A development failure: the development-conflict nexus
FIC, August 2008, pp. 20-24
- There are several interpretations regarding the role played by international development actors in the coming about of the "People's war":
- According to the dominant view, the failure of mainstream development plans and strategies are at the root of the insurgency. Conflict emerged as a response to poverty, exclusion and inequalities that development actors failed to address. In this perspective, what is needed is a reorientation of the development programmes to give it a greater anti-poverty focus and become more "conflict-sensitive".
- Another, more critical, view sees the development failure as more structural than technical. In this perspective, the UN and mainstream development agencies were blind or even complicit in their support to a corrupt and unjust system based on structural violence. The caste system was even reproduced within the international organisation with most staff recruited among the Kathmandu upper-class elite.
- A third perspective gives international development actors a more positive role, suggesting that the Maoist insurgency actually built on an anti-discrimination discourse imported by INGOs working in the rural areas since the early 1990s.
A development crisis. Understanding the root causes of the crisis and its actual consequences for ordinary Nepalis is more problematic. How is it possible that a low-intensity Maoist insurgency—something so anachronistically “20th century”—took hold in the central hills of Nepal and spread rapidly to engulf most of the rural areas of the country and to trigger a popular movement that effectively led to the overthrow of the ancien regime? The literature on development in Nepal15 and the opinions of staff of aid agencies, donors, and intellectuals we interviewed in Kathmandu, indicate a number of competing, and sometimes overlapping, narratives of the development-conflict nexus.
(a) The dominant narrative is one of “botched development,” the notion that the failure of mainstream development plans and strategies are at the root of the insurgency. The emphasis on infrastructure did not really change the lives of ordinary people and conflict emerged as a response to poverty and exclusion—issues that were not at the forefront of the concerns of the development enterprise in Nepal. The assumption of the proponents of this view is that appropriate strategies on the anti-poverty front would lead to peace. The problem is seen as technical; the solution is to be found in changing the mix of components of donor and government interventions. While the government, donors and agencies did not do their job in understanding the problem, they could be part of the solution. Supporting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), redesigning programs in a more “conflict sensitive way” and other adjustments to the way the aid system works would put the development agenda back on track. The notion that the problem is technical and can be resolved by “scientific” means is also a Maoist motif. As a Maoist cadre told us: “poverty and discrimination were the root causes of the conflict. These are problems that the state can solve in a scientific way.”16 Aid organizations and their delivery systems were often perceived by the people as emanations of the state and were therefore seen as guilty by association with the institutions of the autocratic state. “Large parts of public opinion as well as the Maoists have often questioned the
actual poverty focus of development agencies, their employment policies, their transparency and accountability.”17
(b) A more critical narrative expands on development failure and goes deeper. According to this view, the flaws are structural, not technical.18 Because of its linkages to the Kathmandu elite and because the development enterprise was Kathmandu-centric, if not lost in a “Kathmandu bubble,” it was unable to “see” the real conditions of the country. One observer calls this the “Shangri-La effect”: donors, the UN and mainstream development agencies were blind or even complicit
in their support to a corrupt and unjust system based on structural violence.19 Unlike in other countries, they did not feel it was their responsibility to address caste, gender and ethnic discrimination. By and large, throughout the 1990s they seemed to view the caste system and structural violence as givens that could not be changed (or that it was not their responsibility to change).20 Moreover, in a very literal sense, they reproduced the caste system within their own organizations. Because their gate-keepers—Nepalis in government and civil society who were their
primary interlocutors in their aid activities—were mostly from upper caste backgrounds, agencies naturally recruited from this elite, English-speaking and likeminded pool. Of course, donors and aid agencies have cozy relationships with local elites in many developing countries, but in Nepal this was taken to extremes. The proportion of non-upper caste staff in aid agencies is strikingly low, mirroring the domination of “NBCs” (Newari-Brahmin-Chettri castes)21 in the civil service.22
As elsewhere, aid agencies tended to be capital-centric: like their government counterparts, few senior aid officials ventured outside Kathmandu and major district centers reachable by road or by air. There were exceptions of course—a handful of INGOs, a few committed individuals in the donor community—but the combination of elite linkages and the top-down nature of the development enterprise resulted in a major disconnect between the aid bureaucracies and the people they purported to help. This “insider-outsider dynamic” permeates the aid relationship and undermines it. As the HA2015 case studies show, this is a recurring theme in all countries studied. Projects are part of an externally-driven dominant discourse that, as we shall discuss in the next section, is perceived by the people on the ground as imposed from the outside, rigid, non-participatory, and lacking in accountability.
(c) There is also a counter-cultural narrative to the development failure explanation. Some view the emergence of the Maoists and the spread of the insurgency as a “development success”. A few international NGOs had been supporting communitybased participatory programs in the western hills in the early 1990s. By raising issues of exclusion and gender and, in particular, by conducting multi-year informal adult literacy courses they “prepared the terrain” for the Maoist anti-discrimination agenda.23 In a sense these projects were the antibodies of the dominant development discourse particularly because of their awareness-raising components.24The
argument is interesting as a counterpoint, but not necessarily valid across the board. The penetration of aid in general and of small-scale community participation projects in particular was (and is) quite limited. As a Nepali aid worker in a remote village in Rolpa pointed out: “each donor has its own pet valley where it works. Sometimes this changes the life of local people. But it does not add up. Projects arejust tiny islands of progress in a sea of poverty”. There is perhaps a broader point. Change, long-stifled during the Panchayat years of royalist autocracy, was in the air
in the early 1990s. Education was expanding and so were the communication networks. In non Maoist-heartland areas—for example in the Terai or in Kathmandu—when we asked about the drivers of change respondents rarely mentioned the Maoist anti-discrimination agenda as the primary driver. Improved education opportunities and even migration to India were often mentioned first as factors in social change."
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