentially shut down the carpet factories; tens of thousands became jobless. Labor brokers supplying workers for the expanding Arab Gulf market tapped that void and, year-by-year, the number of Nepalis working there rose.  

            Seeking work outside is not new to Nepal. A 2005 overview notes how, more than a century ago, Nepalis migrated to India to work in tea plantations. Starting in the 19th Century village men were recruited into British Gurkha military regiments, their numbers increasing through the two world wars. (Today, Gurkhas serve in the Indian army and with British regiments posted in Afghanistan as well.)

            Returned workers with substantial capital from their overseas work happily share evidence of improvements to their lives, changes otherwise impossible. Take Ram, for example; he set up a small factory in Nepal with his earnings. Gyelmi Lama boasts: “As a driver in Qatar, I earned 150,000 Nepali rupees ($1,500) monthly; nowadays I’m with my family in Kathmandu, and I support my parents in our village in Hetara.” He’s one of countless taxi drivers in Kathmandu Valley returned from overseas, now owning their own vehicles. Chetri was returning to Dubai where he runs a shop, mainly serving Nepali clients. KP, another outgoing passenger, manages a Nepali restaurant in Abu Dhabi catering to migrant workers, and tells me of his plans for a travel agency specializing in tours for Europeans living in the Emirates; “It’s barely four hours away; they can visit Kathmandu for a weekend!”

            Remittances sent monthly sustain workers’ families back home. (One survey indicates that by 2009, average annual income of Nepali households from remittances reached the equivalent of $1,400 and $2,100.) This allows villagers to hire a poorer relative to mind a few animals in their village, rent lodging for themselves in the city, and send children to a private school. (Government schools are so bad that even inexpensive private schools are preferred, and these too are flourishing because of remittances.) Purna who worked in Saudi Arabia spent 8,000 rupees ($80.) monthly for his daughter’s school fees. Since she’s heading to college, he has new plans for himself; “I keep my two taxis, but I stop driving; too much construction going on now; I make partner in a new business in Kavre near my village. We buy a bulldozer and make contracts to build roads.” Yes,” he asserts, “lots of business opportunity now.”

            What percentage of returned migrant workers can duplicate Purna’s, Gyelmi’s and Chetri’s endeavors is hard to calculate.

           

            Human rights investigations and early reports of migrants’ conditions in the Nepali press highlighted the human toll—extortion, fraud and abuse were widespread. (Anti-Muslim feeling in Nepal has been fueled by early reports of workers’ mistreatment by Arab employers.) Investigative journalist Devendra Bhattarai writing for Kantipur, and filmmaker Kesang Tseten drew attention to migrants’ troubles in 2010. And while improved conditions curbed severe exploitation, many migrants still suffer. Laborers’ hardships are compounded by the inability or refusal of Nepali embassies abroad to intervene on behalf of distressed citizens, or to assist them. (When one ambassador called Qatar an open jail, she was recalled.)

            Only recently has the Nepali press been willing to more closely examine the context of labor migration. The result is a sobering account of exploitation by labor brokers, mainly Indian and Nepali, beginning before workers reach their destination. (Nepali Times, 2015) Some bilateral agreements to protect workers have been negotiated and a $50. million fund in Nepal (hardly used to date) was set up for needy cases.

            Notwithstanding all the obstacles and difficulties, at the apex of those responsible sits the Nepali government. This is addressed, finally, in an excellent 2018 Nepali Times series that points to the administration’s policy failures, and exposes how officials enrich themselves off fees and bribes from would-be migrants. It asserts what others have avoided saying:-- the government is evading the need to rectify unemployment at home. “…Successive elected rulers since 1990 have masked their failure to create jobs within the country by taking the easy way out-- to export labour.”   

 

 

Aziz is a veteran anthropologist and radio journalist, also author of Heir to A Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, published by Tribhuvan University, Nepal, and available through Barnes and Noble in USA and Canada.

 

 

           

[ Nepal Migrant Labor: A Central Pillar of Nepalís Grim Economy ]

Nepal's Economy: Can Contented Tourists Match Desperate Migrant Laborers?

July 20, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            A busy air route between Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport and overseas is via the communications hub of The Arab Emirates. Several direct flights between Abu Dhabi or Doha and Nepal depart and arrive daily. Appearing unremarkable (on any day or year over the last decade), any assemblage of passengers, outbound or inbound, itself informs the character of Nepal’s impoverished (sic) economy:--workers remittances--the major sector-- foreign aid, and tourism.

            Making my way into and from Nepal through Arab Gulf airports on a regular basis over many years, I noted a consistent composition of the 200 or so people on these flights. Inbound and outbound, they offer as genuine a portrait of the country’s economy as any generously funded study by a team of economists.

            Travelers on these flights fall into three distinct groups—1) Nepali youths employed overseas; 2) tourist-trekkers; 3) economic development personnel.

            Those occupying the majority of seats, 75% or more, are young Nepalese-- mostly men, most under 30. They dress similarly—a simple shirt and trousers, maybe a thin jacket. They check into their flight with a light knapsack or carry-on suitcase. If outbound from Nepal they sport fresh haircuts; around the necks of some hang silken kathak-- good luck scarves offered by well-wishers.

            In the departure lounge at Tribhuvan Airport, these men appear shy. Once boarded and secure in their seats, their emotion blooms as if, until then, they’d remained uncertain if they might leave the ground. Now Nepali phrases sweep around the rows of seats throughout the four-hour flight, a relaxed animated dialogue that suggests these men are old friends. In fact most, until now, were strangers.

            These Nepalis’ demeanor contrasts with the minority passengers, ‘westerners’ --European, American, Australian or New Zealander-- varying in age from 20 to 70, sometimes older and generally traveling in couples. They too carry little more than a single backpack, but double or triple the size of the Nepali youths’ gear, each branded with a recognizable sports logo. Whatever the weather, these vacationers clutch water bottles and wear sturdy climbing boots. 

            If a Business Class is designated on these short flights, you’ll find there a handful of sedate travelers, a mixed but mainly white group. Dressed casually--no sign of backpacks or climbing boosts here—they’ll tote only a computer bag. These subdued women and men are ‘development’ experts-- in Nepal to assist (with anything)-- Red Cross, UNICEF, Medicine Sans Frontiers, Norwegian hydroelectric engineers, Microsoft educational consultants, democracy monitors, Australian gender analysts, pollution appraisers and endless other NGO project staff. From the moment they’re seated, they flip through graph-laden reports, phone in hand -- all destined for yet another conference. (At the time of Nepal’s 2015 earthquake, journalists’ crowded these flights alongside NGO emergency personnel, temporarily replacing tourist travelers. Although most seats were taken by Nepali sons rushing home out of concern for loved ones.)

            There you have it: the Nepal economy in a single flight.

            The young Nepali men on the flight are all migrant laborers drawn from every corner of the nation, from a range of ethnic group. They are drivers and masons, carpenters and farmers-- lads with a few years of schooling, all new to international travel, all hopeful. Some are urban born, others villagers who’ve taken on debt to pay the fees necessary to secure overseas work. A fraction of these youths head to Malaysia; most are destined for The Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Together they constitute a force estimated to be as high as seven million Nepali laborers (officially reported as close to 4 million) employed abroad in estates, stadiums and museums, restaurants and malls, offices, houses and farms. (A handful of drivers or cooks are recruited by American security agencies in Iraq. A few migrants, mainly women, become domestics in the Arab Gulf, but most travel to Lebanon and Israel to work for families there.)    

            The white passengers in economy class are tourists. They’re working people who’ve saved for a year or more to manage their enchanted Himalayan holiday. They are a happy lot, the tourists—people infinitely patient over delayed flights and uncomplaining about days bedridden with an intestinal disease. Once airborne, they speak in whispers, while engaged writing blogs. 

            Tourists in Nepal number nearly a million annually. Their contribution to the economy (contrary to claims in Wikipedia ) however amounts to barely five percent because the business is highly centralized, visitors’ stays are short, and cheap lodgings are plentiful. (Following the earthquake, Nepal’s sophisticated tourist industry bulletins sounded an alarm of the quake’s impact on tourism. Although exaggerated, this helped mobilize funding for immediate restoration of notable temples and trekking routes. Tourist needs seemed to take priority in contrast to thousands of damaged village dwellings and public schools-- a responsibility of the Nepali government—still awaiting repair.)

            As for the non-governmental organizations, their economic impact derives less through assistance to the needy, than from their bureaucratic structures centered in the capital. Charitable fees for visiting consultants may come from headquarters. No, it’s in the sprawling local agencies where we find a significant impact on Nepal’s economy. Here, tens of thousands of salaried staff dispense (foreign aid) money into the market to sustain themselves and their offices. Together with civil servants whose salaries are supplemented by payoffs from agencies and businesses, this community now constitutes the core of Kathmandu’s sizable middle class. House owners rent to NGOs, restaurants and shops offer an atmosphere and cuisine worthy of internationals, along with staff (gardeners, drivers, cleaners, etc.) who manage their homes and offices. Many tens of thousands live off aid flowing into Nepal. They in turn need vehicles, electrical generators and washing machines; they build gated homes and hire local agencies to arrange their travel and chauffeurs to drive their children to exclusive private schools. They gather at the glass malls and shop at brand-named stores and restaurants along Durbar Marg.

            This conspicuously wealthy population of Kathmandu has emerged out of the 20,000 or more NGOs based here that offer Nepal everything-- from city sanitation services to a surfeit of agencies sheltering women and researching hydro-power--whether or not the nation really needs them. Although a substantial element in the city’s economy, the NGO financial input does not register in any official assessment of Nepal’s economy.

            In any case, the mainstay of the nation’s economy lies elsewhere. It derives from the accumulated impact of cash remittances to their families from those anxious lads who boarded planes for jobs abroad—feckless workers often characterized as exploited labor.

            Some mistreatment is undeniable, just as contract freelance workers catering to the needs of New Yorkers and Londoners are exploited. But these millions of migrants laboring where they can never become citizens transfer billions of dollars in earnings home. That is having a profound impact on Nepal’s economy. And even though that economic stimulus may be misplaced—because it drives consumerism rather than labor-intense local industries, it still transforms the life of these youths and their families that economic development plans could not.

(This dynamic, we will explore in the next of our series on Nepal.)  END

Aziz is the author of Heir to A Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, published by Tribhuvan University in Nepal, and available through Barnes and Noble.

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