Sunday 16 September 2018

Nirmala: Nepal's wake up call for donors?

Nirmala was 13 when she was raped, murdered and left in the rice field that she walked across every day to go to school. She’d had to be stronger than her years, supporting her mother after her father left two years before. Teachers describe a bright and dedicated student who dreamed of supporting her mother and family to become independent and secure. Yet in a society where sexual violence is rampant and deep rooted practices sustain an oppressive environment for the vast majority of women Nirmala had learned she’d have to fight every step of the way. On that day in July, however, she wasn’t strong enough to fight. Her body lay in the field for at least a week before it was found. The police did nothing, literally, and there are widespread suspicions of some form of collusion.

Short-termism: a Donor disease

As gut wrenching as this story is on a human level, it should also make us angry. Many young Nepalis have been out of the streets protesting this week, and it is their fight to change their society which those of us who care about Nepal must hope they win. But it is also in my view a searing, damning indictment of much of what many donor agencies have been doing in the country for the last decade or so since the end of the civil war. And perhaps worst of all many of us have implicitly acquiesced with this, trying to squeeze peacebuilding into other sorts of projects rather than loudly making the case and challenging donors to justify their neglect of it.

So what’s been the problem? Well, a familiar yet lazy assumption that “conflict” is over; short term uncoordinated and technocratic projects; a misplaced faith in technology or data; superficial attention to gender and marginalisation, and a propensity to adopt one size fits all approaches have arguably combined to fail to meaningfully impact on a single root cause of what girls like Nirmala face every day. Such as 6 year old Puja Saha, who was violated and then desecrated. This horrific murder and the fallout over a botched, ineffective and possibly corrupt response by the police and authorities to it should lead to hard questions being asked of each donor agency: what they are doing in the country to support peace and development. And if they are not, then why not.

Residents of Bhimduttanagar in Western Nepal demand justice for Nirmala

Positive v negative peace

Nirmala’s family came from Kailalai in the West of the country. A former Maoist stronghold in the civil war, it’s where I first started work there over a decade ago. I remember the stories of forced land seizures, of hiding young men and children in the forests from forced abductions/conscription, but also of young women routinely violated, sometimes as a means of settling inter communal disputes. Two types of violence. Both very real. The old woman who sat quietly in her garden under a tree describing in a hollow voice the day her granddaughter was taken in a raid. She’d slept under the tree ever since, in the hope of hearing her return. At that time the war had only just finished and fighters with uniforms and guns no longer posed a direct threat. But the most basic understanding of peacebuilding will tell you that peace is not merely the absence of war, but the transformation of deep rooted drivers of conflict that are experienced and fester long into the future if left unaddressed, usually by the most vulnerable. Donor agencies in Nepal, however, ceased the vast majority of peacebuilding support a few short years later. War was over, they said. Time for us to move on. The vaunted truth, reconciliation and justice processes never really got off the ground.

Peacebuilders sometimes describe ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ peace. The former means that combatants with guns have gone, but some communities remain subject to violence or the threat of it, usually sustained by structural and social discrimination of various kinds. This begins to explain why the vast majority of conflicts are relapses of old. Positive peace on the other hand is when those underlying factors are being addressed in ways that allow all groups in society to feel secure, have the ability to pursue grievances through non-violent means and trust in the security, justice and governance institutions that are there to serve them equally. In Nepal, sadly, negative peace seemed to be enough for most of the donors.

Time to listen to evidence?

The future

Nepal has immense potential. Its’ history tells you that. If those of us who wish to support the country achieve that potential then it’s time to concede what the evidence from here and elsewhere tells us. Namely that peace requires long term investment: the game changing World Development Report of 2011 talked in terms of 30 years, for example. It takes generations to heal, and build trust. So donor projects with ridiculous claims of being ‘transformative’ over periods of 18 months or 2 years have got to go. They make little sense in terms of value for money, impact or basic common sense. We need to see long term programmes aimed at supporting the development of institutions capable of commanding the support of the communities they serve. Of supporting those champions within society who are challenging centuries of oppressive caste, ethnic or gender based norms that pose a direct risk to the lives of girls like Nirmala, often at great risk to themselves. And sustaining that work for as long as it takes.

If half the population is subject to routine violence or the threat of it, and marginalised communities remain under the yolk of entrenched structural and social discrimination then that is not peace. Nor, therefore, will it be stable or grow in a way that unlocks a country’s full potential, regardless of how much traditional development programming you engage in. Support for the current process of federalisation in the country, which in theory will bring governance closer to communities and thus more responsive is welcome, and great in theory. But it needs to be embedded in strong conflict analysis and long term, flexible initiatives that get to the roots of lingering violence, marginalisation and the corruption that sustains it. So let’s see less technocratic and short term isolated projects about data, technology or infrastructure and more long term and joined up engagement on what experience from elsewhere in the world (Kenya is instructive) tells us will be a contested and convoluted journey to a new dispensation of how government works, in order to avoid entrenching existing divides by default.

Nirmala was the future of Nepal. Her dreams and aspirations, together with evident ability, commitment and strength of character were ample evidence of that. Those out on the streets protesting will go back to their communities, many of them continuing to work in their own ways or as part of organised activism to change things for the better. They are the future too.