Nepali Times
No pain, no gain


The Nepal aid biennale concluded last week with a pledge of $250 million over the next five years. We are told the donors have endorsed the approach of the Tenth Plan and the Poverty Reduction Strategy Programmes. As on previous occasions, the donors raised many issues. The government, as on previous occasions, appears to have satisfied them all by dutifully pledging to reform implementation and aspects of governance.

In a country where finance ministers take great pride in soliciting more foreign aid, any talk against aid is blasphemy. But the problem with foreign aid is the rise of a duality between the giver and the recipient. Between them (those who benefit from giving and taking aid) and us (in whose name aid is taken). What have we as a nation gained from foreign aid? What would we as a people lose if by some miracle there were no foreign aid?

In as much as foreign aid is a political and economic relationship, we have gained patrons. Patrons who give us the benefit of their advice at our cost. Patrons who steer us voluntarily to take a particular political stand as and when necessary. We heartily oblige. Our patrons have taken on the onus of thinking on our behalf and are always right. If their advice does not have the intended effect, the fault lies in its implementation. Our patrons continually exhort greater privatisation and liberalisation. The only way to eradicate poverty is to privatise it, they say. The crowning achievement of foreign aid has been that the voice of the poor has been "elevated" from their roofless huts and villages to international forums in multi-stellar locations.

Over the past several decades development and foreign aid have gone "hand in hand". As the roots of development have spread "far and wide", so have the roots of corruption. Foreign aid did not invent corruption, but it helped create the infrastructure that institutionalised it. Through the goodies it provides, aid has systematically corrupted the minds of our bureaucrats, planners and politicians.

Thanks to foreign aid, it is the corrupt who can now effortlessly and eloquently pontificate on the need to rid our society of the menace of corruption. In a country on the lookout for some semblance of governance, foreign aid has projected for us the beauty of good governance, the grace of a transparent bureaucracy, and the charm of accountable government. Foreign aid has shown us how "good governance" and "representative democracy" can be made possible through the corrupt. This is no mean achievement.

Foreign aid has fuelled our historic sense of complacency. We have surrendered what little we had of our decision-making autonomy. Led along by donors, we have lost faith in ourselves. Like pampered children, we now crave dependence and we have been blinded by the dreams of donors. The government has lost its credibility in the eyes of the people and the nation has lost its moral ground. We are ethically bankrupt.

We mouth the agenda of the donors and call it planning. We continue strengthening the reins of a centralised state in the name of decentralisation. In the name of transforming society, we live comfortably with the scourge of untouchability and inhuman discrimination and deprivation. We preach human rights and practice the opposite. Islands of vulgar opulence, much of it derived from foreign aid, continue to rise in this ocean of poverty.

Foreign aid has made us live beyond our means. Self-reliance is a bad word when the appetite for conspicuous consumption contaminates all. Foreign aid has made us prey to grandiose plans even when our own resources remain idle. Government after government is carried away by the Aruns, the Karnalis and the Kosis-and small, but fundamental, initiatives are considered beneath us.

We have been trained to learn from afar even when the lessons are right in our backyard. We have lost the feel of our own ground in our orphaned nation. Looking at the loan component of foreign aid (Nepal's total foreign loans outstanding equals almost half our GDP), we may even be forfeiting the future of this orphan for the pleasures of the present.

Foreign aid has idealised the virtues of the private sector and magnified the sins of the government. Even in the face of lack of competition and regulatory mechanisms, the private sector has been pushed as a viable substitute for the government. The success of the private sector is seen as a result of its essential merit, while its failure is squarely attributed to interference by the government. Roles have become confused.
The proliferation of NGOs of all hues and shades is also the handiwork of foreign aid. NGOs that have no constituencies to be accountable to are romanticised as the true face of civil society, while local governments and their elected representatives, are sidelined. "Partnership" is just a polite and hollow notion: there are no "partners" in the present climate of foreign aid. There are only givers and takers.

The greatest contribution of foreign aid has been the maintenance of the political, economic and social status quo. Whose advantage has the status quo served? This status quo is challenged by the legitimate issues raised (but atrocious and illegitimate means employed) by the Maoists. But the NDF bazar yet again pledged more foreign aid as the only means of dealing with the Maoist problem. That completes the foreign aid circle.

The problem, of course, is not foreign aid per se. Foreign aid is not thrust upon us. It is negotiated. And negotiation is a collusion of interests. What would we as a nation lose if there were a moratorium on foreign aid? We would lose patrons and the status quo that they have helped defend. We would be forced to look deeply within ourselves and discover our own priorities to address our problems. We would be compelled to come up with indigenous development strategies and learn from our past. We would have to make do with our limited means, look at our own hard realities and make some very, very hard choices.

This is bound to be extremely painful to many of us: the current breed of politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, the monopolists in the private sector, the NGOs, the bikas pundits, and consultants included. Perhaps, with time, we would rebuild confidence in ourselves and learn to believe in small, but rooted, initiatives. For once we would suffer for our own mistakes. Perhaps we would learn the hard way: tighten our belts, develop a sense of purpose, buy back our self respect, rescue this beloved orphan from its impending future, and cease to be a nation whose sole preoccupation is a begging bowl.

Am I day-dreaming?

(Pitamber Sharma is a regional planner and former professor of geography, Tribhuvan University.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)