20-26 December 2013 #686

Nepal’s Three Curses

The country’s rapidly ageing population is caught in the vortex of politicians, bureaucrats, and donors
Bihari K Shrestha
MAKING IT COUNT: An elderly woman participates in a community discussion on water supply and sanitation in Kaski.
The first curse of Nepal’s governance is domestic political failure, resulting in poor governance and continued destitution of this country’s long-suffering citizens.

The chronic mindless misconduct of politicians masquerading as ‘the people’s representatives’ is leading to another squandering of the electoral mandate. The horse-trading, wheeling-dealing, and backroom bargaining prove that the so-called rulers of Nepal have learnt nothing.

The second curse is also internal: the bureaucracy that we are saddled with. Civil servants are inspired by a similar penchant for power and pelf as their political masters, but without any need for accountability. No one elected them, so they seem to be answerable to none.

The third curse has to do with the omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent donors. Although the stated goals of most donor agencies remain essentially altruistic, their field officers often allow the saviour syndrome to get into their head. While the expat community, by definition, remains relatively handicapped on account of its transient nature and lack of sufficient familiarity with the depth and diversity of Nepal’s developmental experience, this has never deterred it from trying to create its own monuments.

Local officials, of course, are only too willing to go along with the donors’ flavour of the month fancies in exchange for material incentives and junkets. Although expat donor officials are generally assisted by national professionals, the latter in their bid to make the most of their lucrative employment often end up becoming holier than the Pope.

It goes without saying that there are many exemplary foreign and local officials who are thoughtful, listen to what locals have to say, and encourage their participation in activities designed to be catalytic. There are remarkable examples of foreign supported interventions that have had sustainable and long-lasting impact in raising the living standards. All of them worked because they encouraged participation and let local people own the process.

Sadly, the latest victim of the Three Curses is Nepal’s elderly. The country has a rapidly ageing population with 8.24 per cent (2.2 million people) over 60 years. As life-expectancy increases and birth rates fall, this proportion will grow to 20 per cent or more in the next two decades. Nepal’s mostly mountainous topography and predominantly rural character would make its ageing population far more challenging to manage.

Learning from the widely applauded effectiveness of community user groups in forestry and child survival, a consortium of organisations working with the elderly has adopted the concept of Senior Citizens User Groups to empower older people to help themselves. Three months ago, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (MWCSW) welcomed and endorsed the approach. Since the local bodies’ legislation already requires the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (MFALD) to earmark a proportion of annual development grants for senior citizens, the MWCSW requested 10 per cent of the money to be used by proposed senior citizens’ user groups.

The top brass of the MFALD, however, has delivered an oral verdict that its policy of ‘social mobilisation’ precluded such a ‘targeted approach’. Further investigation revealed that in 2010 four donor agencies (UNICEF, DFID, SDC, and UNDP) had ‘advised’ the ministry to promote a ‘novel’ institution in the VDCs: the Ward Citizens’ Forum, presumably to achieve ‘accelerated development of the ultra poor’ through equitable distribution of resources.

In paper, the forums are supposed to be made up of representatives of various interest groups in the ward such as women, children, farmers, and the ultra poor. But since most of them are not organised in the communities, such ‘representatives’ are indeed handpicked by the feudal elite who tend to dominate such community discussions.

In addition to structural problems, these so-called citizens’ fora are largely superfluous and often generate conflict. While they too adopt the same infrastructural projects such as building and rebuilding roads or schools and so on (calling into question the ultra poor related goal), they have no money of their own and recommend them to the VDCs for funding where it is the ‘all party mechanism’ that decides.

So with the MFALD swearing by what has been fed to it by the donor consortium, Nepal’s senior citizens continue to be deprived of the 10 per cent welfare formula. Nepal’s women, children, and marginalised have long suffered the brunt of the Three Curses, now it is the turn of the elderly.

Bihari Krishna Shrestha is an anthropologist and a retired civil servant.

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