The Slow Inch Forward


I recently finished reading William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden, thus finishing my “development reading list” for Nepal. For a review of what I thought of the book itself, see my “Books I’ve Read” section on the blog.

On a more general level, reading about development issues while living in a developing country was really eye opening, as I have mentioned a few times already. Below, I want to summarize a few more of the issues I have not just seen but lived in Nepal that contribute to “development”, or lack thereof. Development itself feels like a tricky word to use in Nepal, since I’m not sure what constitutes “development” or how we can tell if it’s achieved. Most of the youth say they don’t want Nepal to become like the United States, and yet everywhere are the signs of a seemingly inevitable march towards packaged food, English use, Facebook, smartphones and the like. What I can say is that it is hard for me to see Nepal joining the global market on a meaningful scale in the current state of affairs; “progress”, in this context the development and use of new technologies, seems to progress exponentially faster in other countries where I have lived—the United States, Spain, and Israel—than it does here. Given the different paces of adoption of newness, it feels impossible not to see Nepal slipping further “behind” or at least out of the arena. And yet all of the “development economics” books I have read seem to suggest that, in fact, the “catching up” of the developing world is inevitable. Below are some places where I see huge gaps; not sure I’m really ready to make sense of them yet.

Water and health: Nepal is, according to both academic sources and traveler accounts, one of the most illness-inducing places on Earth. In Nepal, in particular Kathmandu, water-borne illnesses are rampant, and we expect to get sick at least once a month. In the past three and a half months, I had six days where I felt too sick to work, and I am considered one of the more “healthy” members of our Kalimati team. Expanded over a year, this is approximately 24-30 sick days per year! It’s hard to see a robust workplace flourishing in a place where workers can expect to be sick for an aggregate of nearly a month, on average (Nepal additionally has more than a month worth of national holidays, plus major blocks of time during the monsoon season when illness soars and infrastructure is washed away). The problem is at every level of the chain: the supply of water in Kathmandu is incredibly polluted, with hundreds of gallons of untreated sewage and waste flowing openly in to the rivers and through the streets every day, and there is no municipal water flow service, but instead households are served by a well which is refilled every few weeks. In short, under the current system residents receive an unclean and untreated water supply which is then left standing for weeks at a time, allowing bacteria, viruses and parasites to flourish in the tanks. Nepalese who can afford it take a deworming pill twice a year; widespread parasitic and bacterial infections do not an effective workforce or student body make.

Education: Primary education is supposedly compulsory and available to all. I’m not sure this is necessarily doing anyone any good. Even in the schools where Tevel B’Tzedek has been working for years, teachers sit with a four-foot long bamboo stick to threaten and beat pupils. Smacks on the head or back for mistakes or talking out of turn are commonplace. What’s more, I’m not convinced that this is the worst thing teachers do to their students. A teacher beating his or her student is, at least, interacting with the student. More commonly, we see teachers sitting in the sun in the courtyard (with their bamboos) all day long, while students sit unsupervised in the dark classroom. Students learn by rote memorization, and can tell you the definition of volume or the names of the planets but cannot identify the volume of anything nor point to “space”. Jeffrey Sach’s explains quite powerfully in The End of Poverty the link between innovation and development; given that education in Nepal seems at times determined to quash the creativity of students rather than develop it, it’s hard to imagine much homegrown innovation on a large scale.

Electricity: While power cuts might be our favorite Kalimati joke and there is a lot of laughter that happens at our nightly candlelit dinners, the lack of electricity in Nepal is really a problem. Now, in the height of winter, we have 80 hours of electricity per week, most of which we get in the dead of night. Today, for example, between 9am and 5pm we have one hour of electricity (from 9a-10a). The electricity will come back from 5-7p, and then we will be in the dark until midnight. This is obviously insufficient to run a business that uses computers, Internet, machines, running water, laboratories, or for students to do homework at night. The rich buy generators or batteries (which too can only last so long and are subject to frequent diesel shortages), while the rest of us work by candlelight, minimize use of electronics and frequently just go to bed early. I can hardly see bankers and stock traders adding sums by candlelight and telegramming them to New York, especially since very few people here are capable of basic computations (When I hand a shopkeeper a 100 rupee note to pay for an 80 rupee meal, he pulls out a calculator to give me my change).

Nutrition: The Nepalese are very small people. So much so that when I walk around, literally everyone on the street stops to stare at me—“Oh my Shiva, giant blonde white woman!” Though many Nepalese do, at least in principle, eat chicken, goat or buffalo, these are beyond the daily and even weekly budget of most families. Protein is sorely lacking, as a typical plate of dal bhaat consists of about half a cup of watery dal and at least two or three cups of white rice. Other nutrients are also in short supply- only “rich” dal bhaat is accompanied by tarkaari, or vegetables, which are also served in very small portions (perhaps a quarter to a third of a cup) and which, in any case, are often potato based. The tragedy is that food is, to me, unbelievably cheap. At the place I eat lunch almost every day, my favorite meal is a bowl of palaak paneer, two plate-sized rotis and a Coke for $1.15, or I can have a plate of dal bhaat with unlimited refills for $0.80 or a plate of vegetable chow mein for $0.50; last time I cooked dinner for my house, I made a cream of cauliflower soup and carrot pancakes for seven people for about $3 total.

In the daycare downstairs, there is a little girl who was severely malnourished as a baby. She is more than two years old and has a full set of baby teeth, which makes her theoretically much more developed than most of the other children, who are between 18-24 months. Yet she is more than four inches shorter than all of the other kids, weighs probably 10 pounds less than the next smallest child, and does not yet speak. I have no clue about her long-term prognosis, but it is devastating to hold a little girl whose earliest years were so deprived when I buy a liter of milk every morning for 50 cents.

In summary: To be fair, I am working in an impoverished area, with public school students who can barely pay the $6-8 yearly school fee, not with the more privileged sectors of Nepali society. Yet the community where I live and work is not the exception in Nepal, but rather are thought to have moved one step UP the ladder from village life. I don’t know the solution is nor that there is necessarily one solution, but I do know that what’s happening now is not nearly enough.

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