Rich and Out of Touch
Well, it seems ‘ol Bill Gates has come to the rescue again by giving a donation to provide more electricity to the people of the Solukhumbu region. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2005-04/14/content_2828664.htm Bill’s heart must have sank when he realized that there were children that could not watch TV for 24 hours straight, plus the horror of seeing rural children without video games must have been too much for Saint Bill to bear.
Never mind that the Khumbu region is one of the wealthiest in Nepal. Never mind that there is an adequate hydro-electric plant at Thame that keeps Namche Bazaar lit up like a Christmas tree, and never mind that there are at least three internet cafes in Namche and satellite dishes running all the way to Lukla. No, Bill realized that people were missing a lot of the sluggish, bloated conveniences of Western civilization that only a glut of electricity can provide, and he decided to act: Bravo Bill!
This is a “boutique” donation. The $185,700 that was donated does not even represent pocket change to the Gates Foundation. It looks like Bill's dad took a typical tourist trek to the region and reported back about his adventure in Nepal. This donation is no more than a gratuity for showing dad a wonderful time. More so, it is a microcosm of the random and poorly researched nature of foreign aid in Nepal.
Each year, some 28,000 to 40,000 children die in Nepal from lack of basic sanitation knowledge and facilities. Nepal has areas of need where poverty takes the lives of people on a daily basis. It is this extreme poverty that must be addressed before we can start looking at luxuries like electricity. In fact, blogdai says for the record: forget electricity. It falls far down the hierarchy of needs behind food, clothing, shelter and medical services.
In a study outlined in Charly-Pye Smith’s “Travels in Nepal” a brand new mini-hydroelectric plant was introduced over 20 years ago in Namche Bazaar, of all places, in an attempt to find alternate sources of fuel to stem the tide of rapid deforestation in the region. The typical Sherpa day that had revolved around getting up with the sun and going to bed at night was now extended into the evening by electrical illumination. This in turn actually added to the levels of deforestation as people required more wood to keep themselves warm through their newly extended evenings.
It is the height of hubris to think that a culture is in need of help simply because the do not have all the toys of Western civilization. Giving donations that would ultimately “Westernize” the Solukhumbu region is a recipe for trouble. We in the West have come into our selfish convenience-based lifestyles gradually. We have cultivated our spoiled tastes over time. We have also learned how to separate the "wheat from the chaff," if you will. As much as we consume, experience has taught us to be skeptical and not to fall for just anything. Granted, every culture has the right to electricity, fast food or whatever, but do we really stop to consider the damage that can be done to a culture that is hit immediately with the full force of our Western concepts? Are there cultural liasons who go to each village before electricity and its inevitable subsequent onslaught of Western media is introduced and teach these people how to view things with a critical eye? Of course not.
Namche Bazaar is a good laboratory for viewing the consequences of introducing Western concepts rapidly. The Sherpa community there is rich-swimming in money. Recently, I gave a pair of my shoes to a young Nepali houseboy who was working in a lodge in Namche. It was cold that day and the boy was obviously shivering from exposure. The Sherpa owner of the lodge had just finished giving me a long speech about the price of Rolex watches (she had two). She was unresponsive to my gift to her boy until she had confirmed with her neighbors that my Columbia shoes were a good and trendy brand.
Wheat or chaff?