Nepali Times
Here And There
A whale of a tale


Did it take an extensive grilling in a seedy police station? Was a confession obtained by force? Were loved ones threatened? Or perhaps was someone honest, newly arrived in the job or politically partisan dishing up the goods on a predecessor? All of these questions spring to mind with the past week's revelation that Japan had been using its foreign aid budget to bribe small Caribbean countries in exchange for their staunch opposition to a ban on commercial whaling.

Whale meat is a delicacy in Japan, these days a somewhat defiant one. Japanese whale consumers are becoming rather good at savouring the flesh of endangered marine mammals while the camera crews of the sanctimonious West cluster around, arc lights aglare, aggressive reporters hurling nasty questions. But the fact is inescapable; the Japanese eat whales. They also eat fugu fish, a species so poisonous that it can only be cooked by specially trained chefs. Even then, you reportedly get a certain numbness in your mouth that leaves you unable to taste the fugu anyway which does rather throw the whole exercise into question.

So, Tokyo spends its development budget on seeking nefarious support for a damaging habit. Or it practises Realpolitik to swim against the tide, and rewards those who paddle alongside. It depends on your point of view. My point is not to denigrate the great nation of Japan or its culinary
tastes. I merely wish to underline the many uses of an overseas development Budget. The Americans once used theirs for funding anti-Communist rebel groups in troubled lands or their neighbours. No need here to regurgitate the debacle over the Khampas and their fight with China. European nations too, in the past, have been pretty creative with the aid spending. Saddam Hussein of Iraq got himself some interesting and deadly toys from France, Germany, Switzerland a few decades back, all funded from aid-generated export credits and business development grants. There were pharmaceutical and agrochemical plants that morphed into production lines for biological and nerve gas nasties at the push of button, and each with a little sign at the front gate "a gift from the people of ...etc." I've heard it directly from members of the UN monitoring team that European diplomats in Baghdad had explicit instructions to carry screwdrivers and remove those plaques at the first available opportunity.

One of my favourites in this category is something far less harmful. In
the gorgeous Swat Valley in north-western Pakistan sits an example of
Austrian largesse that has to be seen to be believed. It's a ski resort that arrived in its entirety in a series of shipping containers from Europe: an Alpine chalet, chair lifts, machines to groom the snow, racks of equipment for the rental kiosk, espresso makers, everything but tall, blonde instructors named Hans to tempt the local ladies into an off-piste adventure. All courtesy of the people of Austria. Sadly, the place has never operated, the mountains of Swat have never reverberated with the barking of St Bernards dashing to save avalanche victims. The chalet sits forlorn, the ski lift sags and only a few local kids have taken advantage of the dusty bundles of Austrian skies to ply the occasionally snowy slopes.

For that was the problem. Snow is an infrequent visitor to the mountainsides of Swat and this made the challenge of learning to ski even more acute. There are, I know, countless examples of this sort of thing in Nepal. The point is not to ridicule, point fingers of horror or condemn out of hand. It's to realize that the efforts of the rich countries to help the poor- however well intentioned-are often ineffective or motivated by their own political, economic or culinary imperatives, as in Japan and its Caribbean aid partners. Mind you, if I were Nepal's UN ambassador and a polite gentleman from Tokyo came calling with a bag of money and an International Whaling Council membership, I'd be sorely tempted. After all, there are a few dolphins left in the Karnali and Naryanai rivers.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)