Saturday, 2 December, 2023

Rethinking Needed In Development Priority

Rahul Karki


Globalisation and neo-liberalisation have changed the global view on development. The urge to support developing nations through aid followed by the birth of non-governmental organisations gave a strong basis for the government of the developed world for philanthropy. Moreover, the general notion on infrastructure development remained priorities of the developing nations.
Historically, development interventions in Nepal have received criticism and have been largely viewed as exclusion of the poor and marginalised groups. The aid agencies have laid their support since the 1950s, yet the donors have been steamrolling with their own agenda which may or may not have met the priorities of the people. The country has put its efforts in initiating some development projects that is expected to bring significant positive changes to the overall economy. For the government and donors, who have a predilection towards hardware development, have always preferred infrastructure over other agenda. Be it the fast-track linking Kathmandu and Terai or the East-West Highway in the mid-hills, or construction of airports to expansion of hydropower dams, all have been received positively at the political as well public sphere. However, as to whether social dimensions of development have been taken into consideration is a question to reflect upon. The question over how these aid and development interventions have changed the lives of the marginalised and weak sections of the community is dubious.
Nepal’s development trajectory shows inclination towards a neo-colonial model of development that actually served the elites to negotiate for a change with communities. Paradoxically, it did help bring change in the name of development, benefiting a certain group, while overlooking the aspirations of others. Over the years various development approaches and theories have been put in place, assuming that one-size-fits all strategy would work in our context. While the money has been poured somewhere into something, a section of the community, the elites, has certainly benefited. These kinds of development priorities did not have unintended consequences, yet they largely failed to address the ambitions of the marginalised groups. Ironically, the custom adopted decades ago still follows the same path, and inequality in development priorities is still rife. Though diverse strategies are put in place to respond to the local needs, it misses in setting priorities. This actually would have been possible through allowing bottom-up planning in order to make the development interventions relevant and effective.
A large community of donors have laid their support in the name of development in Nepal. To name a few, Government of Japan, ADB, the World Bank, UK, India, and Government of Switzerland among others have poured their money in some of the major infrastructure development, mainly roads. For instance, the World Bank has supported about US$155.7 million in construction of approximately 477 bridges along Nepal’s strategic road network. Likewise, Nepal received Japanese Yen 1047 million for reinforcement of the vulnerable parts of the Sindhuli road stretch that were affected by the 2015 earthquake. A support of US$ 1 million from ADB was directed for the upgrading of 388 kilometers of rural roads to all-weather standards. While these are only a few of many examples, the fact that any development activities should mainstream local communities appears to be missing in Nepal’s context. The case of construction of new airports across the nation including the newly proposed Nijgadh airport is a good illustration. Apart from appreciation of the land value and flow of people via air routes, there is no inquiry over the differentiated needs of the local communities.
We all have witnessed that our development interventions have been driven by global discourses. Climate change projects for instance, is an outstanding example of how globally set agenda overwhelm development priorities. The climate adaptation projects have largely focused on reducing vulnerabilities of local communities to natural disasters. Likewise, climate change interventions have often focused on agriculture, usually favoring the groups with land who are engaged in commercial production thereby excluding the landless and marginalised groups.
A recent research conducted in Syangja and Jumla, involving UK’s Oxford University, London School of Economics, and the University of East Anglia – have depicted a similar picture over Nepal’s development impact. Among other findings, the research shows that the path of the development interventions that we have followed actually favours certain segment of the society over others. For instance, the construction projects including road and toilet actually tend to benefit people owning land and have been counter-productive for the landless, mainly Dalits. Many porters had lost their livelihoods after the construction of roads. Moreover, the roads do not benefit those who have nothing to produce and sell. Even the popular programmes targeting economic empowerment of women like women's saving groups, mainly support the rich and middle class families, with capacity to pay back the money with the stipulated interest rate.
There is need for a paradigm shift in Nepal’s development priorities. Any investments made, be it foreign aid or through country’s treasury, mainstream development priority, needs to have a proper assessment of the differentiated needs of the various social classes. Focus should be placed over achieving economic resilience of low-income households rather than targeting generic environmental and developmental concerns. While we redefine our development narrative, need of the day is to have justice in our development. In doing so, equity should be closely considered.

(The author is a researcher at ForestAction Nepal.)