The poor and poorerPoverty alleviation programmes and the influx of remittance, are not eliminating poverty; they are simply creating new kinds of poor.
The National Planning Commission claims that absolute poverty has reduced by roughly 23 percent, but there are many caveats. For instance, the life expectancy of people in Kathmandu is 82 years while it is 36 years for people in Jumla. In recent years, government and NGO programmes have expanded to include the Far West, Mid West, and central Tarai, but the dynamics of poverty has
The NGO angle
There are two reasons for this. First, I/NGOs that work on poverty alleviation are led by society elites and are mostly focussed on inputs rather than tangible results. Such programmes are more concerned with receiving and allocating funding, rather than utilising them in ways that most benefit target groups. Second, the duration of engagement is a serious issue, especially with regards to the Far and Mid West and a few districts in the southern Tarai. These places have been marginalised and excluded for so long that they require more investment to show the same results as elsewhere.
In addition to the aforementioned issues, there is a much more serious charge that can be labelled at NGOs—that they are actually reinforcing existing class divides. This can be gleaned from simply tallying the income levels of the project staff against that of the target group. Furthermore, income levels can be further compared among the various kinds of project staff—governmental, local NGO, INGO, and the UN. And this is despite the fact that most of the work is being done by locals, not international experts. This stratification in the NGO world has had impacts on their children’s education, living standards, and social class. Furthermore, those involved in this sector are able to parley their opportunities into more opportunities. Without social and political connections, NGOs cannot access funds from both foreign and national donors. This cycle is only perpetuated when the people leading NGOs employ their children to succeed them in positions of power. Access to exorbitant salaries, therefore, remain within certain social circles.
It is also no secret that many NGOs are contributing to corruption, either directly or indirectly. Given the levels of corruption prevalent in Nepali society, NGOs cannot work without indulging in some form of corruption, however small. There are various methods of indulging powerbrokers, such as providing them with fellowships, straight financial incentives, or employing them as resource persons in communication and transportation. In many cases, governmental regulations are violated for the sake of senior experts and/or foreigners and donors. Further, members of the government, bureaucratic and otherwise, are often found taking personal leave and joining NGO activities at the national and international levels. They provide consultation services for I/NGOs, who pay salaries much larger than government pay checks.
The media too is not free from the orbit of I/NGOs, who provide fellowships and incentives to journalists. In return, the I/NGOs receive publicity for their programmes and criticism is papered over. This begs the question, who exactly is monitoring NGOs, their activities, and their funding sources? Does the Social Welfare Council really stand for monitoring?
Remittance for how long?
Besides governmental and NGO efforts, one other factor has been credited with relieving extreme poverty—remittance. Globalisation and liberalisation has meant that travelling to distant lands, where salaries are comparatively higher and employment is easily available, is much easier now. Those who can’t even fill up the forms at the airport’s immigration counter are flying off to the Middle East where they do not speak the language or understand the culture. But the impact of the remittance that they send back has been undeniable; it is now a key
contributing source to the national economy.
However, remittance is not a permanent solution at alleviating poverty. Foreign labour migration would work better for Nepal if the country was able to transfer skills gained in foreign lands into productive sectors. But the workers who go abroad are often mistreated and face various forms of violence. This no doubt impacts their ability to pick up and transfer skills. Furthermore, remittance is increasing purchasing power across the country, but there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in local supply and production capacity. This is a vicious circle, since most of the young people who are able to work in the fields and in the industries have left the country. Villages across the country are empty of working-age men; it is mostly the elderly, the disabled, children, and women left behind.
There are also the accompanying social factors that arise when some members of a community get wealthy. Clothes and food become status symbols and engaging in traditional occupations, as opposed to leaving the country for work abroad, is seen as unproductive. So land and sheds, the traditional bastions of the Nepali economy and the sector that still employs the most people, are increasingly empty. In the absence of employable working hands, farmers are engaging in other occupations, such as the cultivation of vegetables and herbs, which do not require much manual labour. They are also turning to tourism, with home stays, lodges, and local eateries. But by and large, local resources are either under-utilised or misused.
The new and old
Still, for a silver lining, there are a number of young people who are working hard to contribute to the economy in their own way. By pursuing entrepreneurship and establishing companies, they are adding to the national economy and generating employment opportunities, which, in the end, will contribute to combating poverty. Sadly, even such youths are restless and despondent due to the lack of an enabling environment in Nepal, the difficulty in attracting funding and generating interest, and the country’s perennial problems, such as a lack of coherent policies and stability in politics. As a populist strategy, governments often announce programmes for youths, the unemployed, and the marginalised, but with the entrance of politics into every sector of society, even such allocations are heavily utilised by party cadres.
In such a scenario, poverty can be seen in two ways—traditional poverty and modern poverty. In the attempt to alleviate traditional poverty, modern forms of poverty are being created. This does not bode well for the national economy.
Paudel is Founder/President of Action Works Nepal and author of the Madan Puraskar-winning ‘Khalanga ma hamala’