Clear-Eyed and Unbiased
(We need more articles like this. Tobias Denskus is clearly an insider among Nepal's international foreign aid set; yet he breaks up the boys club of aid excess and ineptitude and screams that the aid emporer has no clothes. God, if we could assemble a think tank of individuals such as Mr. Denskus, solid action stemming from the identification of actual issues might, miraculously, be the new standard for aid in Nepal. -=blogdai)
After five decades of ‘development’ and ten years of violent conflict, Kathmandu has remained in a ‘bubble of innocence’, as one donor representative described the state of mind in a city that seems remarkably far away from ‘underdevelopment’, ‘poverty’ or ‘war’. When the people formed a democracy movement last year and demonstrated on the streets, few conflict advisers and inhabitants of the bubble were able to predict the political changes that were about to happen.
- By Tobias Denskus
One recent report on a conference in Brussels organised by a northern NGO and interestingly entitled ‘Nepal: Looking beyond Kathmandu-Challenges and Opportunities for peacebuilding from below’, had a cover page with pictures from Nepal (rural women with children–unrelated to the conflict and the conference) and a second page with pictures from the conference venue of a nondescript board-room-style meeting room, handsome European women and men and artefacts such as a data projector and video-conferencing equipment.
The French philosopher Marc Augé coined the expression of ‘non-places’ for such spaces without history or individual meaning that only exist to enable commercial interactions. In the globalised aid world such places exist in Brussels - or in the well-known hotels and resorts in and around Kathmandu where workshops are usually conducted. As long as such exchanges shape the debate about post-conflict societies, real social change for the majority of Nepalis seems further away than any election dates, a new constitution or accountable services in rural areas.
After five decades of ‘development’ and ten years of violent conflict, Kathmandu has remained in a ‘bubble of innocence’, as one donor representative described the state of mind in a city that seems remarkably far away from ‘underdevelopment’, ‘poverty’ or ‘war’. When the people formed a democracy movement last year and demonstrated on the streets, few conflict advisers and inhabitants of the bubble were able to predict the political changes that were about to happen. But they quickly shared their relief that the promising signs of the Maoist party joining ‘mainstream politics’, a forthcoming constituent assembly, and parliamentary elections would put Nepal back on the ‘road to development’.
Some donors were relieved that they could now continue with work they had planned before the violent conflict, and that the small Nepali elite in Kathmandu seemed to be willing to address the ‘root causes’ that have kept Nepal in ‘poverty’ for the past 55 years. A bright ‘post-conflict’ mirage was visible and donor amnesia quickly replaced reflective practice. Aid specialists from other post-war ‘non-places’ quickly arrived in Kathmandu to share their approaches, always stressing that they needed to be tailored to Nepal, of course.
‘Arms management’, ‘security sector reforms’, ‘transitional justice’ – the Fall 2007 collection arrived in Kathmandu straight from the peacebuilding catwalks in Europe without looking outside the ‘bubble’, or searching for stories in the remote villages of Nepal, asking local people about the future direction of their country. A former ‘conflict adviser’ of a European donor observes:
‘When I first attended the meetings of the conflict advisors’ group I was surprised to find them talking over simple and conservative conflict analyses and I immediately started to wonder whether these guys [all but one were men at that time] should know these things by now and before coming to Kathmandu’.
If I look at the amount of reports, briefings and notes that arrive in my email inbox, I find that a lot of the insights are not rooted in local realties or have emerged from interactions other than bringing a few people together for a workshop with flipcharts and red plastic chairs. Harmonising discourses and approaches may be in vogue in today’s ‘Aidland’, but, as this donor went on to comment, donor co-ordination in the peacebuilding community of Kathmandu seemed somewhat over-enthusiastic: ‘We had 400 meetings after the February 1 coup of the King in 2005. I knew more about what the Japanese and Americans were doing than about our projects in the field.’ The professional life-world in Kathmandu was also matched by the sheltered private lifestyle of most international inhabitants of ‘Aidland’, because the Maoist violence never reached the Kathmandu Valley.
‘Peacebuilding’ is almost always linked to issues of ‘governmentality’ – making ‘chaotic’ and ‘unsafe’ places fit for (neo)liberal democracy. Nepal is doomed to be a success-story of how a violent conflict can be transformed through peaceful, democratic means and adoption of the latest fashion in ‘peace-building’ and the international spectators in form of UNMIN staff or EU election observers have eagerly arrived in the ‘stadium’ in Kathmandu. Neither critical voices nor lessons learned from the failed development of Nepal, nor indeed the history of failed ‘peacebuilding’ interventions elsewhere, will enter the narrative of ‘success’.