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We’re On a Road To Nowhere.

February 6, 2010

I came across an interesting but seemingly not well researched article on a road construction project in Nepal.  Its lack of technical specificity gave me the desire to do a little online sleuthing and find out what is happening with regard to road projects in Nepal.  I will share those findings first.   Then I want to delve into the more interesting philosophical discussion that arises when looking at the narratives told by locals about their current and future lives in regards to the road.

The article appears in the BBC News online and asserts the road being built stretches from the Chinese border to a village by the name of Syaburbesi.  The piece asserts that the road is meant to be a leg of an eventual “trans-Asian Highway” that would connect Nepal with China and open Nepal to the possibilities of modernity.  The only problem is that the Asian Highway project, which connects China, Nepal and India, began 50 years ago and the great majority has been completed.  Granted, a report of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in 2003 stated that the greatest portion of the Asian Highway in China as yet to be paved was between Lanzhou and the Nepalese border (475 Km).  Another report in 2006 stated that Nepal needed 260 million for a new link between Kathmandu and the Nepalese-Indian border town of Birgunj.  Asian Highway 42, as the China, Nepal, and India highway is named, definitely is in need of improvement, but it does already exist. 

Taking a look at Syaburbesi on Google Maps we see that first it is labeled Syaburbensi and second it is on the opposite side of Langtang National Park from where the Asian Highway enters Nepal in the town of Kodari.  Click on “Satellite” for an interesting view and a quick understanding of why no road will ever traverse the center of Langtang National Park.  These beautiful snow-capped mountains complicate road construction in a country already burdened with high rates of poverty and little resources.  Interestingly I see no other roads connecting to Syaburbensi on the Nepali side or that approach from the Chinese side of the border.   I find it hard to believe that another major trans-Asian highway would be built by the Chinese when they have signed the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Asian Highway Network in Shanghai in 2004.  This agreement would dictate that the exising highway 42 be the thoroughfare of choice and needs the focus of Chinese resources.  I do not doubt the report that a road is being built, but I do doubt the reported road is part of a major inter-continental thoroughfare and that it will ultimately bring Nepal and Tibet “in from the cold”.

Though the specifics of the road may be in question, its ability to change the lives of those who will have access to it is not.  The road offers the possibility of increased earnings, better human development outcomes and a broadening of locals’ global perspective.  The one Chinese and two Nepali men interviewed all seem excited about their visions of a future of wealth and lifestyle improvements.  Mingma Dorje Ghale hopes to begin doing business by car rather than foot, which would allow his daughter the freedom to go to school as he would no longer need her assistance.  As a development practitioner I see this as a success.  This project will change peoples’ lives for the better.  It can lead to better health and educational outcomes as well as address possible gender issues within the community of Syaburbensi.

The others interviewed also only spoke of the possibilities of an influx of Chinese wealth and improvements for future generations to prosper.  This to me is also why this is a successful development project, not because it is objectively going to improve certain indicators, but because it is subjectively what the people want and what they believe will allow them to live their lives as they choose. 

There are many perspectives from which to analyze this project.  Environmentalists may condemn it for blasting a path through the pristine Himalayas.  Anthropologists may lament the changes to cultural that a once remote region will experience once it opens its doors to globalization.  I also doubt whether the residents of the area will be happy with all of the changes the road will bring, but that is the double-edged sword of development.  Development is change and change is can only be judged subjectively.  For instance,  to democrats the election of Barack Obama was good change, for republicans, bad.  For me the building of this road is a good change, I can understand if others disagree.

I understand that development does produce homogenization to some degree.  For instance, a project I worked on in Africa had set a goal of having all births attended by a nurse or physician, preferably in a facility that could deal with unforeseen complications.  This goal inevitably leads to policy and practice derived and emulating a western understanding of a safe birthing event.  These nurses and physicians were to have medical certifications and degrees, not an understanding of indigenous beliefs or procedures for birth.  This reliance on Western medicine undermines indigenous cultures tradition and proliferates the ideas and culture of the dominant societies, namely ours.  Even though I have my own critiques of how the birthing process is handled in countries such as the United States, it reduces the rate of child mortality which is a large problem in underdeveloped African countries.  I feel the project I most recently worked on will improve the health outcomes of mothers and their children but at the cost of clashing and probably changing beliefs that underpin part of the indigenous culture.  I agree, this is something to lament.  It is sad that languages are becoming extinct and that cultural diversity, as biodiversity, is being lost.  Even so, we can not be overly paternalistic.  We can not dictate what is good or bad for others.  We can share our experiences and include input in the decision making process, but ultimately development must be shaped by those at the grass roots level.  In a highway project such as this we have a duty to keep all stakeholders informed of environmental and cultural concerns but not the right to impede the development that they want.

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