Nepali Times
Guest Column
The development industry


Last Dasain, I overheared an elderly relative blessing someone nearby: "I hope you get a job in an international development organisation, and when you do don't forget to take your great aunt around in a big jeep."

Though amusing at the time, the remark was a glaring reminder of the impact of the development industry in Nepal. Multilateral and bilateral agencies, international NGOs and community groups benefiting from donor support now make up an economic sector just like manufacturing, banking, tourism. The development industry employs people, transacts services, it carries ideologies, and politics are negotiated.

More than 60 per cent of Nepal's development expenditure comes from overseas development assistance, supporting basic services in health, education, water, sanitation, and infrastructure to benefit marginalised communities. More recently, the development industry has been playing a critical role in supporting demands for greater social inclusion.

Development organisations have been strategically empowering previously excluded communities to demand greater rights and recognition. However, it is also exacerbating existing development challenges and producing new forms of inequalities and exclusions.

The development sector is an important and highly sought-after source of employment for educated Nepalis. Jobs are well-paid and also include other benefits such as pension schemes, health coverage, education subsidies, training, or overseas travel. These are justified on the grounds of professionalising the sector and providing incentives to employees.

But the unintended side effect has been to diminish the Nepali state's capacity to compete, and to reduce its ability to attract and retain high quality human capital. The 'best and the brightest' have either been absorbed by the development industry or are constantly negotiating ways of benefiting from it. The ranks of bilateral and multilateral agencies are filled with government officials who have jumped ship.

The development industry also creates 'rents' for employees in the form of higher education overseas, travel to attend workshops and trainings, and consultancy opportunities for civil servants. This has altered the incentive structure in the government bureaucracy.

Rather than performing assigned responsibilities, many government officials are actively seeking ways of capturing rent. Mid and senior government officials at district and central levels often take unpaid leave to work as consultants in development organisations.

There has been a steady increase in graduate and post-graduate programs in development studies throughout urban Nepal. Their focus is not to critically examine the development sector from a multi-disciplinary perspective, but to produce effective and efficient development bureaucrats who are able to manage projects, or carry out monitoring and evaluation.

Students are trained to market themselves adequately for lucrative development jobs rather than to pass the government civil service exam. The glamour of a job in the development industry attracts students to these schools and perpetuates the view that government jobs are inferior.

The weakening of the state is a major development concern. As the political scientist Neera Chandoke has argued, it is after all the state that can 'emancipate citizens of the Global South from poverty and deprivation by widening the tax net, monitoring the collection of revenues and implementing schemes for redistributive justice by transferring resources from better to worse off sections of society'.

The development industry is also producing new inequalities and exclusions not just between 'Nepali nationals' and 'Nepali internationals', but between nationals and internationals. Senior decision-making positions within agencies are set aside for internationals. Nepali citizens are not allowed to compete for them, and have to work under the supervision of international 'experts', regardless of their qualification and experience.

This divide is reinforced by a significant difference in pay scale between national and international staff, which is particularly visible when Nepali staff and their international colleagues travel domestically: the subsistence allowance varies considerably.

Hierarchies within the development industry on the basis of citizenship are often justified on the grounds that international staff are more competent, have cross-country experience and/or are politically neutral. But the growing numbers of Nepalis with qualifications from leading universities question such justifications. Because of its command over financial and technical resources, the development industry can define what constitutes knowledge and creates a 'knowledge hierarchy'. In-depth understanding of the Nepali economy, society and polity are often relegated as secondary or peripheral to knowledge of global contexts.

The development industry is one of the largest and most influential actors in the processes governing the restructuring of Nepal. While it preaches equality and inclusion as a fundamental agenda for the new Nepal, its own day-to-day practices and polices couldn't be further from it. It is time that the Nepali state and society also hold the development industry accountable.

Bimbika Sijapati Basnett teaches at the Nepa School of Social Sciences and Humanities in Kathmandu.

See also:
The politics of foreign aid, SUNIR PANDEY
The government's new assertiveness on aid focus has brought it in direct confrontation with some donors

Politics of aid, RABIN SUBEDI
Donors violate their own international commitments

Donor dynamics, SEIRA TAMANG
The problem of overrating civil society in Nepal's peace process

1. MaNaSa
Nepali nationals are not allowed to compete for 'international consultant's position' by ADB & World Bank even in "loan projects" in Nepal. They pay 20 times more salary to internationals, but 'nationals' with similar experience are barred. Govt. should insist during loan negotiation that Nepali nationals should get preference over the expats as the loan is to be repaid by Nepal. This will effectively reduce brain drain of Nepali professionals.

2. ol
Hmm, a tricky but interesting question. In the UK for example, development workers are paid comparatively badly, whereas in Nepal, even national staff are paid comparatively well. You can compare their salaries for example to those of teachers in government schools. 

We have recruited two Nepalis (yes, Brahmin men) consecutively as leaders of our Nepal mission. Neither worked out though. Possibly because of work-culture differences between the international and national-level expectations?

I'd also add that there are A LOT of Nepalis working at the international level. If you visit UN offices in countries around the world, a lot of Nepalis have benefited from the international system. Admittedly only a few are probably at the highest levels, but I can think of a few chiefs in Southeast Asia..

3. Koji
Good point OL. 
What are the work culture differences though? Here lies the key. Perhaps. 

4. npas
this is what happens when everyone start living off charity? aka ngo. until the culture moves to enterprise, instead of charity, things will keep getting worse.

5. critic
perhaps the author should also consider the successes of international development strategies in improving the lives of people in Nepal..particularly in health where strategies have reaped significant benefits and done so even through a brutal civil war. It is certainly politically correct and even sexy to bash development aid and the "development industry"... and one may be lauded for trumpeting this tune...but not all international organizations are corrupt and not all of them are around to make a buck by exploiting poverty..perhaps the author could strike a balance between singing a familiar tune and assessing some development programs for what they are actually doing..

6. malla
I'm not a grammar police, but it annoys the heck out of me when I see misuse of quotation. When you borrow a direct statement of someone, you must use "double" quotation. Period! A single quotation is used within the double quotation to show quotation within a quotation. I see this common grammar error printed in most Nepali owned English newspapers, yet the editors seem to have no problem with it. With that said, I decided to look into it a little further, and was surprised to find the main reason behind it. Nepali script uses single quotation only and has no system of double quotation. Aha... there we go! Perhaps, it explains why Nepali professionals can't reach the top positions in INGO/NGO, no matter what educational background we have. We just can't seem to change our old habit. On a much serious note, we wouldn't have development industry in Nepal run by foreigners if our country were developed. A country doesn't develop itself, it's the people who do. Unfortunately, as people, we've failed to develop our country, and that is the reason we have foreigners helping us and we need their help desperately in all sectors of development. In addition, if foreign developmental agencies are in our country to help us spending their own money, why would they appoint a Nepali head of their development organization when it is evident that we simply just don't have what it takes? If we did, we wouldn't have them here in the first place. It's just a common sense, so let's chill a little!

7. Samjhana
This is a good piece.....and you can find something similar written as Master degree papers by students in most Development Studies Schools......but unfortunately not grounded on reality.

I do agree strongly with the view on the issue about the current capacity of local staff being equally to if not better then that of the international staff that are brought in by the development industry in Nepal and that the government needs to intervention in loan negotiations and improve on legislation on INGOs registration & operational guidelines and its enforcement. I do not, however, agree that that qualified Nepalese are working for the 'Development Industry'  and this is "weakening of the state....".    

Just think. If this was true then would Nepal have higher capacity if all the development industry just went away and Nepalese would work for the Nepali State or be self employed? This is indeed naive.

The argument that the development industry is producing new inequalities and exclusions between Nepalese is again puzzling. What would the author recommend that we shut down the Development Industry to remove the inequalities or, to decrease inequality, provide the same compensation as that of the government civil servants?   You can also say the same to the private all these commercial banks in town need to stop paying the salary and bonuses and use the civil service salary scale to decrease inequality in Nepalese society and so on. 

8. Tara
Ms. Basnett -- for this whole article: yes! Especially paragraphs 6 and 9. If only it were possible for the government to somehow take what's happening at (I/)NGOs as a basis to become more competitive, by being more accepting of newer ideas than they are now - even if they can't provide the pay of INGOs/NGOs (even).

And I know it's likely beyond the scope of this article, but my question is this - then what? Or, what next? Is the solution merely in enterprise? 

@Malla -- before you go jumping to mad conclusions where you connect "why Nepali professionals can't reach the top positions in INGO/NGO[sic]", I recommend you look at a publication's style guide. This "common grammar[sic] error" might just appear a little less erroneous to you. As for the rest of your comment, I appreciate some of the sentiment of it, but I still don't think "just chill[ing]" is ever the solution. I disagree that we're not appointed to the heads of agencies because "we simply just don't have what it takes". I think there are agency policies at issue here.
@npas -- just to clarify, are you saying that NGO salaries are charity? 

I eagerly await the day where "sexy" is no longer used by people, and especially academics, to describe ideas that really have nothing to do with sensuality...I only hope it arrives before we figure out a solution to this particular problem of politics.

9. SrKr
The article is all well and good about the Development Industry and how it has diverged from "Development of Policies and working theories" to a business industry. An industry that must also be considered accountable for the country's development.
But we all knew that the  development sector in the country in forms of NGOs' and  the internationally established INGOs' were just that. The article does not add anything new to the  existing base of our knowledge. The article is more about a constant bickering that we as a citizen carry out in tea shops or at a greater economy level at expensive hotels and private gathering.We all can complain about the current functioning of the government and the country and this and that....
How about, maybe just maybe for a change you would provide innovative solutions to make it easier for Dr Baburam Bhattarai, to work! Then maybe we could all appreciate this article, else it could the title could be easily confused as "constant bickering!" Provide solutions to the country existing issues if you can with your degree and not just trumpet  tunes of the tea shops!

10. Arun
A country which aspire to make progress in development, GOs should be more resourceful and they should really govern. If I/NGOs seem to be more resourceful and if they influence GOs, then we have to understand that regress is bound to be there. So the idea should be to "deglamourise" the INGOs, and accept and use only the well-intentioned foreign resources to make the GOs resourceful in the long run. It is very surprising to observe that the "elites" are more influential and enjoying the "bheekhmagante" business most of which are so called aimed at improving the status of the "poors" in the country!

11. Gobinda Chhantyal
Oh!! really new sight for me...

12. Bikas
Hmmm ...  A new trend in teaching and talking about  humanities and social sciences, I see. One can talk about an 'industry' and paint it as this and that without citing a single verifiable piece of data. Well done. 

13. Tom
Ms. Bimbika Basnett and others writing about "the development industry" need to look for and write about INGOs that pay equal salaries to national and expat staff. These organizations do exist in Nepal. They also pay equal per diem (it's called, "actual expenses").

14. pointed
Easy to criticise the obvious or the not-so-controversial and already acknowledged things. You have very cleverly avoided taking a stand or bringing in the debate about UN's document. Or maybe I am expecting too much.

15. Sandra Bullock
Missing the point the idea of foreign people helping so called poor countries is compassion. They come from a set of ethics where they want to feed the kids without food . Then in Nepal and Africa they stumble upon This...
Maybe in the west rich parents provide basic security so we have the luxury to Dream like this, to be able to help others,
In Nepal nonetheless you should not exclusively think to help yourself. If there was a little more honesty about these topics the hipocrisy of the war would not be tremendous as it is. All are maobadi when the monsters win, and nobody really is . paisa china. And now that the west and China are in crisis might as well get real. A good livelihood is possible, be a teacher and rent a flat, what is the problem?

16. AiDeeAh
Very interesting write-up. In my opinion, at the end of the day, it comes down to the golden rule in international aid: he who has the gold makes the rules. It is their money and they are going to want to control how it is spent, who manages it and who gets  paid how much based on what  policy makers and planners in faraway capital cities decide. The perception that international aid is driven by high-flowing ideals is naive at best and Western charity is as much about exercising power, getting others to bend to your will and imposing your moral and ethical standards on others as it is about truly helping those in need.

Just my thoughts.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)