Nepali Times
Here And There
The curse of geography


The 'Resource Curse' is a glib bit of developmental theory that says any poor country that possesses great natural wealth is less likely to become prosperous than a place without petroleum, minerals or timber. It's an easy thought.

Look at Angola, Nigeria or Venezuela. Oil hasn't helped them become stable, equitable democracies. Arguably, in the last case, petro-dollars have wrecked a country where peaceable elections were once a hallmark.

On the flip side, Singapore. A country with nothing, a city state in a swamp plagued by ethic riots and overshadowed by two huge neighbours with the same communal problems. A recipe for disaster you might say. But Singapore's lack of resources has made it turn to its people for wealth production, and they've responded gloriously.

The swampy island at the tip of the Malay peninsula is now one of the world's richest countries. India too fits into this mould in an odd way. Put simply, India has little left in the ground or above it that anyone else covets. There are minerals and oil and timber but not nearly enough to go around, to have much impact on development. Agriculture remains the country's mainstay but manufacturing and creative industry are catching up. In other words, Indian brain power is becoming its natural resource.

So whither Nepal within the paradigm of the 'Resource Curse'? Well, the kingdom appears to be well placed. It doesn't have many resources. Hydroelectricity doesn't really count because it is so costly to extract, so labour intensive and rather controversial. And the age of viewing hydro-potential as bags of money just waiting to be opened is long past.

It's generally agreed that leaving forests standing and managing them for community benefit is better than lumbering. There are few mines and oil exploration remains a distant dream. In short, there's no gold in the hills that we know of. And for that, we should be pleased. Because it's not resources themselves that curse a developing country.

It's the penchant of greedy local elites to steal everything that isn't nailed down, then to come back for the nails. And boy does Nepal have that elite problem in spades. The top people here-not all of them but many, and going right to the very top-have plundered, stolen and pillaged and-yes-raped as much as ever they could. In earlier days, they did take timber. But mostly they stole the labour of the people, and managed Nepal's geography to their advantage.

Being landlocked means that those who control and manage access to outside markets and ideas own immense power. That's what the elite did here for centuries. Why else would Jung Bahadur Rana and the British collaborate in keeping this kingdom sealed off from the world while so many others in the region were wide open? It's because access became a resource, a natural resource. And a curse.

These days aid and development types play that role. Using as local contacts members of that old elite, they control access to Nepal and they do it with a similar if unintentional rapaciousness to the old feudals. India may be the land that locks this country, but it can be managed more easily than the plethora of multinational agencies that preside of Nepal's decline.

In short, if Nepal is ever to change, it needs to be far more open to the wider world than it ever was. It needs to build bridges and forge relationships through diplomacy, diasporas, trade and culture. These must be based on equality, not aid partnerships that owe more to feudalism than anything else.

A good start would be to stop using the curse of geography as an excuse for underdevelopment.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)