Development planning in the Himalayas needs not just brains, but also strong legs, says Toni Hagen
Dr. Toni Hagen began his long march in the Himalaya in the fall of 1950 as a member of the Swiss Technical Assistance team that came to assess Nepal’s developmental needs. Hagen has also spent time in the hills of Kumaon, Dehradun and Dharamsala in India, and in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In a total of 1860 days spent in Nepal, he was out for 1235 days in the unmapped hinterlands. By late 1958, and countless boots later, he had logged 14,000 kilometers in the mountains.
Hagen’s maps drew the development path for Nepal, and his reports brought in much-needed developmental assistance. He produced the first comprehensive book on Nepal, which opened Nepal Himalaya to the West. Prior to Hagen’s survey, very few Nepalis, let alone foreigners, had any idea what lay beyond the next ridge.
Hagen, recently in Nepal, spoke to Binod Bhattarai.
B.B.: What changes have there been in the Himalayan region between 1950 and 1989?
Hagen: The main changes are scarcity of land and increasing soil erosion. The problem is not Nepal’s alone – it is the same in India. Forest cover in Nepal is half of what there was in the early 1950’s. There is also more ecological awareness. But that is still a long way from doing Something about it. Newspapers must continually hammer the concerns in their pages so as to create a pressure at the base. In your countries, the farmer himself must be made aware and this may take some time. Unless you build up pressure from the bottom, governments will not make any really important decisions.
B.B.: How would you describe the relations between aid-givers and aid-takers?
Hagen: These are general problems and not of the Himalayan region alone. As a doing evaluations of development projects all over the world, I have found one common flaw. In all the countries where agriculture is the major economic activity, the governments have embarked on policies that discriminate against the farmer. I don’t know what it is like in Nepal.
B.B.: Has this got to do with the politics between the givers and takers?
Hagen: It has to do with both. The big donors want to get rid of their surplus, which is the worst kind of aid. This holds true for all times, except in emergencies when food has to be imported. And even in these cases, too much comes from outside instead of being purchased locally. If you calculate the cost of producing food in the West -with all the high technology inputs involved — a ton of wheat produced in Europe costs about 10 times that of producing a ton of rice in Nepal. This is sheer economic nonsense on the donors’ part. But many countries on the receiving end also like this policy. So you see, the wrong policies of donors combined with the wrong policies of the governments add to the discrimination against the farmer.
B.B.: How would you rate Swiss Aid? The IHDP and the Jiri road in Nepal and the recently set-up six-nation International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)?
Hagen: I think the IHDP’s approach was not quite good. They wanted to do too much in too short a time. It has been imposed from the top instead of being built up from the base; it is very large, and also a project designed to ignore the government.
Before the project, investigations had revealed that the area produced enough food for only eight months of the year, so the major objective was to increase agricultural production. And the road was built to enable villagers to transport the surplus. But three evaluations of the project (in 1981, 1983, and the most recent one ordered by the Swiss parliament) have concluded that it is not certain whether agricultural production has increased, and even if it has, it may have resulted from other extension programmes being run in the area. I would say that the results of the project are meagre, compared to its high costs.
As for ICIMOD, I am not in favour of building new institutions. ICIMOD has excellent people. We know what has to be done, but what matters is doing it, not just writing about it. If you take their calendar of congresses and seminars all over the world where all the same people go telling the same things and meeting the same people, I wonder what use it can be.
I have also seen the problem in many African countries. There were always many institutions of agro-forestry but I never saw projects put into being with farmers. And if you take ICIMOD — mountain development and Bangladesh — what has Bangladesh in common with the Himalayas, what has the Afghanistan desert in common with the Himalayas?
B.B.: What do you think is the antidote to the big-money development disease?
Hagen: Not everybody will like to hear it but there is too much and too easy money available, with no coordination
from the donors’ sides. And the governments are no fools; I think they are right to accept money where they can get it. Why shouldn’t they? But there is too much competition among donors for any coordination to be possible. If a donor says, “I am not going to finance this project because there are bad ecological side-effects,” the other donor is ready and waiting outside.
B.B.: Where do development consultants fit into these big-money projects? Are they part of the aid-politics?
Hagen (laughing): I have been a consultant for many years. During my time, the UNDP was a very good institution. It was small compared to the UNDP today, and I could speak freely and they adopted my advice — sometimes, not always. Some consultants are part of the politics, not all. There are some very honest ones. But if a consultant does not want to lose his job, he must praise development aid. If he becomes too critical, he is not liked by the big donors.
B.B.: You opened Nepal to the world. Did you foresee the tourist boom?
Hagen: Certainly not. At that time I thought tourism would be a source of income but could not foresee the boom and also the side effects that are seen today.
B.B.: Can we hold you responsible in some way?
Hagen: No, no, no. I opened up the world only to the natural beauty. And now if only the people who own big hotels have made something out of it, it is not my fault.
B.B.: Some say tourism’s problem is not of income generation, but of distribution.
Hagen: Yes, that is the main problem. All the hotel prices here are very high compared to Switzerland — where does the money go? Still, things have improved. When I asked for local beer in a hotel 10 years back, they did not have it. It was not good enough, they said. This is basically wrong. Greater reliance on local production would bring better distribution. This is why trekking tourism has advantages for a country like Nepal.