The James Rinaldi article ‘Flaw of Big Aid’ raises questions about the efficiency and honesty of aid money pouring into mountain countries like Nepal, which, some feel, has been turned into a political playground by powerful neighbours in the north and the south and a holiday destination by far away interests in the west and in the east. Development, as per James argument, has been used as an excuse to keep the country in precarious status quo condition. Big Foreign Aid Agencies have gained from Nepal’s strategic location from both ends: every gesture from China provokes India to open its purse. Big NGO’s gain is Nepal’s loss, provided the country counts all the so-called research chickens that do not hatch. What readers and thinkers from this part of the country feel about this is a welcome debate.
People I know who work in various aid sectors sometimes ask me: “What’s up with Nepal? Nothing ever seems to improve, but all that aid money keeps pouring in.”
I usually tell them you could sum up the foreign-aid culture in Nepal by looking at the ICIMOD building at Khumaltar. It’s about the size of the royal palace, occasionally shows signs of life, but generally seems to get things done—generally. To me, it is the face of a big, top-heavy, foreign aid presence in Nepal.
I recently read that the UN’s new cooperative agreement with Nepal over the next five years will amount to some 700 million dollars. That adds up to an estimated 10 billion dollars in aid money that Nepal has received since the late 1950s; or an accumulative total of 3,000 U.S. dollars for every man, woman, and child alive in Nepal today. Contrast this figure with recent reports (some from this publication) that there still remains over 40% illiteracy rate in the villages, or that over 40% of rural Nepalis still have no access to sanitation. Why these numbers, you must wonder, with all of that aid money poured into Nepal?
Through our projects at Himalayan Aid, I have worked in Nepal’s development sector for 20 years, and what bothers me the most is that some of the problem exists in the layers of Western paternalism and culturally incompatible programs that are constantly thrown at Nepal.
We Westerners think we know what’s best for the average Nepali, and can’t wait to tell them what to do; but they are tired of people showing up in their village, looking down at them, and telling them they have some sort of deficiency that must be fixed. Frankly, they are tired of our advanced, time-consuming techniques, such as “capacity building” exercises, surveys, and un-kept promises. They want results.
This fatigue has turned Nepal into an aid-savvy and aid-manipulating nation. Villagers now have the expertise to know that they just have to secure a project from a big foreign aid agency, make a show of working the foreigner’s plan, and wait for the foreigners to leave so they can re-apply any remaining materials and funds to areas of their liking.
It is still prevalent with big international aid-sponsored projects. Villagers are pushing back against the loss of decision-making capability. Well-meaning projects fail every day in Nepal due to this dynamic, and I think this dynamic contributes significantly to the poor literacy and sanitation numbers mentioned above.
Failure is not universal, however. We have found that the smaller, more concentrated projects tailored to individual needs of each village are much more successful than the “one size fits all” models that often characterize big international agencies. What works in Mozambique, for example, has no guarantee of working in Dolakha, and what works in Dolakha will be a complete mystery until we listen to the people there.
Several years ago, Himalayan Aid figured this out. Diarrhea and poor sanitation were wiping out large numbers of children between the ages of 2 and 6 in rural Nepal. We helped build latrines. But we would soon find units dismantled with the various components used for other purposes. To counter this, we supported them with funds to construct units themselves, only to find the money disappear with the work never having been started. So we decided to go to one of our project villages in Sindhupalchowk and just listen.
What started out as our desire to build latrines often resulted in a program where we supplied a teacher for sanitation or helped keep a local goat enclosure away from the village water source. If latrines happened to be built during this process, fine, but they would have to arrive as a result of the villagers input, not ours.
The point is: Mr. Big-Shot-Western-Aid-Babu, for once, did not pretend to have all the answers, but recognized that ideas expressed locally were almost always better conceived, planned, or realized. The villagers took ownership of the project from this, and the results were phenomenal. We were a bit beside ourselves. We had hit on a formula that enabled successful project outcomes based on mutual respect and collaboration.
A press conference held in late 2003 to share these concepts resulted in nationwide requests for our program, with many coming directly from villages. At that point we realized we were in trouble. We had nowhere near the capacity or financing to take our concepts to a national level. We needed help.
Over the next few years, we were driven half-crazy by the lack of interest on the part of big aid agencies. They had budgets to sit on; three, five, and sometimes ten-year plans that they would not deviate from, and an absolutely non-existent structure for co-opting or even researching any new, entrepreneurial or innovative approaches to aid—regardless of how successful.
This is the fatal flaw of Big Aid. Small to medium-sized local agencies with a good track record are not sought out as resources. Those seeking UN partnerships are given a gauntlet of bureaucratic obstacles before they can be considered acceptable under UN standards. The spirit of people wanting to help themselves is thus often squashed.
For us, the act of simply getting someone to listen became quite a quest. During this period, there was the potential for having methods like ours incorporated into what was then the WFP’s Food for Work program. We scheduled a meeting with the Director, only to be notified he was snowboarding in Manang and our meeting had to be put off for a week. Another time, we met with the UNICEF Water and Sanitation Director who promptly told us that (paraphrasing) Nepalis had no business building toilets for themselves; they needed to fall under UNICEF’s umbrella of supervision. He went on to brag about how UNICEF had built some 250 toilets in the last year. I told him that those Nepalis who had “no business” were building 120 toilets per month under our system!
The stories go on: The USAID Mission Director who ate cake during our visit and refused to acknowledge anything “off program”; the officials who, after a month of Dashain and Tihar vacations couldn’t talk to anyone because they would be “writing year-end reports” for the next two months. The point was, the doors were closed—they were designed to be closed.
I’ve since changed my analogy for the foreign aid scene in Nepal, but only slightly. Now I tell people that aid in Nepal can be summed up by looking at the white UN Land Rovers that seem roundly cursed by the average pedestrian in Kathmandu. Expenses surrounding just one of these foreign-built vehicles could probably buy a fleet of perfectly adequate Mahindras. The large black radio antennae at its front is the reminder that it gets its orders from a big boss far away. In essence, it symbolizes the idea that big top-heavy aid still runs the show in Nepal, but it is increasingly insulated, out of touch with local concerns.
No social theory, interactive modality or developmental strategy will help if it ignores the voice of the concerned people. That has been my experience, which can be crystallized into a few simple equations: Tell people what is good for them = project fails. Give them the tools to realize their own goals = project succeeds.
The UN and other agencies may do some good, but theirs is not the only path. They need to stop telling you what to do and start listening to what you have to say.
Nepali originated ideas work the best for Nepalis. The old, top-heavy, demeaning and paternalistic models of foreign aid delivery have failed in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and they are failing in Nepal. It’s time for a new approach.
To get to that point, we must demand complete financial transparency from the UN, ICIMOD, and any large aid agency, as well as demand supervision over smaller NGO’s like ours at Himalayan Aid.
The Nepal I know after 20 years is a Nepal that can move forward and prosper on its own. It has seen worse in its history, and can handle anything.