Lords and Masters
In today's Kathmandu, there are two kinds of rich: the lords and the masters. Who are they?
Any story about poverty in the third world cannot be complete without mentioning the "lords of poverty", the faithful servants of the international aid business. (The term is used by Graham Hancock in his expose' of the international civil service, Lords of Poverty, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989)
"Unsavory", "greedy", and skilled at "enriching" themselves at the pretense of serving the world's poor and unfortunate, the lords of poverty can be seen in Kathmandu behind the wheels of their air-conditioned Japanese four-wheel-drives, or ensconced in splendid mansions whose monthly rents are five times the take-home salaries of their "counterparts" in the Nepali bureaucracy.
Occasionally, the lords engage in debates over whether or not to fund projects for the people whose lives do not in the least resemble their own. They receive hardship allowances for serving in faraway Nepal and return to comfortable suburban living at "headquarters" when they are done, in New York, Washington DC, Montreal, Geneva, Rome or Nairobi.
Should it surprise anyone that to date the international agencies and the lords they foist on the third world can produce little, if any, evidence to show how the billions of people in the "recipient countries" have benefited from their over-budgeted projects and grandiose plans?
Many of the lords today are non-whites filling regional recruitment quotas of the international agencies, but even these brown sahibs and meems reinforce stereotypes of aloof and arrogant Westerners who have dollars to burn while basking in the salivating stares of local staff and counterparts. The difference in scale of pays and perks is so other-worldly that, in the presence of the international civil servant, Nepalis feel materially even poorer than they are.
The presence of the lords is also unfortunate for the whites with less glamorous professions and humbler incomes. These poorer Westerners are additionally handicapped because the public perceives them as the lords. What, for example, do you say of the American anthropologist who is paying his own hard-earned money to study a community in the tarai, the Buddhist initiate who can barely get by staying at a downtown lodge, or the person who simply wants to live in Nepal, but not as a tourist? In recent years, Kathmandu authorities have made it increasingly difficult to get long-term student or resident visas for those foreigners who love and care for the country deeply. Meanwhile, they lay out elaborate welcomes for the lords, the international contractors and the First World consultants.
The challenge for Nepalis and other Third Worlders lies in being able to distinguish between the lords who take delight in exotic assignments and the others who come to live and learn.
If no story of poverty can be complete without mentioning the lords, neither can we ignore the "masters". The distinction is important to make. The lords are birds of a certain feather –they fly in, they fly out. The masters are here to roost. They are raithanays, the local money.
The Kathmandu masters may be divided into old money_ and new money. The old money, if still surviving, are the former residents of the white stucco palaces, the landed classes, and the traditional trading families. They are remnants of a feudal era and culture, surviving on inherited and mostly dwindling wealth, unless replenished by smart offsprings.
Then there is the new money, brash and vulgar, imitative and superficial. Members of this class are arrogant, which they have no right to be, given that most of their booty is derived through smuggling activities or by collecting commissions from development contractors. Unlike legitimate capitalist businessmen, they have made money not through risk-taking but through links to the corridors of power.
The collectors of new money are gaudy in their display of wealth. Their coiffeur, Hongkong fashion, canned beer and bottled water, compact disk players, imported shrimp hors-d'oeuvre cocktails and Pajero jeeps are meant to indicate their hip westernisation. But at heart, they remain feudal masters: using harsh and abusive language towards their servants and others whom they consider inferior while displaying slavishness in their attitude towards the white lords.
Yet, even as the lords are targeted by the Nepali intelligentsia, the masters somehow seem to escape attention. They have been lucky. Nepalis are prone to fault, quickly, the westerners for assuming opulent lifestyles, but tend to leave the local elites alone because that target can hit-back. These intellectuals hanker after causes of poverty "without" rather than blame the masters, to look for causes "within".
Another challenge for Kathmandu's educated, and by extension for that of other third world countries, therefore, lies in being able to examine their own systems and educating their mindless masters. The masters have to be made to feel unfashionable. After that battle is won, we can turn our attention to the lords.