The Amazing Jyväskylä!

The Amazing Jyväskylä!
Me at the harbor of Jyväskylä

22 September, 2014

Maybe the post-developmentalists were right after all ...

As much as I am trying to focus on completing another paper for the last compulsory course of the program, I cannot. While I concentrate on reading the books that are required for the course, other thoughts keep sneaking into my mind as the experiences that I have had so far here in Kathmandu are quite overwhelming and thoughts-invoking. So, no better way to get rid of these thoughts than writing them down (or typing them up to be exact).

Last weekend, I found myself yet again wandering around the touristy area of Thamel looking for a hair salon since I was desperate and determined to get a haircut while I am here. It is too expensive in Finland and the result I got was not worth the money I spent. Well, I was not really satisfied with the haircut I got here either but at least it was cheap. The hairdresser was sweet and welcoming even though I was 2 hours late for the appointment due to the rain. It was fast and cost me less than 2 euros comparing to the 15 euro haircut that took more than 2 hours to be done in Jyväskylä from an amateur vocational student.

Of course, small talks are inevitable while having a haircut; especially in a collectivism society like Nepal. Basic questions: where are you from? What are you doing here? How long have you been here? How long are you going to be here? She was much surprised when I told her that I was from Vietnam. Cannot blame her. I think very few Vietnamese travelers know of Nepal or consider traveling to Nepal since it is typical among our society that when we go abroad, we’d better go to rich countries like those in Europe or North America. This might go off track a bit but I find it laughable that when I talk to some younger Vietnamese students studying in Jyväskylä about going to Nepal, they find it strange and ask me if I am going there to do some charity work because they often go to France, Italy, Germany or even Greece for their internships or exchange programs. I don’t really bother to explain since it’s a waste of time explaining things for those with that kind of mindset. Alright, back to the hairdresser. So, when I told her that I was doing my internship at a non-governmental organization here in Kathmandu, she did not understand what I was talking about. However, I suddenly remembered the same reaction coming from a waiter in a coffee shop I went to the other day. And when I changed my answer to the abbreviation NGO instead of  full-on, spelled-out “non-governmental organization”, she immediately understood and so did the said waiter.

Very interesting …

Now, when I am doing some thinking and also reading a piece about aid work in Nepal from the book Development Brokers and Translators by David Mosse and David Lewis, I realize a very interesting fact. In this piece that I just mentioned, the author provided some statistics on the dramatic changes in the number of NGOs registered in Nepal: “From a mere 250 in 1989, the number of organizations registered with the Social Welfare Council in Kathmandu shot to 1,210 in 1993 and to 5,978 by 1997.” (p. 195) Then I went on doing some simple searching on Google to find out the most recent number. I found an official number on an online news outlet called Kathmandu Insider published in 2011. Apparently, as of 2011, there were approximately 50,000 NGOs and INGOs including ones registered with the Social Welfare Council (SWC) and those which were not registered. The official document listing registered NGOs from SWC has total 1,126 pages listing 30,284 INGOs and NGOs.

That is a tremendous number of NGOs and development workers in such a small country like Nepal. That number also gives us a hint of the amount of money pouring into developing Nepal every year. The article on Kathmandu Insider goes on analyzing the number: “Acting Deputy Director of the SWC, Uma Paudyal, informed that about 34,000 NGOs have been registered with the council to date. Moreover, there are many NGOs which have not yet registered at the SWC. She estimates that the total number of NGOs in the country must be around 50,000 already. Interestingly, given the population of the country, 34,000 NGOs means one NGO per 872 people! Or if the NGOs are centered on VDCs, eight NGOs can focus on one Village Development Committee (VDC). Similarly, 202 INGOs are working with the SWC, according to the latter. That being the case, it would not be wrong to expect far more from these non-profit organizations.” Unbelievable, right?

[I saw the sign of this project just across the road from Chinese Embassy]
First, it’s obvious that the term NGO has become a popular concept to Nepali, especially those living in Kathmandu. However, from the experiences I've had so far, I doubt that aside from development workers and their families, most Nepali do not understand what NGO even stands for; evidently the cases of the hairdresser and the waiter (and now, when I think about it, it's the same case with the guy who sells momo near where I live and claims to be my friend after selling me momo twice, haha) . I think they might have a vague idea what NGO workers might be doing but not really the whole picture. And of course, due to the huge number of NGOs, the expat community here in Kathmandu is incredibly large. There are two common questions posed for foreigners here: “Are you here to trek?” and “Are you working for an NGO?” Just like in Vietnam: “Are you here to travel?” and “Are you here to teach English?” And some Western NGO workers in Vietnam would be angry when asked if they teach English because they think that’s stereotype.

Secondly, I have to ask myself very obvious questions: With that incredible number of NGOs, why is Nepal still considered among the poorest countries in the world? What have they done for the past 25 years that this status hasn't changed at all?

Some typical reasons are laid out: corruption (which is true and quite serious in this case of Nepal); lack of resources (especially electricity); geographical difficulty-landlocked, weak governance; etc. … but … let’s face it, maybe Escobar, Ferguson and other post-developmentalists were right after all: development, the way in which it is being operated, is not working anymore …

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