A Lengthy Discussion on Development in Nepal and the US (with video rewards at the end)

I’ve had a lot of blog ideas float around in my head this past week and have started a few short entries, but couldn’t seem to find a way to cobble together my observations and ideas neatly. Though tempted to just have a “random thoughts” post, I think it’s a good exercise to consider why I couldn’t assemble my ideas and to then try to find something that does string them together. After a month here exactly today, what I see and notice in Nepal is changing and so reporting on life here feels emptier of broader themes that deserve another look. 

A sticker seen in the bathroom of a Western-style coffee shop in touristy Thamel

A sticker seen in the bathroom of a Western-style coffee shop in touristy Thamel

When I landed in Nepal, I described it as a “Developing Country” in an email to my family and close friends. Developing is the world du jour that is used to describe countries that are poor. Developing is applied to countries that were once called “Third World”, an outdated designation born out of the Cold War (with the Western “Free” world as the First World and the Soviet Union as the Second World, caught between poverty and freedom). In Sociology’s World Systems Theory (which is taught in Intro classes, but not so much used in research these days) there are Core and Periphery Countries, another way of categorizing countries by their levels of development and modes of participation in the global economy. Right now it is Developed and Developing countries. Or, the Global South (yet, the Global North isn’t as much part of the vernacular, being the implied referent group). All of these various designations are way that wealthy, industrialized and post-industrial countries talk about places that are poor and don’t have the stability, wealth, or means to create and sustain wealth in the manner that wealthy countries do.  


Nepal ranks 145th on the Human Development Index (HDI) and 103rd in the Gender Empowerment Index (GEI). The standards it has set for itself is to graduate to a “Developing Country” by 2022 from the “Least Developed Country” designation it currently carries. Currently, up to 30% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are remittances (wage earnings) sent from mostly male labor migrants abroad. Side note: my research and why I am here is to talk to the families that remain behind to see how this impacts Gender Empowerment. In many ways, Nepal’s economic strategy for their working population is to send individuals abroad, while going abroad requires some financial resources at the outset, it is often a choice of individuals without better economic options. The work done abroad (and the process of getting there) can be incredibly dangerous and the workers are vulnerable to deception and coercion. Obviously this isn’t the economic strategy of choice for countries that have the option to cultivate a strong domestic labor force. Still, Nepal hopes to be middle income by 2030, though its progress has been slowed by a 10-year internal conflict with the Maoists, the 2015 Earthquake, and the Madheshi political movement and fuel blockade. Future obstacles to its development are that it is the 4th most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. 

So what does it mean to be "least developed”? What is the day to day lived experience of being in a least developed country for different Nepalis and for a foreigner like me? What does development mean when you’re aspiring to be "developing"?

I’ve been very charmed by Nepal and the Nepalis I’ve met in the Kathmandu Valley, and still am. That’s been the valence of my previous posts; I haven’t really touched on the structural issues or the economic situation of Nepal. These emerge in interesting ways and affect daily life. I have talked about the noise and stimulation of Nepal, how there is always a lot happening. And I’d say that I hear more jarring sounds than pleasant ones. I smell more bad smells than good. I see an equal amount of upsetting and wonderful things. So much of it is a grey zone where I see different things and interpret them depending on how I am feeling that day. One thing I noticed right away (aside from traffic) is garbage disposal. There aren’t waste receptacles around and, while household trash is picked up and there is a dump, there is also a lot a lot of waste around on the sidewalks. Garbage along with animal and sometimes human waste (and sometimes dead animals) are never more than a stone’s throw away.

Stray cows (which happens because its illegal to kill a cow and they're expensive to keep once they stop producing milk, so they're turned free) eating rotting fruit outside a fruit distribution area for the fruit sellers

Stray cows (which happens because its illegal to kill a cow and they're expensive to keep once they stop producing milk, so they're turned free) eating rotting fruit outside a fruit distribution area for the fruit sellers

The most depressing place I have ever been in recent memory is on the bridge between the neighborhoods of Kuleshwor and Tekku. It is a garbage dump that I sometimes walk by and it is teeming with mountains of putrid, decomposing refuse that form walls that slide into the Bagmati river, which runs an unnatural saturated grey brown. The men who move the garbage don’t wear masks or gloves. Dogs rove the piles. It so clearly summarizes the gross inequality, human and environmental, that defines cities like Kathmandu and our world. And today, when I passed it and took a picture, a man was selling ice cream to a mother and her toddler. A sobering reminder that, as I held back gagging from the smell and held my nose through my facemask, others are so accustomed to living in this area that a cool creamy treat sounds appealing. For my dad, going to the dump is a highlight of his weekend. It’s organized, most the refuse is recycled, it doesn’t smell much (thanks to many people composting and having the land/space to do so). It’s the opposite of this.

But what is like to live here for locals? Obviously one month in, this is still something I am trying to understand still and can’t really speak to. Lily, Ryan (fellow Fulbrighters) and I joke that we’re still children. In how we speak, in the kinds of gaffs and mistakes we make in our homestays, in the questions we ask, and in our understandings of the way the world here works. When I’m not a Nepali child, I’m an adult social scientist that thinks quantifying what life is like in a complex and multi-faceted social system is challenging. 

Getting from here to there can be challenge. When I leave for my main field site down on the Terai (the plains) at the end of the month it will take at least 6 hours in a car. It is only about 70 miles away on a highway that is considered a good road. On a good highway in the US, 70 miles is just over an hour’s trip. I can walk to my language class in the time I can get there on a bus, thanks to traffic. And there isn’t an easy transit system. There are some state-owned bus routes, but mostly the micro buses (or “micros”) run the middle routes. Micros are privately owned and the are organized in a union. It costs 15 rupees (about 14 cents) to ride. An individual can purchase a mini bus that looks like this and that have 16 seats plus a bench back to back with the driver’s bench that should seat 3, but usually 4. These usually have 22-24 people on them, plus the driver and conductor who leans out the window announcing the route and taking money. Yesterday, I rode with 30, a record for me. More of my body was out of the micro than in and my backpack was somewhat precariously balanced on the ledge by my knees. 

Mom and Judy, don’t read this next paragraph.

A selfie in my freshly-washed trusty VogMask and dust-protecting sunglasses

A selfie in my freshly-washed trusty VogMask and dust-protecting sunglasses

The Embassy doesn’t really want us using these. Understandably, there was a terrible crash on a bus recently and lots of people died because the bus was so overloaded that it stalled out on a hill and rolled off the road. The people who were sitting on the roof (to give an idea on overloading) survived because they jumped off. The bus had 35 seats and over 90 passengers. When private enterprise fills in where the government can’t or doesn’t, it can work, but the consumer gets highly varied experiences and adherences to safety. Operators want to fill their cars and don’t face recourse for being unsafe. There doesn’t seem to be insurance so much as high fines for accidents, injuries, and death. Aside from increased risk, all this creates a phenomenal amount of pollution, which the mountains that ring the Kathmandu Valley hold in like walls of palpable smog and dust. Most people wear masks. I brought one here as a precaution because I have asthma, but sort of thought I wouldn’t use it. It’s a pale peach color and it got so stained brown with grime in two weeks I had to wash it. The health and human costs of development add up (and I haven’t even mentioned employment, food security, land ownership, or education).

United States

So what does development mean when this is your reality? What can and should Nepal aspire to? Is it the American Suburban Dream of comfort? Having a washer and a dryer and a dishwasher? Sure, those things could be nice. I admit that I dreamt I discovered that my house had a secret washer and drier so my clothes could get really clean and shrunk back to the size they should be, and not the size they have become from my forceful wringing after hand washes. 

Development isn’t an avenue to nice things, it’s about access to social opportunity and security that is far more basic and necessary. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we’re a few rungs lower than self-actualization. If you have a disability your options here are to have your family care for you (which I’ve witnessed in an adult with profound intellectual disability and what I assumed was his sister on a micro) or you’re on the streets begging (which I’ve seen more of). When that is a reality, having a washer and a dryer, or a dish washer, or a blender are luxuries, not necessities or even basic needs. Just before my departure, I was talking to someone I didn’t know at a cookout about going to Nepal. They asked about my living conditions and I said that in my homestays in the rural areas it was likely the homes wouldn’t have running water or plumbing. Generally, this is an effective way of communicating what the level of development is and people are usually surprised. The response to this was this person telling me about a college student they knew (a friend of their family) who helped build a school in Ecuador and reporting, “Those people don’t have anything, I mean, not even a blender!” I really didn’t know what to say or how to respond to this tone-deaf comment. It so completely missed the point and while this person cared about inequality and was moved by it, they were intellectually unable to conceive of want beyond not having a blender. The idea of not having water or a sanitary toilet was so unimaginable as a reality that it didn’t compute, and so their only way of making sense of inequality was through a blender. Clearly, they have a lot of privileges.  But I realized that this thinking was emblematic of a thought process I know is common. ‘If they could only have what we have, then things would be better for them’ (which is short logical leap to ‘They don’t live like us, so they’re not like us,’ which is a scary thought). Stuff does not create progress, nor is stuff equally allocated across a deserving and in-need population.

I think there is a swath of Americans that latently believe that if those in the developing world could just get a few of the things that we have, they might be able to find and create more comfort and security for themselves. It’s in line with the ‘up by your bootstraps’ narrative that overlooks structural and systemic constraint. This thinking also conflates consumerism with progress, products of development with the process of development. It’s a capitalist way of thinking about non-capitalist economies. Importing goods will not solve the structural problems that have led to these inequalities. But it’s not like there isn’t stuff in Nepal, or that the capitalist desire for shiny new products isn’t as appealing here as it is in the US. It’s just that many Nepalis don’t have means to those ends.

I ventured to a Nepali super store nearby out of curiosity and also in search of avocados (which grow here, but aren’t really part of the cuisine and seem to have a weirdly short season for eating). I was hoping to use them for the burrito meal I was making for my Nepali host sisters because they agreed to let me try and cook for them once. They cook the most delicious meals for all of us every day and it can be hard to be taken care of in this way all the time without giving back, although reciprocation for hospitality doesn’t seem to be part of the cultural vernacular as much as in the US. My burritos in Nepal are very ‘from scratch’. I made the tortillas myself (great use of extra momo dough, by the way). I made pico de gallo and cleaned all the veggies that would be eaten raw in boiled water to avoid harm*. I sautéed fajita veggies in roughly similar spices as home and even found a bean a lot like a pinto bean. Actually, it was probably just pinto beans with another name. They were delicious, not unlike burritos from home, sans guacamole. But I digress.

The super store I hoped had avocados is completely in the model of American-style superstores like Wal-Mart and Target. And in many ways, it’s a lot like that. Especially considering its Nepal where most other stores are very small stalls where you tell the shopkeeper what you want and they hand it to you. But it was different in that I walked there (like everyone else), which isn’t how you get to superstores in car-culture America. As I entered the long driveway there was a huge billboard advertising a 5% discount if you used a Visa. I found this interesting since credit cards aren’t really much of a thing here and I’m not sure how many people have them, but they fit the (American-inspired) vision of the middle class dream this store caters to. Another difference was the sizable collection of pirated DVDs on sale for 135 rupees ($1.25). These are illegal here, yet this giant chain super store sells them right alongside their legitimate merchandise that are harbingers of upward mobility such as washing machines, cribs, sporty clothing, yoga mats, and fancy silicone dishware. A mix of aspiration and reality.

As I walked back, I wondered who comprises the Nepali middle and upper class while watching people collect buckets of rainwater from the monsoon that had just come through. Most houses on my 15-minute walk back had buckets set up under the roof. The water shortage problems are real here and, as Kathmandu grows and climate change marches forth, they will become more pronounced. Many of my neighbors draw from wells or use rainwater for washing, flushing, and cleaning (and likely for drinking and cooking after boiling). People are water conscious here, and, in general, seem to drink much less water than I do. Nepalis don’t drink with meals and they share from a bottle and tip it back into their mouths without contact. This is a graceful practice that, for me, always results in a spill down my whole front (which should surprise exactly no one who knows me). Shared water bottles is the standard practice even in restaurants that don’t cater to foreigners, where you get a water jug, but no cups. And given that people hand wash dishes in small family-run restaurants, this makes sense and saves even more water.

My host sister asked if we had water problems in the US. At first I said no (thinking she meant more about access to clean water), then realized that no one from Flint, Detroit, California, or the arid Southwest would give that answer. I replied that we do have water problems and severe droughts, but that many people with enough money to access water without fear of running out do not participate in the collective efforts to conserve. She was surprised we don’t expertly manage our water. It comes as a surprise to non-Americans sometimes that everyone in the US isn’t wealthy, or that there is inequality in the US, or that there are also major social and infrastructural and development issues.  That’s not the US they are exposed to in media and cultural exports. And even on the ground in the US, it’s quite easy to not-see these issues. From my smog-veiled point of view in Kathmandu, I can see some of our cultural issues of over consumption, waste, and being too busy and hurried much more clearly than when I am among them. Understanding takes a lot of observing, thinking, and conversing. And changing your location and vantage points. Things are complex and so progress is slow and development is a moving target. It is not a uniform concept that fits each place the same. I don’t know how or what Nepal needs to do to reach their goals of graduating to a developing country by 2020. It’s not really my area of expertise. But I know that it’s complex and that a day in the life of Kathmandu is one that shows all the wonderful parts of Nepal and Nepalis, while also revealing some really grim aspects of being a least developed country.

That was a long post. As a reward, and a celebration of my being here for a full month today, here are two videos to contrast my last month in the US with my first month in Kathmandu using an app that takes a one-second video every day.

*Turns out, instead of fearing raw veggies, I should have been more worried about the chili oil on my thumbs that wouldn’t go away with multiple washings that accidentally spread all over my face when I sneezed and blew my nose (thanks to my perma-cold, that I am blaming on pollution). When I touched my face (because of the burning), it got even worse. I rubbed my face with lemon, then baking soda paste, then alcohol before spending 10 minutes face-planted in a wet washcloth before finally feeling the burning abate. My thumbs continued to burn for another full day. Lesson: always wear gloves when handling chilies that are higher octane than the mild jalapenos you usually use.

My last month in the US:

Looking back on my first month in Kathmandu after being here for one month exactly: