When Nepal emerged from the century-long darkness of the Rana Era in 1950, society did not have the capacity to embrace modernism. The societies colonised by European powers had built up a middle class that understood the opportunities and dangers of the market, statecraft and governance. But Nepalis had never been exposed to these influences.
One of the first foreign experts to work in Nepal was Toni Hagen, the geologist who arrived in the dying days of the Rana regime. He was followed by Westerners who helped Nepal in the fields of education, irrigation, public health, social sciences and scientific research. They helped with migration, malaria eradication, infrastructure building, development of tourism, etc.
B P Koirala himself wrote as prime minister in 1959 that it was thanks to Toni Hagen’s reports and photography that he better understood Nepal. Over the decades, Western scientists and social scientists have alerted Nepalis to be sensitive to the country’s demographic diversity and understand the geographical extremes. That is the history of the Nepal-West interface in the modern era.
Hagen’s Kathmandu, Kunda Dixit
A serious Swiss, Lisa Choegyal
All of a sudden, the political brass, the secretaries and some civil society stalwarts have been afflicted with xenophobia, particularly against overseas development agencies and their personnel. The higher echelons of state seem obsessed with paranoia not seen in 70 years. Rather than elevate the country and benefit its people, this aversion will weaken Nepal’s soft power, help make India and China more influential in national affairs, send the wrong message to tourists and foreign investors, and centralise rather than devolve power in a federalising Nepal.
Xenophobia comes conjoined with ultra-nationalism, the former is self-destructive and the latter only provides temporary relief. All of this may not be the result of a planned conspiracy, but without doubt it benefits the right wing and the ultra-left – helping the former to regain lost societal privileges and the latter in its goal of destabilising society by whatever means.
There is some causality in how select Western diplo-donor agencies proceeded over the past decade, while the ongoing paranoia is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Over the decade of political transition leading up to the new Constitution, many Western embassies, donor agencies and INGOs broadened the definition of ‘development’. They got involved in identity politics and the peace process in a manner that further destabilised society and weakened democratic values.
The crow and the scarecrow, Om Astha Rai
Hail Caesar, Om Astha Rai
Institutional memory is always a problem with the embassies and agencies, but some archival introspection is in order. Things came to a head with UNMIN and the tone set by its reports to the Security Council, which made Nepal resemble a pariah state. The Mission packed up in 2011 but the after-effects linger, as could be seen in the active resistance of some donor units to the local government elections of 2017.
Having elected governments in all three ‘realms’, Nepalis should today feel confident and open enough to digest comments and criticism about state and society. Instead, what we have is over-reaction.
Nepal can do without the ‘foreign hand’ paranoia which is a populist tool of authoritarians (a la Indira Gandhi). The xenophobia will impact international solidarity that the country needs for its move towards a respectable place in South Asia and world. Across-the-board generalisations of the feeling of hurt can mean direct and indirect weakening of relationship with so many countries that have always meant well.
The United Nations has been a partner through Nepal’s modern era and the intelligentsia as well as population at large have always prized this relationship. But UN officials today talk of being taken aback by the cold reception in ministries and at functions. Even considering the expanded role Nepal seeks in UN peace-keeping operations, more circumspection would be helpful in officialdom.
Conjoined Twins, Editorial
Inventing a new enemy, Om Astha Rai
It is a truism to state that only liberal democratic values, marked by openness and self-questioning, can work to bring progress to a complex and diverse society such as ours. And Nepal should continue on its trajectory towards an even more vibrant society of confident citizens, where our open visa regime allows the country to deepen its discourse with the world.
Drafting an ‘integrity policy’ that discourages INGOs and NGOs can only reverse the gains of participatory democracy. Rather than strengthen the government’s capacity to monitor and call out malfeasance where it occurs, the tendency is to try and restrict civic activism and organising ‘at source’.
Nepal and Nepalis need development cooperation, we need to connect with countries where Nepalis have migrated to, we need volunteers to come and help in our towns and villages, we need to rise to international opportunities rather than be forever preoccupied with internal crises. This requires replacing xenophobia with empathy.
The Ugly American is a novel that portrays the intolerant and arrogant avatar of American character of the 1960s. No Nepali wants to look at himself/herself in the mirror and detect traces of prejudice and chauvinism.
Strongman rule, Om Astha Rai
Towards a police state, Editorial