Development Co-operation Directorate (DCD-DAC)

Nepal: aid 'business as usual?' (DACNews Nov-Dec 2005)


Jim Hradsky from the OECD DAC Secretariat recently visited Nepal as part of the DAC Peer Review of the United Kingdom. He shares his observations on the difficulties of carrying out aid “business as usual” in a country in serious conflict.

This was my first visit to Nepal and the impressions were vivid. Majestic, snow covered peaks which form the “roof of the world”, fertile valleys with extensively green forest cover on the slopes, often topped by picturesque, flag bedecked monasteries contemplating stony river gorges below. This visit lasted only one intensive week, including a more rural trip to Nepalgundj district, a 90 minute air flight to the west of the capital Kathmandu. Nevertheless, I was taken by its history, cultural diversity and natural beauty. 

The more challenging professional interest in this (already overpopulated) country of 25 million is that it is poor, particularly by Asian standards, with a per capita income of USD240 per year. Not unrelated to this pervasive poverty, the strongest development message carried back to Paris was the difficulty of trying to carry out aid business as usual in a situation of serious conflict.

Since 1996, an estimated 13,000 persons have died in a cyclical conflict between the Nepalese government and a Maoist rebel movement that has grown to effectively control some 2/3 of the land area of the country. Over this time, Nepal’s fledgling democracy has been progressively dismantled by the Nepalese king, until finally (February 2005) he dismissed the Prime Minister, declared a state of emergency and assumed direct rule.

Donors have tried a variety of ways to pressure the monarchy to respect human rights and permit more participatory forms of governance. To date they have been largely unsuccessful. As a leading donor in Nepal (USD50 million per year) and probably the most politically visible one, the United Kingdom has found it necessary to redesign its operational approach here. In 2005 it closed down three ongoing activities on “effectiveness” grounds, reduced the ambitious funding levels it had projected up to now and placed emphasis on greater collaboration with the Foreign Office on political processes and general “risk management”.

Lacking an effective government partner, the UK development mission in country (DFID) has pulled back from its instinctive interest in providing extensive government budget support and turned much of its funding attention to direct service delivery in rural areas where it can demonstrate an immediate (although not necessarily sustainable) impact the poor.

Largely because government service agencies no longer venture beyond the district towns, DFID (and other donors) now use funding to support local NGO work in areas like rural roads, water supply and sanitation, health, education and agriculture.

This new approach means that donors now need to reflect more strategically about their engagement with civil society. Confronted with the possibility that “some NGOs may be as corrupt as the government”, DFID now realises the need for greater transparency in dealing with a large NGO community, including the development of a code of conduct, competition for grants and a greater level of financial and management oversight.  

From the perspective of the DAC review of UK development co-operation systems, our team came away from the visit to Nepal impressed by the difficulties of carrying out the complexities of regular development co-operation in a context of conflict.

Under the circumstances, aid cannot be divorced from the critical need to find the political stability and integrity needed to nurture sustainable development. Clearly, it is not business as usual. Simplifying processes would help to better manage development in conflict situations like this.  For example, simplified monitoring and reporting systems and looking at a different composition of local DFID skills and organisation to better match this less standard field approach could make a substantial difference. The exact shape of these simplifications may vary, but as a matter of policy, it was clear that headquarters should rely on the good judgement of its competent field staff to tailor operations in the way that makes most sense to the specific country context.