"Goray mithai, goray mithai." I was walking through a village in the Kali Gandaki gorge, and the crystal clear voices of the children brought joy to my heart. At first. You see, as I still struggle with Nepali, I assumed the tots were calling out a greeting to the sweet foreigner in their midst. My spirits soared like the Himalayan heights around me. There was a spring in my step.
Then around the corner, dreadful reality intervened. A group of German tourists-trekkers I deduced from the pastel Gore-Tex space suits they wore-were standing surrounded by children.
The kids chanted the same mantra that had so buoyed my tired feet, with a slight edge of hysteria. My fellow foreigners from the continent of Europe were distributing the "mithai", along with car window stickers saying "Stuttgart Airport" and a host of other trinkets. Trade goods, they used to call them. I'm surprised they weren't carrying beads and mirrors to exchange for gold and animal
skins. Feathers too, especially red ones-the natives love the red ones. I felt my goray face turn red with anger as the tourists took turns taking pictures of themselves in a sea of frenzied children. I willed myself to be calm, then adopted what I hope was a cynically polite tone of inquiry. "And just what do you think you're doing," I asked, "handing out sweets to children who have no access to dental care? Do you think these people are poor, deserving savages who crave your gobbets of civilization?"
My continential co-trekkers were aghast at this outburst from what was clearly a madman, and one with an American accent to boot. They know well in Europe that fanaticism and the New World go together well. So they wisely ignored me, put away the trade goods and shuffled off down the trail
-leaving me surrounded by glaring young children, all aware that my sanctimonious words had cost them a mouthful of mithai. Oops. But that set me to thinking, as I beat my retreat. This assumption by foreign visitors that all village life is poverty and even a few pens are a welcome relief for the downtrodden young, is it not akin to the whole attitude behind foreign aid? Whoa boy, you're on dangerous ground, said the wiser half of me but the thoughts, unhindered by wisdom, kept coming.
Has a half century of foreign aid helped Nepal, or any other country, to change meaningfully the lives of its neediest and most deprived citizens? My years in Pakistan were marked by an annual ritual, the presentation of the budget in Parliament. An earnest and no doubt competent Finance Minister would try to explain how a country that generated relatively little in public revenue could spend almost all it took in on defence and debt servicing. The latter, I assume was to keep the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund happy. Pesky little fripperies like health and education, they were covered by grants and soft loans (more debt) from those same multi-laterals and nice nations like Canada or Sweden.
So we helped the generals accumulate arms and wealth by funding social programmes over which we had no control and which seldom, if ever, reached those who needed them. Phrase it like that to an official or a diplomat and they looked as if you were something unpleasant stuck to their shoe. But they didn't deny it.
My German friends in the Kali Gandaki valley (and every other pen or candy distributing foreign visitor) were simply apeing the behaviour of the great and the good. They were handing out tid-bits, willy-nilly, to assuage a conscience just a little troubled by their own wealth and wasteful consumption. Or so said the cynical me that day between Marpha and Tukuche. Oh no, replied the waning idealist, doing something, anything, is better than nothing and those kids did enjoy their sweets. Even if it rotted their teeth.
I haven't really made up my mind yet about the big picture. But I know which way I am leaning. And it isn't towards a pocket full of sweets on my next trek. t
(Daniel Lak is a journalist specialising on South Asia based in Kathmandu.)