By: Sabrina Singh
Given the immediate relevance of development policies to everyday life, it is not surprising that the idea of development is also a site of political contestation. Your choice to engage or disengage—and in what manner—implicates you in this politics.
The city of Kathmandu in my home country Nepal had been reeling with protests by local ethnic communities against the government’s road expansion development project for several weeks. The debate is framed as follows: On the one hand, there are the ‘developers’—political and technocratic leaders who have inherited a country sick of political turmoil and hungry for economic growth. On the other hand, there are the ‘anti-developers’—a mixture of ethnic minorities and heritage conservation activists skeptical of easy claims to development. The former want to build roads; the latter do not want to concede their land and heritage to development projects. The stakes are high on both sides.
Although these protests are triggered by recent events, they are not new. Development is a living, breathing phrase in places like Nepal and has been since the post-World War II global order. The Nepali word “bikaas” simultaneously means progress, in a normal sense of the word, as well as “development,” in the sense of the institutions and policies that make up this global governance system. It is as much a word of everyday parlance for many Nepalis as it is a career choice for many in the West and elites of the Global South. But leaving aside a debate about the merits of this particular policy, what do these protests and rhetorics reveal, and what do they mean for young students and practitioners on this side of the Atlantic?
To The ‘Developers’: Development For Whom?
My seventy-something-year-old grandmother has lived in the heart of Kathmandu valley all her life, as did many of her ancestors. She is a Newar woman, of the ethnic group protesting against the government’s infrastructure projects. Like many other Newari women, she has watched the ancestral land beneath her get parceled out to her husband and his brothers. She has watched as these lands were sold; as fallow fields were used for new buildings, roads and settlements. For her, land is not just land. It is tied to her community, identity, her sense of pride and dignity.
It may be tough for some of us to understand, and I myself have struggled at times to recognize, but development can never be justified for development’s sake. Development decisions leave tangible marks on people’s identity. Resources are not merely assets to be ‘used,’ but they are markers of relations and historical identities. And because of this, there are always winners and losers to every development decision, policy, or law. Because of what is at stake, an analysis of equity and justice must figure in every economic development decision.
I want to go one step further and argue that an analysis of equity and justice must figure in the very career choices we make as emerging lawyers. For many of us reading (or writing) this article, we can afford to switch these conversations on and off. Those whom we ostensibly aim to serve (or at least affect) through our work are ‘out there.’ Over time, it may be easy to forget that our choices matter. By ‘choice,’ I refer not to that between a “public interest” job in an INGO or a “private practice” job at a law firm. Those categories might hide as much as they reveal the state of international development and law.
Rather, I want to ask questions about our own choices in the way we approach each of our engagements internationally— some of us, for example, think we have to work in a developing country for one summer, others think we will ‘transition’ into an international social justice career. Is it possible that many of our choices are more about escapism than the people we want to ‘develop’? Is it possible that we are looking at international development as a ‘career,’ or a path of least resistance, rather than as a practice that affects everyday lives? Can we relentlessly strive for ethical and political practice in our international engagements despite the lack of answers on what that practice may look like?
To The ‘Anti-Developers’: Can You Work Past Neoliberalism?
However, this is not the time for disengagement and apathy. This is not an article about the many flaws or the eventual futility of international development. Let me start again with a story. Rupa Hitangi is a mother of two in a rural district called Palpa in Nepal. After years of working as a laborer in someone else’s farm and living with her alcoholic husband, she sent him to work in the Middle East. With newfound freedom and remittance sent home by her husband, she has built a small goat farm and vegetable business to support herself and her children. A self-made woman, she does not understand the complex system of international development, but her issue is basic: the right to make a decent living. This is the story of many in Nepal, most pressingly outside of the capital city of Kathmandu.
The need for basic economic security, poverty reduction, and higher income is real. It is irresponsible to say that the international development system is deeply flawed (see part one of this article), a product of neoliberalism, and then resort to cynical inaction. We need to be nuanced in our critique of the development concept, and part of the critique is to recognize our own power in this global neoliberal world order. Many who are critical are most often educated, young elites of the Global South like myself, who then resort to complete disengagement, apathy, or armchair theorizing. Many might even have worked in the international development field for a long time, and have suffered from cynical burnout. Many young Nepalis today find no saving grace in our government, politics, or youth movements. It becomes better to stay in a state of inaction in a foreign country than to go home to engage with such messy, tainted institutions.
What unites the ‘developers’ described above and these ‘anti-developers’ is the same lack of ethical and political engagement with this (neoliberal) world order that we are already positioned in. To this group of ‘anti-developers’, I ask: what claims to an ‘authentic voice’ of developing countries are we making? How can we build strategic practice and communities that can change entrenched institutions? In a practical sense, can we take that risk to work in and against messy, tough places like the government of Nepal?
A Call for Critical Engagement
In identifying myself with both groups, I am highlighting the need for a dialogue with both sides of the debate. We need to build teams capable of approaching places like Nepal and other places of the Global South as neither destinations for career-building escapism nor doomed places to flee from, but as spaces that deserve a more genuine, critical, and justice-oriented engagement.
At the personal level, this means investment in critical self-reflection about one’s professional identity and purpose. At the institutional level, we need to invest more resources to support collaborative, two-way work between the Global North and the Global South. At the societal level, this means healthy shifts in who occupies positions of authority and power. Complete inaction or siloed innovation won’t do – a critical change in everyday practice is what we need.
About the blogger: Sabrina Singh is a rising 2L from Kathmandu, Nepal.