The plane shudders through the cloud that always seems to blanket the gap in the hills around the Kathmandu valley. I take a final sip of my RNAC coffee and hand the cup to a flight attendant, the horrors of the Gujarat earthquake well and truly behind me now. First off the plane, first through immigration, gazing around approvingly at the assembled ranks of foreign tourists come to lavish their hard currency on Nepal.
Then a jarring reminder of things unpleasant as I visit the mens' room briefly, near the luggage carousel. An attendant, presumably a government servant, makes no bones about it. "Sir, give me money," he says in pretty clear English, begging on duty. He's done this before, I can tell. The mind makes inevitable and perhaps slightly unfair comparisons with the past two weeks travelling through Gujarat-there were people truly in need, with no government jobs and little of any consequence left undamaged by the earthquake. And not once was a hand extended towards me in supplication, nor a voice raised to ask for anything other than the media coverage I provide because it's my job.
An old Muslim woman crouched on the rubble of a village home, tears dry on her dusty faces a few days after rescuers discovered her husband's body; members of a Hindu youth organisation rebuilding their shattered temple, but at the same time running a free and generous kitchen from a tent alongside; middle class families from old Bhuj getting together to sing bhajans in their tents at the city's old open air theatre-the stage piled high with relief goods. No one asked for anything. Some complained about the government, or said they'd really like to get their hands on a better tent. But no one asked me for one, because they knew I didn't have one. And they had their pride.
That washroom attendant in Tribhuvan Airport is a rich man by comparison, but no doubt he doesn't think so. Some readers may remember a column from some months ago, wondering whether it was right and proper to hand sweets out to children whilst trekking. That question, put to an foreign acquaintance, brought a swift reply. "Why not? The country's addicted to foreign aid anyway. Might as well start them young." Oh dear, I thought at the time. Too cynical, too brutal, even as I offered up the obligatory wry chuckle. Now I'm not so sure. I've always had a sneaking suspicion that too much outside assistance is a bad thing for a person, a family, a community, a nation. It eats away at local initiative and pride, sidelines self reliance all of which Nepal has in abundant potential. People begin to think that good things only come from outside and they notice that local leaders and elites don't deliver the goods. They have to take a begging bowl to the big table where the rich boys eat. Even fledgling or moribund notions of accountability and the role of democracy, the media and the courts in bringing the elite to book, all these are marginalised in a cascade of money for nothing.
In Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, I've seen how promiscuous development assistance, even given in good faith, spawns rampant corruption and destroys peoples' self worth. Yes, yes, there are many other forces at play here: natural disaster, social inequity, bad local management, incompetence, naivet?, even outright cynicism and larceny. But increasingly, I am convinced that aid itself is the major problem-however benign the source.
So apologies to the fellow in the loo at the airport. He extended his hand to the wrong man. The American and Swedish tourists calling out to each other in the arrivals hall might have been easier pickings. But Nepal should be aware that once-generous international donors are starting to think like me. A scary thought, but consider that decades of generous overseas assistance has meant little to hundreds of millions in this subcontinent. They probably won't even know if it dries up, and I think they'll be the better for it. Perhaps they'll force their elites to get up and start doing the job they're supposed to do. Or else.