Nepalis around the world are proud that we were never successfully colonized. A vibrant debate exists today on whether the international agencies that descend to monitor development agendas represent a new colonialism. While such categorization would be extreme, losing out on context and subtlety, certain remnants of the old guard remain in today’s development practices.
I recently received an email about a few openings at The Carter Center (TCC), Nepal. TCC has been working here since 2004, helping mediate the conflict. The government and various local stakeholders then invited them to monitor Nepal’s CA Election, after which their mandate got extended to monitor the peace process.
Employing a team of one national and two international observers, along with a translator, based in five or so major cities of Nepal, TCC extends its reach to the grassroots. This partnership facilitates micro- and macro-level engagements to understand this unique period in Nepali society. TCC collects information on such important processes as the drafting of the constitution and the institutionalization of peace agreements and outcomes. At a time when political negotiations are limited to the capital, TCC extends its networks far beyond Swayambhu’s immediate gaze.
To my understanding, each team spends a few weeks on the road each month to interact with various stakeholders throughout the country. They return to their regional hub to sketch out their findings, before travelling to Kathmandu to discuss their findings every six to eight weeks. Their output finds a wide audience, including political actors, I/NGOs, and donors. I wish our so-called political representatives would act the same way, returning to their constituencies regularly (or even a couple of times a year!) before deliberating on the right way forward.
In light of recent political developments, or lack thereof, TCC is extending its mission in Nepal. Quite a few employment opportunities have thus opened up, with positions for Field Office Director (FOD), Deputy Field Office Director (DFOD), Research, Planning, and Drafting (RPD) Officer, and Long-Term Observer (LTO) Coordinator are now being advertised. Their recruitment policies, however, fail to impress.
According to the email, TCC “...anticipate that the FOD, DFOD, and RPD positions will be international hires and that the LTO Coordinator post may be filled by a Nepali national.” It is extremely unfortunate that an organization involved in such progressive work is nonetheless privileging nationality as a non-negotiable ‘qualification’, thereby precluding all Nepalis from contesting three of the most important positions in the mission.
Experts have shifted focus from one panacea to the next in their efforts to make the world a better place. We have seen development organizations adopt policies that privilege emphasis unitarily on income, structural adjustment, human development, and participatory approaches, to name but a few alleged remedies. Recently, the idea of ownership has gained significant currency. The World Bank alone increased its funding to community-driven development (CDD) projects from US $325 million in 1996 to at least US $2 billion in 2003 (Mansuri and Rao 2003). Similarly, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) were introduced to balance unequal power relations, as national actors wanted to push their own agenda over donor interests and expectations. While such push for more ownership at local and national level remains susceptible to unequal distribution and elite capture, allowing people to own these processes, over those dictated by others, provides avenues to counter new forms of colonialism.
TCC’s hiring policy is not exceptional but symptomatic of international missions, in Nepal and elsewhere, where the highest positions are reserved for foreigners. They—consciously or subconsciously—place a glass ceiling to Nepali participation and ownership of these missions. TCC does not even consider Nepalis for the three more influential positions that shape policy and dictate the direction of the mission, even as internationals applicants are entertained for the LTO-coordinator position.
While national observers provide some balance, official policy still dictates that only international observers can be regional team leaders. Further, despite doing the exact same work, Nepali nationals get paid far less than their foreign colleagues. International organizations usually parrot two standard excuses: that their employees earn more than other Nepalis in similar local sectors and that foreigners bear higher costs in their home countries.
However, equal pay for equal work is not a revolutionary claim, but simply a more expensive option for these organizations. It is ironic that international organizations justify their existence and intervention policies on claims of broader justice and equality while creating nationality-based hierarchies within their own structures. Besides, the ‘foreigner’ label is never deconstructed, so a Rwandan or an Afghani observer in Nepal would be paid international remunerations, even if their earnings dwarf that of their compatriots and costs of living are comparable to the host country. It seems unfair that only the local host is straddled this burden of nationality.
The listings note a key qualification difference between international and possibly Nepali positions: impartiality. This is another standard international excuse that does not hold up to scrutiny. It makes sense to demand “strict political impartiality in the Nepal context” for an observation mission. However, this ideal expectation presupposes partiality by virtue of Nepali nationality while also privileging foreigners as impartial.
Nepalis and non-Nepalis alike have their own histories, experiences, and biases that affect their thought processes. Even if two foreigners who have never heard of Nepal were to be selected as observers (impartiality here would seriously compromise contextual knowledge), their analysis would still be shaped by their own experiences.
Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America is one of the greatest studies of democracy. He was a foreigner in America, with no alleged partiality in the US context, but his analysis was still conducted in comparison to the French aristocracy with which he was familiar, and the book should be read with one eye on America and another on France.
Instead of pretending that some are biased while others are not, everyone should reflect on and make explicit their biases. When international organizations hire employees, they should consider each candidate based on their qualification, impartiality and reflected biases, rather than assume these based solely on nationality.
If a Nepali candidate could be better suited for any given position, it does not make sense to preclude her without consideration.
International organizations pitch for broader justice and equality while creating nationality-based hierarchies within their own structures.
Development intervention is often packaged under the rubric of peace, prosperity, and equality. Under colonialism, occupying powers consciously co-opted a sub-group to mobilize the instruments of the host state, but these hosts—under various guises—were never allowed to reach their full potential to move the mission forward in their own terms. Now, laws and norms guide when, and how, non-national forces can intervene. TCC draws its original legitimacy through the invitation it received from Nepali actors, and their work is crucial in understanding the current democratic transitions. It is not a colonial master in disguise, trying to dictate terms only for its own benefit.
And yet, even progressive international organizations continue to privilege nationality over ability, perpetuating a glass ceiling for locals within their hierarchy. Since alleged impartiality is an understandable expectation, TCC should open up the application process to all candidates, and weed out those that are partial, not those that are Nepali. Nepalis should not necessarily get special treatment, but they deserve equal opportunity and recognition.
These problems are neither specific to TCC nor Nepal; similar frustrations and contestations occur in international organizations throughout the developing world. However, precisely because they have been progressive in sometimes allowing Nepalis to serve in positions beyond administrators and translators (as is common with most others), TCC is well-placed to go the extra mile and lead the way in treating locals in parity with fellow internationals.
If international organizations are serious about representation and equality elsewhere, they should begin by transforming themselves.
(PS- I am not affiliated to the Carter Center in any way, and am not applying for any of these positions.)
The writer is a D. Phil. student in International Development at Oxford University