Nepali Times
Guest Column
Imagined communities


It is surprising to see development agencies, small and large, local as well as multilateral, hide behind a vague and selfserving concept of 'communities' and pretend that the latter can create and defend the 'space for development' in a violent environment.

In his recent budget speech, the Minister of Finance stated that the "effectiveness in the implementation of the programs and improvement in quality of service can be maintained if the involvement of the local ensured".

A development bank recently wrote that 'community-owned projects show remarkably low incidence of interference on the part of the insurgents and willingness on the part of communities to push back the insurgents when they do interfere'.

In remote parts of Nepal and areas beyond a day's walk from a motorable road the political strength of the Maoist insurgency is a reality. In villages and hamlets, the real authority is in their hands: often young and female. No decision whatsoever is taken without their consent since the CPN-M has the monopoly on the use of force. Weapons are seldom seen but they are very much present in the minds of the local people.

Every development worker entering these areas to get in touch with 'communities' must talk and convince the Maoist cadres first. Development work that provide immediate benefits, that is seen as useful by the majority of the people, that is carried out in a transparent way and that brings political advantages or cash to the Maoists has a good chance of being accepted. This doesn't mean, however, that the decision on its continuation is in the hands of 'communities' or that they are in a position to 'push back the insurgents'.

Indeed, for the last two years (1 February has changed nothing in this respect) bilaterals, the UN and ADB consultants have been conducting frequent direct and indirect discussions with the Maoists in order to understand, get permission to work or try to enforce the Basic Operational Guidelines.

The guidelines have helped in gaining access and acceptance of the impartiality of development work. But they have often been insufficient to avoid interruptions or suspension of activities. The National Planning Commission's statistics on the km of roads built in a year or schools transferred to parent committees reflect to a large extent the negotiation skills of bilateral agencies, NGOs, human rights activists and other intermediaries.

But to pretend that communities are empowered and able to protect themselves and the space for development, to believe that villagers can orient development activities, are acts of denial. Such statements reveal the refusal to see how seriously the conflict has affected rural life. In a large part of the country there has been a steady erosion of resources, hope and initiative and in some areas we are now close to a humanitarian crisis.

Human rights violations and impunity are daily reality. Households, teachers and civil servants have had to serve 'two governments' and have been subject to heavy taxation by the Maoists in cash or food or shelter and care for wounded combatants. Frequent changes in cadres and partyline have increased the sense of insecurity. On the other hand, the security forces have often spread fear by their erratic and violent behaviour.

These pressures have extended traditional migration movements, leaving behind a weakened society. Some women have been empowered, but they have paid a heavy price for increased self-determination, as they have been burdened by additional work and responsibilities.

So, we don't know what 'communities' mean anymore. In rural Nepal, this word is mainly taken to mean various users groups established by NGOs and project staff in order to manage resources or execute externally financed activities. All these organisations are ridden with serious problems of social exclusion, lack of accountability and political manipulation. High caste and traditional elites, although now closely watched by Maoist militants, continue to play the dominant role in almost all the existing organisations.

Indeed, to be able to speak of 'communities' in any meaningful political sense we should recall the democratically elected VDC which, despite their shortcomings, anchored social and physical capital in rural areas. The conflict has blown them away and no political miracle can bring them back soon.

Yet only democratic institutions can ensure sustainable development results and the actual inclusion of women and socially discriminated groups.

Development work and projects should continue to be designed taking the desirable revival of village development committees into account, instead of pretending that 'communities' can be a substitute for a vibrant and plural democracy.

Jorg Frieden is the director in Nepal of Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC).

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)