Since the 60s, there has been a massive international humanitarian presence in Nepal – providing programs for everything from nutrition, medical and health care, to women’s vocational training and education. Most of the NGOs focus on children’s welfare. They show pictures of malnourished children, beg for donations for the children dying by the day of  “preventable diseases”. They tell stories of glue-sniffing orphans living on the streets. They build schools and they open hospitals – over and over again. Some treat the symptoms – rehabilitation for former child prostitutes and child soldiers – and some attempt to address the causes.

DSCF0466They beg for a future. And they try to sell hope.

As a matter of fact, most of the key markers we gauge success and development – rate of infant mortality, life expectancy – have improved. The GDP has risen (slightly) and absolute poverty seems to have steadily reduced…

…and yet. This hopeful improving “situation” was bad enough to turn the calls for political reform and ethnic conflict that began in the 90s into a full on civil war that killed at least 13,000 and displaced more than 100,000.1


In 2008, I worked for a Kathmandu-based INGO that dealt with children’s welfare in the new post-conflict situation. It started out as an orphanage, ended up dealing with “policing” other children’s homes, and is now a sprawling series of projects from education to agriculture and medical.

When I say I “worked” I really mean volunteered. Except, I didn’t sign up for a “voluntourism” program and pay a couple of thousand to be “placed” somewhere for not nearly enough time to do anything but get in the way. (I’m not fond of voluntourism: it’s better than many forms of tourism, but a joke in terms of volunteering or development work – not to mention what a small fraction of the fees actually make it to the local organizations or hosts. That’s a separate issue, though.) 

Kathmandu was a wonderfully complex and beautiful city – constantly juxtaposing the sublime with the grotesque. Marriage parties blasted music while the temples cremated bodies; girls danced on rooftops and toddlers begged in the streets; walking through the streets with unbelievable views and an unbelievable stench. I had a chance to visit a couple of villages outside of the city – I was invited by a local woman who worked for the ngo (a widow who’s sons lived in the house).

It was in the villages that I got a better understanding of, beyond the humanitarian jargon, post-conflict and under-developed, the “situation”. A few anthropology classes later, these memories seem like textbook scenes: Lovely pastoral village, full of friendly and curious children, women, and elderly – no men at all. (Migration. Economics.) Hammer and sickle painted on the walls of abandoned school houses. (Civil war.) Women who barely came up to my shoulder; teenage boys shorter than my chin. (Growth stunting.)

Nepal is interesting – not just to me, because I’ve been there – but, demographically, as nearly textbook case for the “issues” of globalization and development.

It’s officially classified as a Least Developed Nation (142 of 177 on the UN’s Human Development Index). Over 90% of the population lives rurally with more than 30% under the poverty line (60% of some regions). 2 More than 50% of the population is under 18 yrs old. 3

It has very little internal production and is surviving economically from international support (India, China, the UK, and the US) and its only real export is its population: manual labourers and young women. The Indian border has always been open with many families moving across every few generations – generally, men moving to India to work as low-wage labourers, and trained Indian nationals moving into Nepal to take what few technical and skilled jobs have arisen. The traditional caste system, still significant, was never as discriminatory as in India (a reason that many Indian immigrants have given for moving to Nepal), the country has long been known as friendly for tourists and foreign workers.

The conflict waged over a decade. Political unrest, calling for actual realization of the constitution, began in the 50s. By the late 90s, skirmishes between ethnic minorities and police officers in remote regions escalated. The Maoists, resisting the government, formed a militia. They conscripted and recruited – large numbers of children; one of their primary tactics was to kidnap entire schools 4. Eventually, they controlled most of the countryside.

For the most part, NGOs kept a minimal presence through the conflict. Remote outposts were abandoned; hospitals and schools targets for both sides. The “old hands” I met in Kathmandu talked about the barricades and the bandits: they took bags of cash along on trips and, ducking below the seats, tossed them out the window to get past the checkpoints. One bag for the Royal Army – one bag for the Moaists. I was in Nepal in 2008 – the year that it “officially” became a Republic – and the roads were “open” again. (I made it to villages that hadn’t seen a foreigner in ten years. Two other volunteers, though, went for a trek over a weekend and ended up stuck for two weeks when their bus was boarded and they were asked, politely, to exit and return to where they had come from.) Strikes were common – one every other week, or so; locals could predict them, treated politics like bad weather.

DSCF1002The (new) Nepali government recognizes certain disenfranchised and stigmatised groups as in need of special attention and protection: Women, Dalits (low caste), Janjatis (foreigners), Muslims, Inhabitants of remote regions, Street children & orphans, and Displaced Persons. 5 Accurate figures as to how many of these people exist (particularly the displaced) are, of course, unavailable. Child soldiers who had fought with the Maoists were kept in camps for two years after the peace accord was signed. (Child soldiers who fought with the Govt Royal Army are still afraid to come forward.) 6

The government has done little (yet) to help these groups – although NGOs are enthusiastically attempting to step in – dancing the careful dance of tragedy to success story, tears to pride, required to elicit donations and cooperate with the government. Running with more bandages and dreaming of long term solutions. The sort of things that make development volunteers swoon: rejuvenating the abandoned countryside, vocational training for women, agricultural innovations.

Now, don’t misinterpret my scepticism. The horror stories are real. Child soldiers. Girls sold into the slave trade. Trafficking of all sorts. It’s real and it is tragic and there is a real, definite, and significant impact that NGOs and humanitarian interventions can make. (They can, literally, give a future.)

What I find interesting (for lack of a better adjective) is the difference between how the issues are framed internally – for both the development and the government’s sake – and how they are translated, even parsed, internationally – and how they are understood, academically. (Anthropology has, after all, always thrived at these sort of intersections.)

Take homeless street children – “orphans” in humanitarian terms. The problem was greatly exacerbated by the conflict, with children “sent”/”trafficked” into the city, away from the violence (or recruited as soldiers, ending up on the streets after) – but it was quite common before for young boys from poor rural families to chose to leave their families and live on their own. In fact, many of these boys seem to be in better physical health than those who live in the countryside with their families. 7

I’m not trying to argue away the calamity that is children living on the streets – the psychological ramifications, to start with, not to mention the issues of drugs, addiction, and abuse can’t be ignored because of semantics and subtleties – but it’s far more complicated than the interventionary programs can address, and far more complex than the patience of the international donors will listen to.

DSCF0734We can build as many hospitals and schools as we can find idealistic twenty-somethings to devote themselves to a cause – but if we can’t keep them staffed, supplied, and running… what’s the point?

We can educate the children of Nepal, too – but if there are no jobs to employ them…?

Development doesn’t have to be non-sustainable – but it often is.

It’s easy to blame the conflict – the insurgents or the government – and it’s easy to critisize the development community. Frankly, the short attention span of donors has a lot to do with it – it takes a pretty song and dance to get credit card details off someone who’d much rather hand over some cash, but long term programs can’t be planned on the basis of one-off donations. Donors – the average citizens of developed “first world” nations are, understandably, a bit distractable by their own lives. Some claim that national governments get off too easily and become lazy when they are “let off the hook” and “floated” by charity and INGOs’ interventions.

The thing is, it’s not about blame (this is where the academics – demography and anthropology – have a responsibility to explain) because its not about poverty – its about cycles, and its caused by inequality that is globalization.

Autopsies of the conflict have begun to reveal the critical role that inequality plays. Things got “worse” (politically) as things got “better”. Insert your preferred cliche here (I’m still working on mixing “a little hope” and “darkest before the dawn”). The infant mortality rate dropped over the last twenty years – but the difference between the classes, the rich and the poor, the urban and rural – increased almost exponentially. The Maoist fighters came from regions with the greatest stratification and inequality in land-ownings and wealth.

What creates discontent severe enough to make someone pick up a gun? Apparently, watching their neighbors get rich, watching their neighbors’ children grow tall while their own remain stunted. Relative wealth and relative gains – its basic psychology… and in Nepal, its basic biology, as well.



Feature Image: Noelle Tankard, 2009

More on this…

Works Cited

  2. Kohler, G. et al (2009) Rethinking Poverty and Social Exclusion Responses in Post-Conflict Nepal: Child Sensitive Social Protection, Children Youth and Environments 19:229-249
  3. Singh, S. et al (2006) The state of child health and human rights in Nepal, PLOS Medicine 3: 948-952
  4. Macours, K. (2006) Relative Deprivation and Civil Conflict in Nepal, Working Paper
  5. Kohler, G. et al (2009) Rethinking Poverty and Social Exclusion Responses in Post-Conflict Nepal: Child Sensitive Social Protection, Children Youth and Environments 19:229-249
  6. Kohrt, B. et al (2008) Comparison of Mental Health Between Former Child Soldiers and Children Never Conscripted by Armed Groups in Nepal, Journal of the American Medical Association 300: 691-703
  7. Worthman, C. and C. Panter-Brick (2008) Homeless street children in Nepal: Use allostatic load to assess the burden of childhood adversity, Development and Psychopathology 20: 233-255