Blog Archive

Blog Archive – December, 2011

Nepal's Trials in Democracy

December 06, 2011

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Since writing the first part of these reflections, we’ve learned that the submission of the constitution has been delayed for yet another six months. Who’s responsible for this? and who, outside Nepal cares if this democracy fails or succeeds?

Many rush to assist (sic)Arab democratic movements and even hasten Arab revolts underway . Meanwhile Nepal’s emerging democracy is taking place in a geopolitical atmosphere where neither India (long an influential player in Nepal), nor the UK or USA offer genuine support. (Washington maintains a quiet but active presence in Nepal but has never publicly welcomed this new and real democracy although it offers abundant opportunities for educated Nepalese to settle in the US.)

The marginality of Washington in Nepal’s new found freedom’s may not be a bad thing. Perhaps the real test of a revolution’s success and the emergence of leaders with integrity may lie in the absence of a foreign hand to whom allegiance is owed or who dominate through puppet leaders. Even so, one cannot deny Delhi’s special interest in Nepal’s politics and excessive concern with India in Nepal’s public debates.

One exemplary institution that Nepal’s democracy has spawned is a free and aggressive press. Since the reforms, vocal newspapers and magazines have flourished… in English as well as Nepali. Dozens of papers, many representing the various parties, assure a lively political debate. Nepalese are well informed and many journalists are dedicated to a rigorous examination of issues. And although some pettiness and scandal mongering prevail, one meets hardworking, talented young men and women in the profession who ensure that the press plays a central role in the democracy. Although party differences exaggerated by the press sometimes leave one feeling that the country is in a state of anarchy. 

 Because of Indian economic dominance, the inability of the successive governments to implement promised reforms, to stem corruption and attract investment, the economy of Nepal is in real trouble. (Although no worse than under the dictatorship.) Everyone knows that these problems cannot be addressed until a stable leadership takes hold and the new constitution is established.

Then there is the problem of Nepal’s excessive foreign non-governmental activity (we cannot call it ‘assistance’). It is unlikely to be reformed anytime soon. But for the first time in my long involvement with Nepal, I heard outspoken criticism of the NGO presence there. One commentator actually described Nepal as “an NGO farm”; i.e. it breeds NGOs (for their own benefit).

Few Nepalese today will say that NGOs and expert advisors have significantly assisted Nepal; some even say “they do more harm” (than good). Everyone knows what high salaries and benefits NGO expatriates enjoy compared to what a local NGO employee takes home; they also know what little filters down and out to supposed project beneficiaries across the nation.

While the new government admits the that NGO activities are of limited benefit, they have no policy to reform or reduce them. Certainly the thousands of NGOs based in Kathmandu account for the steep rise in land prices, much of the conspicuous wealth one sees in the city. Their salaries and overhead expenses support many restaurants, brand name shops and elite services and products.

That aside, a more severe economic problem has emerged in recent years. One cannot speak about Nepal’s economy today without reference to a new and troubling reality—namely the migration of millions of young laborers, most of them unskilled, to the Arab Gulf countries. This has occurred in the past six years after the collapse of the carpet industry, blighted by a campaign against the exploitation of child workers. It is also due to failed development strategies for the rural people. (Exploitation of trafficked workers overseas is hardly better than child labor.)

Although remittances from abroad (an estimated 3 million workers, 13% of the entire population) help support millions of Nepalese at home, it creates serious social and economic problems overseas and at home. Rural areas are depopulated and agricultural production is in decline. Moreover thousands of men and women return with terrifying stories of mistreatment at the hands of Nepalese labor brokers and their Arab employers. Although widely publicized (in excellent investigative work by journalist Devendra Bhattarai and film-maker Kesang Tseten), and openly discussed by human rights agents, intellectuals and consultants, no one seems to have a plan to correct this problem. And Nepalese embassies in the Arab Gulf countries seem unwilling or unable to address the needs of their citizens abroad. While the inflow of cash from this labor seems to be crucial to Nepal, long term benefits to the economy remain to be seen. With an already weak industrial base, Nepal becomes more and more a consumer economy which in turn increases dependence on Indian imports, and he need for cash.

So problems are plentiful. There are abundant reasons for citizens to be exasperated if not fearful for their future. But major reforms won in the past 6 years have to be acknowledged--institutions essential for a healthy democracy are firmly in place. Without foreign help and with a minimum of human sacrifice, Nepal has come a very long way—surely a model for those still struggling against entrenched dictators. And a warning lesson for those tempted to interfere.

[ Nepal's Trials in Democracy ]


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