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January 30, 2001 (Email)
Hi! Now that I'm back at home, I'll be able to type my own journal entries onto my website. This will allow me to write my thoughts more completely and at my leisure, instead of trying to force everything that I want to say into short, quickly typed e-mails. Even though I'm no longer a Peace Corps volunteer, I still feel I have a lot to add to a journal about my Peace Corps experience before it will be complete. Thanks to Kurt for maintaining this site for me while I was away.

I've been home for almost two weeks now, so the initital culture shock, surprises, and euphoria of re-encountering America have already worn off to a large extent. I didn't expect that much would have happened or changed while I was gone, and nothing has. TV shows are still bad, but now they all seem to be based on reality. It's hard to tell what the last presidential election was based on. Everybody I see here seems to be clean, well-dressed, soft-spoken, and to have a sense of control over their lives. Grocery stores and malls are really big. Material things are all well made and of very high quality. Lights are bright, windows are clean, the air smells good. Not only are things extremely nice and ordered and easy here, but I am also still in a stage of my return where I am noticing only the best of everything. So, for the time being, America seems like a really good place.

Let's see... In case I gave the wrong impression in earlier messages, my leaving Nepal five months early was not entirely a result of my frustration with the Peace Corps office. A sense of completion, of having overcome those challenges I had set for myself, the underlying sense of fear and tension in the country, and the fact that I wanted to accompany Satyam on her first trip to the west were other reasons for why I left exactly when I did. Most of the country, including my school, was closed for two of the last four weeks that I was there. And I hear that things are still shut down even now due to strikes and protests. So I think I picked a good time to get out.

Having said that, I can't state strongly enough my disappointment at the quality of support I received as a volunteer. For more on that, click here.

Let's see. I could also talk about development efforts going on in Nepal. I have a strong urge to try to summarize what I see as the problems with the current efforts at development. So much energy and money have been expended by western volunteers and agencies in Nepal for three decades, but the country still shows no signs of moving in any organized or coherent way towards development. I wish I could offer a solution to this problem. Unfortunately, the best I can do is rant (in an informed manner) about the reasons for the problem.

Without exception, the programs supported by western agancies always sound great. They are long-term, thought-out, well funded programs of action, carried out by trained and knowledgeable development workers, which address the gravest problems in Nepali society head-on. Action plans are developed and executed, with the support and cooperation of Nepali citizens, with the scheduled goal of becoming 100% successful, stainable and self-sufficient (not dependant on foreign aid or staff) within a fixed period of time. A common example would be programs which result in the formation of community organizations to assist with health care, child care, fiscal responsibility, village development, improved educational facilities, etc..

No matter how many times I hear agencies defend their projects as "joint efforts" which will eventually be entirely sustained and motivated by Nepali citizens, I just don't buy it. The manner of organization and thinking which goes into the development and execution of these strategized, budgeted, and timelined projects are entirely western concepts. The great majority of these projects fail or fizzle out when foreign assitance is removed. How else can we explain the existence of redundant projects which are all addressing the same problems which have been addressed by similar projects, often in similar ways, for the past three decades?

The problems that these programs address (under-utilized human and natural resources, an ineffective educational system, lack of proper nourishment or health care, corruption of politicians and police officers, an insufficient and unmaintained infrastructure, sexist laws and cultural practices, etc, etc, etc) are immense and insurmountable unless they are addressed properly. Building a school solves nothing if the underlying lack of respect and understanding of the value of education in society does not change. Training village leaders in basic health care solves nothing if they attend the trainings out of an arrogant desire to improve their status in the community, not out of concern for the health of those of least status among them. Increasing the number of women in parliament or amending sexist laws solves nothing if women politicians are not respected and treated as equals and the new laws are not obeyed. Funding for the building of a new bridge solves nothing if the money to make the bridge safe and stable is stolen by levels within levels of corrupt bureaucracy. Development efforts in general solve nothing if they are perceived as a normal state of affairs, a source of money to be taken advantage of, and a constant reminder and reaffirmation of the negative and fatalistic self-image of the population, and not as a source of empowerment and solutions.

What Nepal does not need is a continuing onslaught of idealistic 25 year olds with unlimited optimism and funding who finish their three, two, or one-year tours of duty and go home just as they are beginning to realize the scope and difficulty of the problems they are addressing. Nepal does not need more development workers who live in a little island of imported westen culture in small pockets of Kathmandu, distorting the economy with their obscene salaries.

When I try to develop real and lasting solutions in my mind, the only thing I can think of is 'jobs'. It would be nice if some jobs could be created in Nepal. Any sorts of jobs. Even manual industrial jobs would be a positive step if abuse could be avoided (a big if). The current level of unemployment is mind-boggling. Even the people who are locally considered to have a 'job' (shop-owners, teachers, local politicians) are almost constantly idle. Farmers work hard, but usually at a subsistence level with little hope for profit.or improvement. But private foreign investment in a remote and unstable place with unreliable infrastructure systems (transportation, communication, power) and an untrained population would be a lot to ask for.

What to do?

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