Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Enough Politics – let’s talk Development" by Birat Simha (published in the People's Review, 12 August 2010)

This piece was originally titled “What’s wrong with Nepal” and was intended to explore the political mess this country is in. On second thoughts, the idea seemed totally redundant. We all know all there is to know about the messy politics. And yes, politics is supposed to dictate every aspect of the society. But maybe that is the problem. Perhaps we need to veer away from a politics-driven approach to a Development-driven one while examining what’s wrong with Nepal (the country not the caretaker Prime Minister with the same name!).

Shelving aside elaborate ivory tower definitions of what “development” is, I consider development as simply maximising the human potential of society. One can talk about fancy indicators like GDP, per capita income, rates for literacy, maternal and infant mortality, etc. ad infitum. What it all boils down to is meeting the basic needs of every member of society, providing each member with equal opportunity for advancement, and ensuring they are able to lead secure and peaceful lives. Food and shelter are the very basic of needs. But these needs do not differentiate humans from animals because the latter too have the very same needs. Opportunity to better one’s life is the key. No, we are not all born equal.. But we should all have equal access to opportunities which we can utilise according to our abilities. Without these opportunities, we are prisoners of our birth, locked in a state of inertia, besotted with frustration, basically born to scrape through life and die without any improvement in our lives.

Popular terms such as “democracy” and “human rights” are not mentioned above. They are not because these concepts are made superfluous when one is talking about basic needs, opportunity, peace and security. We have wars of occupation currently ongoing in the world in the name of democracy. Democracy is the modern Holy Grail which some countries, who pride themselves on their democratic mettle, try and imposes on other countries which have no stomach yet for it. Human rights is a term that has been maligned and overused to the extent of making it a jocular political tool. We have seen how well international and domestic human rightists have performed in Nepal.

So in lieu of getting our blood pressures up at the political shenanigans being played out in and out of the Constituent Assembly, it may be healthier and more constructive to look at the state of the country through the prism of development. Nepal ranks 145th, out of 179 countries, in UNDP’s October 2009 Human Development Report (HDR), a comprehensive measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living. As per the Asian Development Bank’s 2010 report, from a total population of 29.25 million with 83% of the population living in rural areas, about 13 million adult Nepalis remain illiterate. About 3 million Nepalis do not have the probability of surviving to age 40 (HDR); and the average Nepali cannot expect to live beyond their mid-60s. 11 million Nepalis, 38% of the population, still live on less than US$1 a day. Sri Lanka, with a substantially smaller population than Nepal, has a higher gross national income than Nepal. Over 50% of rural households cannot produce enough food to meet basic needs; and 39 of the 75 districts are food deficient. Rabid unemployment levels drive large numbers of some of the best and most motivated of our youth to other countries.

The outflow of the youth force is the most blatant indicator of a lack of opportunity in this country. Many halt their education for menial jobs in the Gulf countries among others. Schools close down at the drop of a hat when anyone calls a strike/bandh. This in fact has forced many parents, those who can afford it, to send their children to schools in India – a substantial outflow of funds, besides the fact that these youngsters lose touch with the culture and society of their native country. The typical college graduate has to find a job, the few that exist, based mostly not on his/her merits but on contacts. Those who do not find employment, and cannot find a way to go to other countries, fall into the pit of frustration, disillusionment and radicalism. Let us keep in mind that over 45% of the Nepali population is between the ages of 10 and 34 (Demographic and Health Survey – Nepal, 2006).

The other social indicator is Health of course. Maternal and infant mortality are two indicators that are oft quoted as having improved remarkably in Nepal. Nevertheless, as recently as 2007, half of the children under the age of 5 were stunted, and 10% were actually malnourished. 75% of pregnant women were anemic. Only 27 % of rural households had access to a latrine. Diahaorrea outbreak, and deaths from it, in some districts are still annual events. Yesterday’s papers talk about a possible polio outbreak. Tuberculosis and Hepatitis continue to be major threats. Diabetes has become a rising challenge. Medical service, even in the capital, is sparse with those who can afford it invariably rushing to Delhi or Bangkok for urgent medical problems. Basic facilities such as safe drinking water and sanitation, doctors, nurses, and health center/hospital beds continue to be inadequate, particularly in rural areas. Malaria, especially in southern Nepal, remains a threat.

So the next time our “leaders” (and I use the term stingily) and the CA assembly members put on their political circus act, let us look past all that. They know not what they do. They have not even bothered to approve yet a budget for development activities for this fiscal year. They have lost their way and forgotten the reason why they are where they are – to help the People, as public servants. Let us leave them to their games and concentrate on developing the country, without them if need be. Let us look past the cloak and dagger stuff, the skullduggery, the unashamed cheating on the aspirations of the people who voted for them. If the government cannot help us, we must help ourselves.

Media attention is overly focused on the political. For example, yesterday’s (9 August 2010) OpEd pages of one of the major English dailies has an editorial on the prime minister election, an interview with Maoist Number Two (and potentially Number One) Baburam Bhattarai, and a motley smorgasbord of articles including one on the recent unsolicited and unsuccessful visit of Shyam Saran, allegedly the special representative of the Indian prime minister, to Kathmandu. There are two pages dedicated to “Business”; no space for development issues.

The standard refrain is that development prospects hinge on lasting peace and stability. Well, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then government and the Maoists was signed on 21 November 2006, and we are still searching for that elusive peace and stability. Time to unlock development from this mirage. The politicians can quibble over who gets to the mirage first. Development must now become a people-led agenda, supported by the business sector and the non-governmental and community development organizations with advocacy from civil society, which has unfortunately proven itself Lenin’s “useful idiots”, and the media of course.

Finally, a word on philanthropy. It is not well developed in Nepal. We have the sorry habit of looking always to the government, and especially to the myriad of donors, for development funding. We should take the example of the 2nd and 3rd richest men in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who have pledged half their fortunes to philanthropy and are on a crusade to persuade all 400 plus billionaires in the United States to do the same. There may be no billionaires in Nepal, but there are enough well-endowed domestic sources, individual and organizational, to provide substantial development funding. Instead of complaining only, it is time these sources put money where their mouths are.

(The writer is a former UN international staff)