A friend from abroad returned from a trek recently with a smirk on her face. "I met someone who knows you," she said, the smile broadening. I preened, ever the alpha male, and prepared to acknowledge my fame and bask in my visitor's admiration. "But I don't think he liked you much," she said, pricking my egotistical bubble as effectively as any needle.
My friend, as it turned out, was walking along the Kali Gandaki with someone from Kathmandu's aid community. It emerged that she was staying with friends in the capital, and when asked who her hosts were, she gave my name. Apparently, the local aid worker looked as if he'd swallowed something unpleasant, then made one of those obvious and artificial changes in subject. "I don't think he liked what you write about aid," she concluded. Luckily she's a very dear friend, one who is allowed to make fun of me and enjoy my discomfort.
I immediately thought of Oscar Wilde and his line that not being talked about was worse than people saying bad things about you. I also believe this illustrates one of the development world's great weaknesses, especially here in Nepal. A conversation at a party recently confirmed my feelings. I was pressing an official of a big international agency for information, not just on achievements but also failures. And I was asking how much things cost, just generally being a pesky journalist.
"You people," I was told, "you're always so negative, why don't you emphasise some good things about our work." On the one hand, it's a valid point. Success stories should be reported and given as much prominence as disaster. On the other, the development business is-I submit-murky, opaque and oversensitive to criticism. Try mentioning the seminal work by journalist Graham Hancock Lords of Poverty around anyone who works for the IMF, the World Bank or a UN agency, and you'll see them wince. They'll tell you emphatically, and correctly, that things have improved vastly since the late '80s when Hancock uncovered tawdry tales of cynicism, corruption and incompetence in the multilateral agencies.
The World Bank, for example, is doing great work in the field
of public health, and, thanks to the campaign against the Arun III project in Nepal, steering clear of large dams. The Asian Development Bank is finding ways to fund infrastructure that involve locals and give them services they need quickly. However, in a country like Nepal, where aid and loans are so crucial to the economy, there is still far too much unaccountability and lack of transparency. Much development money now goes towards encouraging good governance and peoples' awareness of their rights and responsibilities.
But are similar standards applied to the internal activities of the agencies, and more crucially, are local people-and not just their elites-given the right to inspect budgets, assess impacts and choose what they want from foreign-funded development? If overseas agencies encourage local people to hold their elites to account, then they should offer themselves up for similar scrutiny. Too often, those with the money or the expertise call the shots. This is no longer viable. The position of the Maoists on foreign aid and assistance should be a wake up call to anyone working in that sector. It's not just the Nepali government that has to win hearts and minds, and make itself more accountable.
And yes, I agree, we in the media need to follow the same rules too. We need to write and broadcast what people want and what is most useful to them. I suggest that we largely do. If we don't, we go unheard, unwatched, unread. We think about Wilde's words in a lonely place where no one cares about us. I wish I had joined my friend and her colleague from Kathmandu in the Kali Gandaki for that trek. I'm sure I would have learned a lot from listening to the fellow who made the face when my name came up. Equally, I would advise him to take criticism and the input of his clients, the people, seriously. From one Alpha Male to another...