Archive for the Development Category

Note 1: Melting glaciers and catastrophic floods

Around two months ago, a glacial lake in Humla District in the Midwestern mountains of Nepal, burst its moraine dam, causing flash flooding downstream, destroying homes and productive farmland.

Recent studies have shown that increasing temperatures have caused most Himalayan glaciers to melt at an accelerating rate and the resulting glacial lakes (pdf) are expanding rapidly. The occurrence of glacial lake outburst floods (pdf), as they are known, seems to have been accelerating in the last few decades.

The farmers of Halji village have virtually no responsibility for the additional heat-trapping greenhouse gases human beings are pumping into the atmosphere at increasing rates. But they are reaping the whirlwind that others have sown.

Note 2: Increased uncertainty making hard lives even harder

Farmer in Doti, Far Western Nepal

A while ago, we spoke with farmers from Doti, a hill district in Nepal’s Far West about their experiences of the weather and climate. One farmer, Dal Bahadur Balayer, described how a piece of traditional knowledge that had once underpinned livelihoods in his village had been rendered useless by a changing climate.

A local tree, the paiyu (a kind of jungle cherry) was known for blossoming in autumn. Farmers in the area had relied on this signal, as an indicator of the imminent arrival of winter rains, to plant the wheat crop. In recent years, the paiyu, in response to changing temperatures, has begun blossoming earlier and earlier. Farmers now have no way of knowing when to plant the wheat, as it can be more than a month between the paiyu’s flowering and the rain.

Rainfall has never been certain. But with one less tool for managing risk taken away, hard lives have been made even harder. For subsistence farmers in Doti, there is little room to manoeuvre, no way to hedge their bets, and no fall-back option to buy food if crops fail.

Another group of vulnerable people being rendered more vulnerable by the choices of others.

Kamala BK (not her real name) is HIV positive.

Her husband died about six years ago, although she didn’t know at the time that AIDS was the cause.

After marriage the couple had worked in India, but Kamala returned periodically to the family home in Doti, a hill district in Nepal’s far west. During one of their long separations, her husband became infected with HIV and, in turn, infected his wife when they were reunited.

 Kamala’s story, sadly, is far from a being unique in Doti, which has the second-highest HIV prevalence rate of any district in Nepal.

There are common elements to the stories of all the HIV positive women I spoke to there.

Food insecurity and lack of employment opportunities. Migration to nearby India. Unavoidable periods of estrangement between husbands and wives. Lack of knowledge about HIV and how it is transmitted. Increasing periods of ill health and physical incapacity. Lack of access to affordable and reliable medical information and health care.

UMN has been supporting community work among people living with HIV and AIDS in Doti for several years now. Things like skills training, medical advice, and improved access to health care. This year, we also worked to inform local communities about their rights under Nepal’s local governance laws, and help them participate in the local government planning and budget formation process. The result was a new sense of empowerment for the women living with HIV and AIDS, and a budget allocation to support them.

On paper at least, Nepal’s local governance law (Eng. pdf) is extremely inclusive and mandates the participation of every local settlement in drawing up plans and priorities for funding from the Village Development Council (VDC) or District budget.

Of course, implementation is everything; many communities are not aware of their rights under this law and local planning is often conducted behind closed doors by a handful of administrators and politically-connected people.

This year, though, we worked intensively to raise awareness about the local government budget and how to develop and contribute community proposals for funding. None of the communities had ever participated in this way before and I was excited to see newly empowered communities engaging in the political process in a way that earned the respect and support of the local administrators and political parties.

Through this community advocacy, as well as the roads, water sources, temples, classrooms and irrigation systems that were funded, the VDC budget allocated 26,000 rupees to support women living with HIV and AIDS. It’s a relatively small amount, but Kamala was happy with the result.

I am very happy. Often we can’t work. We can’t eat. Sometimes we are too sick even to take our medication. So the funds will be very helpful to improve our livelihoods and pay for medical care. We haven’t decided yet how we will use the money, but we will take that decision together.

Two years ago I wrote about a Kumal community that had been denied water for irrigation by a higher-caste community. This higher-caste community had illegally diverted water away from the Kumals’ irrigation channel about 30 years ago, and the community had been without water for all that time. The original post is here.

I wrote an update to that post about a year later describing the efforts the Kumals had taken to mediate, to organise and to advocate for their right to water. That update is here. I came to the hopeful – but less than totally upbeat – conclusion that,

The Kumals hope that this information will be used to determine a fair allocation of water to each community and guide the engineers when they come to rebuild the two channels. Let’s hope that’s how it works. There are several ways that the Kumals could still be denied justice. The land tallies might be inaccurate or misrepresented. The work on the channels might be delayed. Or it might be done without proper regard to the communities’ needs.

But by continuing to speak up the Kumals are paving the way for change. Not only a change in the irrigation infrastructure available in the village. Nor only the nutrition and health benefits that will come when the water is available. Also a change in the Kumals’ own self-understanding and perception of their place in the world.

So, a year later what news can I share? The Kumals have water flowing through their irrigation channel, and are working on restoring and improving the channel itself. I’m a little bit happy.

I hope to visit the community next month, so will post further news then.

It looks like AusAID may well be making the most of the golden opportunity it’s been handed if this story is anything to go by.

From the title, Australian aid school deters poverty and inspires dreams, to the very last word, Australia’s program to support school building and management in parts of Indonesia is presented in an overwhelmingly positive light.

From the personal:

Parhin, who is in year 8, says she is ‘‘approximately 14’’ but has no birth certificate.

Her parents married young, quickly divorced and left her in the care of her grandmother. The two live in a one-room shack next to a cow pen, relying on the generosity of neighbours and Parhin’s odd jobs to get by.

This is not atypical. Just 10 of the junior high school’s 104 students live with their parents, says Zainuddin.

Parhin’s teachers say she is smart enough to do anything, given the opportunity. ‘‘My ambition is to be a doctor,’’ she says.

What if she had left after primary school? ‘‘I would probably be married, more than once,’’ she said. ‘‘But [marrying so young] is just wrong.’’

To the political:

Jacqui DeLacy, head of AusAID in Indonesia, says the program, introduced by the Howard government in 2005, has ‘‘transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian children’’.

‘‘Education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty. It gives people the possibility of a productive life. It increases incomes, makes people healthier, reduces early marriage,’’ said Ms DeLacy. ‘‘It’s been a great investment in the stability and prosperity of Indonesia and generated enormous goodwill between our two countries.’’

How often do international aid stories make headlines in the Australian media? AusAID should probably crack open a bottle and raise a quick toast to Tony Abbott if they haven’t already. And all because the Coalition blockheadedly decided to announce “cuts” it will never make – being in Opposition and all. And to an aid program initially begun under the Howard Government.

If reports are to be believed, Julie Bishop, Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, is not happy about how this has made the Coalition in general, and herself in particular, appear. I think she’s right to be annoyed.

The Coalition certainly won’t have won any friends in the aid and development sector by proposing the cuts. They appear to be pandering to a base selfishness that exists in the some parts of the Australian community. And they’ve done it all in the cause of trying to stop the Government raising a levy to help Queenslanders who’ve been hit by flood and cyclone.

Not a good look.

To coincide with the UN General Assembly gathering to assess and (hopefully) accelerate progress on the Millennium Development Goals, the Guardian newspaper has created a new Global Development site, which is jam-packed with MDG discussion, dissection, analysis and argument. Including a very useful clearing-house of the most recent MDG reports.

The site is co-sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which seems to be finding good ways to voluntarily redistribute some of Bill’s wealth. Nice to see a billionaire’s cash being spent in a big way in the fight against poverty.

However, I suspect it means that you won’t read any articles on the site questioning whether major sector-specific donors and global funds (like the Gates Foundation) distort global poverty spending and development priorities or undermine national health systems and integrated whole-of-government approaches to tackling poverty.

ODI has a new site up as well – Development Progress. The site aims to document national success stories in development and poverty reduction, so I’ve bookmarked it to read when I need encouragement and inspiration.

Byron Smith is writing a 3 part blog series on Ecology and the Gospel. Reviewing the catalogue of contemporary environmental horrors – Climate change. Biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. Resource depletion. Desertification. Overfishing. Ocean acidification… – he asks:

Is concern about such matters a distraction from the gospel or even a dangerous false agenda proposed by pantheist environmentalists?

The whole thing is worth reading, but I particularly liked Byron’s way of articulating part of every generation’s “greatest moral question” as,

whether we will love our neighbour as ourselves, or love ourselves to the harm of our neighbour.

I think that pretty much sums up for me the profound connection between our ecological and inter-personal ethics. Greenhouse gas emissions from our carbon-intensive economies and lifestyles are crowding the shared sky of our global village and warming the Earth, doing measurable harm to our poorest global neighbours.

A few years ago I fronted a DVD – Climate of Change – produced by TEAR Australia, looking at the impacts of climate change on Bangladesh, and also at the extraordinary community development work of HEED Bangladesh that is helping build community capacity and resilience in the face of climate change. And right now in my work with United Mission to Nepal, we are seeing the impacts of climate change in Nepal and working with poor communities to help them adapt.

Indifference, ignorance, and indulgence should not be options for Christians, but – sadly – they seem to be the default options for most of us most of the time. Our lifestyles, our worship, and our political discourse bear very little evidence that we take creation, new creation, and an other-centred ecological ethic seriously.

Or do you have, and are you part of, a story of change and hope?

This amazing comparative photography shows the extent of glacial melt and loss of snow cover in the Himalayas.


This is Everest’s (or Sagarmatha’s) main Rongbuk glacier as photographed by George Mallory in 1921. On the Rivers of Ice site, you can scroll across the photo to reveal the same scene photographed in 2007, which looks like this:


You can see clearly that the glacier’s ice has vastly decreased in height, width and length. You can also clearly see the reduced snow cover on Everest and surrounding mountains. The site tells us that the 2007 photo “reveals a loss of 320 vertical feet in ice mass since George Mallory took the same photograph in 1921.”

That’s over 100 vertical metres of ice melted away in less than a century.

Why does this matter? Well, first, you might only have heard that the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change made a mistake about Himalayan glaciers and you might have come to the conclusion that they’re basically fine. Their mistake was quoting a non-scientific paper that suggested they could completely disappear by 2035. Yes, they’ll still be here then, but the glaciers are clearly not fine.

Apart from that (admitted and corrected) error, the IPCC’s conclusions about the Himalayan glaciers are, as far as I know,  scientifically uncontested. And uncontestedly bad news for the whole population of Nepal and the region – particularly the poor. The Summary for Policy Makers (pdf.) notes,

Glacier melt in the Himalayas is projected to increase flooding, and rock avalanches from destabilised slopes, and to affect water resources within the next two to three decades. This will be followed by decreased river flows as the glaciers recede.”

And the Synthesis Report (.pdf) says:

Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes)”

Increased flooding, followed by reduced water availability, hydropower potential and changes to the seasonal water flows from the most significant rivers in South Asia. Cause for concern?

I’m just back from my second trip to Rukum, in Nepal’s mid-Western hills. (My post on the first visit, “Dancing with Magars”, is here.)


My schedule said:

  • advocacy training with partner NGOs; and
  • time with staff discussing ways to help empower communities and build more accountable and responsive local governance.

But Rukum likes to put me in interesting situations. This time I was invited off the street to observe, “just for a minute”, a cross-party program launching a campaign against caste-based discrimination and untouchability.

Though explicitly prohibited by law and Nepal’s Interim Constitution, the group of people known as dalits (which means “the oppressed”) still face the stigma and exclusion of untouchability on the basis of their status in the Hindu caste system. (Or at least in the prevailing interpretation of the Hindu caste system.) For some it means that they will never be invited into the home of a higher-caste person, or that no higher-caste person will accept a drink from their hand. It can mean exclusion from and under-representation in schooling, administrative positions and the like. It can mean being locked into a traditional caste-based occupation such as tool-making, tailoring, and so on, with few opportunities to develop new skills and techniques to compete against cheap imports. It can mean being bound in a form of peonage, serving one or more families in exchange for food and small items, rather than wages, in an arrangement that can last generations.

So, bad on pretty much every level. Socially, economically, psycho-socially, politically… just bad.

I was interested to observe the event and my Nepali is up to following a large part of what people say as long as there’s not too much unfamiliar vocab and the speaker doesn’t talk too fast. (Though, on reflection, these conditions were unlikely to have been met at a political event.) However, my chances of remaining an observer started diminishing rapidly when the event organiser came over to ask my name, organisation, and country of origin… Then another chair was placed up on the stage among the invited guests and speakers… Then I was asked (in Nepali) if I would say a few words about the issue and about conditions in my country…

Polite refusals having accomplished precisely nothing I sat on stage ransacking my Nepali vocab and grammar to see what I could say about caste-based discrimination. And managed to give a 3 or 4 minute speech that went something like:

I’m sorry to tell you that there is discrimination in my country, Australia. Sometimes the rich look down on the poor. Sometimes white people discriminate against people with dark skin. Sometimes there is even violence. So there is discrimination. But there is no untouchability. Anyone can take water from the hand of another. Anyone can enter the home of another if invited.*

Caste-based discrimination needs to end in Nepal. If people’s rights are not respected, if caste-based discrimination still exists, then Nepal will not develop.

So, seeing this campaign, I am very happy and supportive. I wish you success in your actions against untouchability. I hope that together you can change society.

*These two lines about receiving water and being welcome in another’s home were greeted with applause. And, Australia, you came off pretty well in the speech, mostly because I don’t know the words for racism, xenophobia and mistreatment of asylum-seekers.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of local governance in poverty reduction. It’s street-level bureaucrats and administrators who implement policy (and who interpret how it should be implemented in their area). They are the ones who manage funds for local development priorities. So, improving the responsiveness of local administration to the priorities and needs of poor and marginalised communities is an integral part of the approach UMN takes to address the root causes of poverty.

Nepal has excellent laws governing its planning and budgeting. The local self governance act (1999) lays out the framework for development of annual plans and budgets from the local to the national level. It is – in theory, at least – very participatory and inclusive. And hence it goes by the name participatory planning process. The law itself needs some updating in light of the changed political situation in Nepal since it was drafted (and the upcoming change that will be brought about by the new Constitution – due to be completed by the end of May) but the process it outlines still works.

According to this process, every local settlement (village or hamlet) has the right to develop a plan, or a set of prioritised and agreed projects, that must be considered at the ward level – the next highest level of local administration. Plans/projects prioritised at the ward level must be considered at the Village Development Committee – an administrative area that generally comprises 9  wards.

The VDC generally has its own resources (as well as those given from central government funds) so when a project reaches the VDC, it can either be approved and funded directly, or incorporated into the VDC’s own submission to the District level plan for consideration. And so on, up the chain. With provision for inclusive and transparent decision-making processes at every step.



Village Development Council

District Development Council

Central government

District map of Nepal

But, of course, the theory of participation and inclusion isn’t always lived out in practice. Very often, communities don’t contribute to the planning process because they are not aware of their rights, or the plans are developed by self-selected groups of politically influential people at the VDC or District level without regard to what communities might want. To its credit, Nepal’s Ministry of Local Development has a program to improve the functioning of the participatory planning process – by improving its understanding and use by administrators (supply-side improvement) and by improving community awareness of and involvement in the process (demand-side improvement).

And NGOs can play a crucial role in this. In the last few months, UMN’s team in Doti District – in Nepal’s Far Western Development region piloted a set of community education materials to raise awareness and increase involvement in the participatory planning process. The outcome was startling and encouraging.

Every community that we worked with reported that either 1) they were not aware of the process or 2) they had never participated before. So the District plan from Doti this year will incorporate submissions from communities who have never before given voice to their needs and priorities in this way. From the 8 wards we worked in, 2 plans were selected for direct funding from the VDC’s own budget and 14 other plans from local settlements were submitted for consideration in the District plan.

So, we’ve definitely seen increased community understanding and involvement in the process. The next things we need to determine are: 1) how fairly are all the submissions treated at each stage in the process and how effectively are communities able to monitor this and 2) what impact will implementation of these plans have on the well-being of poor and marginalised communities?

Stay tuned.

This is an update to a previous post about access to water in Dhading District.

Short summary of the previous post:

1) 35 years ago a Kumal community built an irrigation channel. (Kumals are one of Nepal’s ethnic minorities and generally experience worse health, education and economic outcomes than Nepal’s average – and being at the average in Nepal is no great place to be).

2) Five years later a high-caste community built an irrigation channel in a way that diverted all the water away from the Kumal’s channel. This was not legal at the time, but there you go.

3) In the last 2 years the Kumals and a local NGO network have tried many things to get fair and secure access to water for irrigation:

  • They engaged in countless meetings and dialogues to bring about reconciliation and a fair agreement between the two communities. Of course, the community with all the water was happy to talk endlessly with the community with none of the water. So these meetings didn’t achieve very much.
  • They established a users committee to organise the community. This committee was highjacked by the high-caste community who managed to get one of their own members elected to the Kumal’s own committee.
  • They spoke with the media about the situation. But after the brief discomfort brought about by the public attention had faded, the high-caste community went right back to ignoring the water sharing agreement they had come to.

Since then, though, the Kumals have continued to organise and take action. They took their case to the District’s Chief Development Officer and called on him to take action. In response to their lobbying, the CDO sent a team of engineers from the water ministry to visit the site and survey the two channels. Both communities were also asked to give an account of the amount of land in each place.

The Kumals hope that this information will be used to determine a fair allocation of water to each community and guide the engineers when they come to rebuild the two channels. Let’s hope that’s how it works. There are several ways that the Kumals could still be denied justice. The land tallies might be inaccurate or misrepresented. The work on the channels might be delayed. Or it might be done without proper regard to the communities’ needs.

But by continuing to speak up the Kumals are paving the way for change. Not only a change in the irrigation infrastructure available in the village. Nor only the nutrition and health benefits that will come when the water is available. Also a change in the Kumals’ own self-understanding and perception of their place in the world.