Third-world countries are sometimes referred to as developing countries. Nepal definitely isn’t one of those places. Unlike my other posts on Nepal, this isn’t meant to be negative; I mean Nepal is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve visited and development might mar its natural beauty. Back to my main point though, comparing Nepal even to third-world India makes India look like a fully industrialized western nation; developed infrastructure, a functioning economy, and a stable political situation. Nepal’s development (or lack thereof) was evident from our first day in the country. Our bus from the border to Pokhara passed through hours and hours of fields- not villages and small towns, but fields of grain. It was later that I learned that 80% of Nepalis are farmers. The majority of these 20 million farmers are sustenance farmers, as very few grow any surplus to sell. A majority of the farmers are sharecroppers though, with most farms owned by zaminders. It is these landowners who are the Maoists secondary target, as their propaganda always speaks of “the royalists and the feualists.” I’ll get back to the Maoists in a moment, but 10% of the population works in tourism while the other 10% works in everything else. Understandably, there is very little industry in Nepal and most raw and finished products are imported. The peanut butter that Joylani carried the entire trek was from Belize, while the national Nepali beer (Everest) that I tried had an Everest label, but had Tuborg stamped on the bottle (a Danish beer). Surprisingly, Nepal does have a stock market and it daily statistics are reported in the Nepali papers. Not once did I see the number of daily trades exceed 500 and although I didn’t do the rupee-to-dollar FX conversions, I’m pretty sure the volume and market caps are unfathomably low too. By every measure, Nepal is an undeveloped country.
Nepal is not developing either though. Here are just a few of the challenges that need to be overcome. One, Nepalis are chronically undereducated. Only 70% of children ever attend school and only 30% ever complete secondary classes. This is probably due to Nepal being an agrarian society, which is also why its so poor; even the average non-farming Nepali makes only $210 per month. Secondly, poverty usually goes hand-in-hand with a lack of rule of law. The police are just as poor as everyone else, so conflicts of interest and corruption is rampant. We’ve gone to a lot of corrupt places, but Nepali cops are some of the most useless I’ve ever encountered. And lastly, there’s no political stability. Why develop if the government and laws are going to change and tear down what you build? The king is widely unpopular and several political parties are vying for power. The most notorious, of course, are the Maoists who are jerking the political system around at will. With their recent threats to take up arms again and resume their People’s War, things are looking dire. In the US, war bolsters the economy, but a Nepali civil war is sure to destroy what little there is.
Nepal is one of the first really undeveloped and not-developing countries I’ve been to. But, its shown me what I learn time and time again traveling- people are basically the same wherever you go. Every human has common needs, wants, and desires. The kids are happy, the teenagers care about the same things, and adults are concerned with the daily challenges of life and providing for themselves and families. Nepalis are generally happy, because like most people, they’re making the most of the life they’ve been given. And like I began with, Nepal’s lack of development isn’t so bad, for it’s a beautiful place. I don’t think anyone would want to see little Kathmandus popping up all over the countryside. As my guide Udaya said, as we looked at a deforested area on the trek a few weeks ago, “Development is the cause of destruction.”