Okay people, let’s talk about confusion. That kind of all-consuming, mind-numbing, makes-you-want-to-scream confusion that comes from having a WHOLE LOT of emotions that you can’t quite identify and can’t quite process because you can’t figure out exactly whether they’re a product of something you learnt or how someone said something or maybe you’re just thinking too much for your Devanagari-focused mind to handle. Ya know what I’m saying? It’s confusion about lenses, about framing history and interpreting information. About power dynamics, designated leadership, and the importance of listening. About people’s needs, people’s ability, access, equity, and the People’s War. About how I, as a privileged, white, American, able-bodied femme, can navigate the world such that I am functioning for everyone around me as a space that is- for lack of better word- safe, unconditionally. About what I’m doing here, how I’m perceived, and whether I’ll ever figure out how to be self-critical in a way that comes across as less aggressive. And above all, about development.
Our most recent development talk was a completely new perspective, and more precisely, a new perspective that wholly contradicts a lot of the other ideas we have been presented with and the previous ways of considering the concept of “wholesale,” “big-picture,” “zoomed-out” international development and now my questions have become: how to process “factual” information critically, how to allow room in history for interpretation, how to make sure everything is viewed in as full of a context as possible, and how to bring multiple perspectives into conversation with each other without feeling like your brain is about to explode or you are being manipulated by your emotional responses. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here, because I should first explain the trigger for all of this confusion, which was what exactly went down in our recent Development class.
In this class, we heard an entirely new way of thinking about the history of “development” in Nepal; it was a framework designated by positivity and change, and finding simple solutions to complex issues that, when you consider the “wholesale,” i.e., “big picture,” perspective, just somehow, well, work out. We were presented with several stories of successful change that has occurred in Nepal, such as twelve years of free and compulsory education for youth, 1000 days of active and material governmental support for pregnant women, huge increases in the number of Rhinos present in Southern Nepali land, and the sort of revolution that has spread nationwide with regards to the use of biomass energy and human/livestock waste processing. In every case, the stories seemed to have easy and manageable goals, a linear progression of upwards movement, and a successful conclusion at the end. All children, in all villages, including the most remote mountain ones, have free education and even include tablets for reading instead of textbooks. All women, everywhere, have access to their 1000 days of support, and if they don’t, they can just call up their local government representative who will immediately provide them with it. Designated protected land is legitimately protected land. Any house can acquire heat and electricity if they use a biofuel processing tool to recycle their own waste, and carbon monoxide levels will be completely offset. Every occurrence of a major institutional problem in Nepal can be solved in one long story of success and “upward” mobility, sufficient aid is being received and used efficiently (save the ~90% of the 2015 earthquake recovery money from foreign aid that has yet to be spent, of course), there are enough jobs for most young adults to come home from abroad, and all the while diversity of culture is being completely preserved. But. How much of these theoretical “successes” are actually universally successful in practice? How does major governmental corruption, multi-party political turmoil, systematic abuse of menstruating women, and the centering of wealth and power to very limited urban centers play into all of this? Are all children really getting their 12 years of free and compulsory education? Are all women really getting their 1000 days of support? And don’t get me wrong, there is an incredible amount of positive social change happening around the country, but I would venture, based on the other perspectives from my homestay father, other guest lecturers, and group discussions about development/earthquake recovery/resource distribution/wealth disparity/”post-colonial” Imperialism that I have been grappling to understand, to say, “No,” it probably is not as simply successful on an institutional level as it may seem.
Which brings me to the question of institutions, and how systemic problems must be considered with as much context as possible along with them. Take the institution of land rights, for example, and the idea of designating certain areas of land as “protected,” for the “benefit” of the wildlife, ecosystems, and surrounding human populations affected. This is a topic that is much more complex than can be boiled down to a simple solution that can be executed easily and successfully; how do people actually, in practice, react to zones being designated as “protected”? Do they truly conform to regulations, or do underground, extreme forms of exploitation occur as a result? How is it possible that there can coexist in the same national headspace a huge issue of false “certifications” for vehicles being energy efficient and low-carbon AND a legitimate conservation of all designated protected wilderness areas? Moreover, how is it that we were presented with the fact that Nepal has 23% designated protected land and the US has 4-5%, and therefore the environment and wilderness areas of Nepal are being successfully conserved and US conservation efforts are much more prone to failure, without any more context than the two data figures? And to be fair, that is most definitely true, but it’s true not so much because of the numerical data. Especially considering the history in the US of protected land actually becoming a massive issue of the destruction of indigenous communities by conservative preservationists (that pun was for you, John Muir) in the name of “wilderness”. The point is, we cannot ignore context when making claims about development, whether or not they prove to be completely factual.
So what now? Where am I going with all of this? To be honest, I am more confused than ever, and I feel even less capable of fully articulating my thoughts and questions than before. But this is what Kathmandu taught me. Kathmandu showed me how important it is to never stop thinking critically about information that is presented, whether explicitly or through my personal experience. As we leave the valley, I know I will miss talking to my host siblings, running after and jumping on the back of a moving tempo in Jamal, and finally being forced to work on double tonguing with my flute, but what I take with me is a whole new motivation and impetus to break down, challenge, and re-evaluate my place in the world as well as the world around me.