Reading some of the recent articles on Nepal, I was faced with an almost philosophical question: What if the ‘transition’ from the ‘old’ to a ‘new’ Nepal wasn’t really a process, but a convenient discursive construction to keep people motivated and hide the fact that many of the Kathmandu-based elite still don’t have a ‘vision’ for Nepal? Or maybe there is no ‘vision’ at all in the 21st century if your country is lodged between India and China and exposed to global development models?
I have come across three articles recently that capture the current challenges quite well in their different ways. Seymon Brown and Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote a piece for the NYT (Nepal, on the Brink ofCollapse
) and according to most observers gave a somewhat accurate description of the current situation, even if some claims about the risks of a ‘failed state’ may be a bit alarmist. Sara Shneiderman and Mark Turin’s letter to the NYT
was a helpful qualification and addition:
‘Still, Nepal has made substantial progress in its democratic transition, which began only in 1990 and is unlikely to end now. Accomplishments include the creation of a genuinely open public sphere, in which all citizens can engage in wide-ranging debate; unprecedented political participation from previously marginalized groups; and the agreement on demobilization and integration of Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army.’
But in the end, I find it difficult not to get cynical when reading about the Constituent Assembly. Drafting a constitution is not rocket science, other countries have managed that task, too, and Nepal is not that different or special. A good constitution pretty much fits on a cocktail napkin and then other laws and political institutions need to fill the spirit of that constitution with life. I am not close to the ground enough to be able to judge how much ‘bottom-up’ driven these processes really are, but I think that the concept of ‘federalism’ is often used as a panacea that no matter what the final outcome will be it will ultimately fall short, as the Browns write:
‘However, instead of unifying the country, constitution-drafting has become a frenzied contest to secure special privileges for one’s own community’.
Federalism works best if there are different resources that need to be (re-)distributed and a social, economic and political consensus exists that the system is operating relatively fair and transparent and for the benefit of the whole country. Right now, most resources are Kathmandu-based and there will be a long struggle about who gets how much out of the main cake. Compromises between geographical regions, ethnic groups or other factors are imperative and I don’t think most groups are prepared for this as they struggle to prove their legitimacy and claims to the federal budget. And amongst all these debates, some of which have been going on for all of the six years since the end of the conflict, China is pursuing its model of ‘development’ in a similar way as it does in Africa. The BBC article (New roads bring change and danger to Nepal
is just one reminder that while the Kathmandu- and international donor elites are talking, China is doing-for better or for worse. China’s influence on rural Nepal will become bigger than many Western donor effort and it may catch some of the primarily Kathmandu-based talking circles by surprise during their federalism workshops, peacebuilding conferences and marketing assessments on how Nepal should have another ‘year of tourism’.
Finally, I read an interesting piece in Republica by Pradeep Raj Giri (I haven't found a link yet and has to rely on a scan of the article) and I was startled by the first sentence:
‘Our country is in a state where everybody is eager to see the direction it takes’.
Well, to be honest this sounds very 2006/7-ish to me. In many ways, Nepal has been taken a direction already by deciding to ‘wait’ for a better future.
What those three stories indicate to me is that while there is a lot of soul searching going on about the ‘future direction’ of Nepal, the future is actually happening right now. It will be difficult for Nepal to carve out a place between Chinese, Indian and Western models of ‘development’ which are not that different in their foundations of economic growth, resource use and more consumption – all of which is happening in Nepal while some members of the elite cling to their power dreaming about a Himalayan Switzerland that is unlikely to happen.
One of my favourite blogs from Nepal
by Chandan Sapkota just featured a piece on the changing imports and export
and his observations are not very encouraging:
Sophistication of Nepali export basket is very low, Competitiveness of Nepali export items is going down [and] Due to huge remittance inflows, Nepalis are consuming at an alarming rate.
I know that Nepal has a great capacity of ‘muddling through’ and this seems the likeliest path for the country rather than any overly optimistic or pessimistic extremes. Maybe analysts need to read more Lindblom
than Weber or Marx...