‘GDP' & 'Development’ Lessons for Nepal
GDP rhetoric forever and obsession with mega development or sustainability rooted in Nepal's core strength?
The constraints of GDP are well known by now. We know the discourse and the paradigm shift that is being advocated. In case of Nepal, the term development has been a long-lived but unrealised fad now, while its present connotation has become equivalent to GDP rhetoric.
For Nepal that stands at a crossroad of desire for real progress versus destruction in the name of GDP and development, there are three alternatives it can advance with i) follow the GDP path, build heavy infrastructures, focus aggressively on economic output and rhetorise trickle down effects as the GDP expansion materialises ii) maintain a fine balance between GDP objectives and sustainable development, pursue them simultaneously and gradually shift towards sustainability iii) make sustainability and wellbeing the sole policy objective, democratise health and education for all and prioritise agriculture, environment and conservation.
Nepal’s best interest lies in the pursuit of third alternative, and it is well positioned to do so, not in monetary terms but out of the lessons of its failed experiments so far.
First, over the years Nepal has followed the GDP path, but to little success. It remains a small-size, low-income and remittance and aid-based economy with political, social and economic turmoil almost embedded in its structure. Poverty is still its bitter truth despite having bountiful resources to combat it.
Second, despite rooted in cultural orientation that believes in spiritual wellbeing, conservation and sustainability than consumerism, Nepal has done many bads to its environment and resources by chasing growth desperately and haphazardly and its by-product like greed for excesses. A case in hand is Kathmandu city that has one of the most polluted air qualities in the world, its rivers that face existential threat and an urbanisation style that fails many than it uplifts. Similar ‘development’ style is an ongoing phenomenon across Nepal.
Third, Nepal has failed to envision its own blueprint of progress so far and carve a suitable path. The current model of development that Nepal and many least development countries pursue is a western model with their lifestyle influences imprint on it while that path to development is designed by donor institutions.
Decades of development aid and a one-size-fits-all approach in their planned interventions has failed to alleviate poverty and ensure development. Their own governance structure hasn’t proved efficient either. Western economy and lifestyle, on the other hand, is consumerism based where there are blur lines between need and wants and an aggressive promotion of an excess lifestyle. Both factors are hegemonic in attitude too.
In this pursuit of western style development that is believed to reflect modernity, Nepal is losing its individuality by considering its own knowledge and cultural system developed over century of practice and reforms as irrational, obsolete, inferior and unproductive.
Poor countries like Nepal who are aid recipients and influenced by westernisation are at the verge of fully abandoning their indigenous and traditional knowledge, language, history, customs and cultural values, agricultural practices and principles about community and individual existence and many other components. Some direct examples are use of plastics over biodegradable leaves, language attrition, and traditional knowledge of wild plants.
On the other hand, Nepal hasn’t been able to fully internalise suitable western knowledge systems like democratic principles, scientific inquiry and technology into its own practice either.
Today, the term ‘development’ is deeply entrenched in Nepalis psychology because most of Nepal’s discussions about the idea of progress started and are centred around development. Development is often misinterpreted as concrete and robust infrastructures, while the concept of wellbeing is ignored.
Take for instance, the Nijgadh International Project that the government plans to build by tearing down an entire forest, felling millions of trees, and destroying a habitat that shelters a diverse ecosystem and wildlife. Haphazard road constructions and view towers and false emphasis on ships and trains are other instances of mispriorities in the topographically constrained Himalayan country over good schools, universities, health infrastructures and environment.
Anybody who expresses valid concerns and rational arguments about their present and near future relevance, their viability and ecological costs is deemed or labelled as ‘anti-development’. This open rejection of ecological concerns in favour of mega infrastructures reveals much about the prevailing mindset.
Obsession with development has, thus, become one of the biggest hurdles to the pursuit of sustainability. It is similar to the fixation with GDP, although unlike industrialised countries GDP has limited takers in Nepal’s public sphere whereas its grip is intact in the policy circle.
A reason behind this blindness can be explained by poverty, the armed conflict, natural disasters and incessant political quagmire and a protracted transition phase that Nepalis experienced in last three decades. Those were a period of great hardships and frustration while Nepal gradually opened up to grand western development, culture and influence through globalisation.
In this context, the deep craving for ‘development’ is justified. The truth is it is superficial. The bottom desire is some real changes in personal wellbeing first. So why does it appear that people are passive about their own wellbeing?
This can be explained by our broken system – political, governance and economic. Politics is deeply polarised, divisive and unfair to the poor. Governance is fraught with corruption, mismanagement and inefficiencies. Economics is poorly understood and managed.
On the other hand, political figures, party rifts and geopolitics make everyday headlines than agendas that affect citizens’ daily struggles. Meanwhile, sensible governments that make and fulfil sensible promises are in dearth. Concerns about shrinking opportunities, rising inflation and absent social security are hardly discussed in public forums at sufficient length and comprehensible language.
Amid this broken system, people have lost faith and confidence and rather accept the prevailing situation as either unfixable or just fate. One of the ways people release their frustration is by migrating abroad. Some migrate for better work opportunities, some for better education and some for an overall better living standard. Some migrate even at the prospect of meagre income despite high risks associated with it. And some never to look back.
The migration trend, however, explains a lot about what Nepalis are really looking for – good schools and independent universities, affordable education and healthcare, fair governance and strong rule of law, a dignified source of livelihood and a simplified lifestyle marked by ample leisure time for creative works, proper public transportation, open spaces, green parks, fresh air and crystalline water streams and coexistence with natural system, among many other simple needs.
It is not too much to ask, neither impossible to achieve.
Nepal should begin with communicating about the drawbacks of excesses, consumerism and exploitation of resources the right way. Meanwhile, sustainability has to be envisioned and planned with right priorities.
As with what to prioritise and leverage, Nepal should be invested into health and education, agriculture, energy, tourism and IT which are untapped, unpolluting and central to building sustainable, digital and green economy.
Generous government spending in public health and education sector is the need of the hour. It will develop better human capital, provide sense of security, improve both supply and demand side gaps, and contribute to economic activities in several other ways.
Clean energy and tourism are our best hope to becoming wealthy. Demand for energy is abound in both domestic and foreign markets. By developing a public transport network that runs on clean energy, Nepal can be at the forefront of a revolutionary model of progress.
Similarly, tourism should be linked with green and sustainable modality with focus on redistribution to the belonging communities. Integration of sustainability and technology into agriculture can help us with developing a self-reliant economy. And there is enough young pool of talents and muscle power to achieve these goals along with advancements in IT sector. Nepal will also have to make more concerted efforts in conservation of its natural system.
So far, people have been made to believe that mega infrastructures are symbols of prosperity and growth enablers. That’s what has made development a flawed construct in Nepal. Meanwhile, despite history of GDP success in the west, it no longer fits the bill either evident from the deadly climate risks that we face today.
On Nepal’s part, it will soon announce its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Business as usual, technocrats will throw GPD targets and development goals and a whole lot of discussions will happen in the consecutive weeks. But Nepal doesn’t need to shoulder those baggages anymore.
Time demands a radical approach today that the world is cynical about, but fiercely making case for it as well. Nepal is well suited to lead a sustainable and green change that focuses on individual wellbeing, because it has the necessary means - its own legacy of knowledge system, sufficient information advanced by the ongoing global discourse and knowledge about innovation and technology the west has developed so far and people’s deep desire for it.
(Please find the first part of this article here)
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