The renowned Tibetologist, Donald Lopez Jr, recently published an excellent account of how Tibetan Buddhism in the West was decontextualised and sanitised. Lopez Jr, echoing a recent spate of similar warnings about the dangers of stereotyping Himalayan populations and their cultures, suggests that such images deny full humanity to Tibetans and in the long run do more harm than good. For Ladakh, a similar story applies.
This rose-tinted vision of the Himalaya and Tibetan Buddhism brings not only a significant number of tourists to the region, but also a generous flow of foreign aid. Ladakhis, never slow to cash in on a business opportunity, have been effectively marketing their situation to meet the expectations of Western donors, who more often than not tend to be badly infected with the Shangri-La bug.
In line with Western expectations which are commonly informed by Helena Norberg-Hodge´s book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (Sierra Book Club, 1991), Ladakhis have successfully represented themselves as poor victims of Westernisation and what some call “industrial monoculture”. At the same time, the population of Ladakh is deemed to possess the kind of social and economic characteristics and practices that are among the top criteria of contemporary sustainable development ideology: democratic decision making, environmental sensitivity, and little differentiation between rich and poor.
Ladakhi ngos have become adept at emphasising their ´ancient´ traditions, incorporating the current development jargon, and successfully applying for funds. The success of groups such as the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), the Leh Nutrition Project (LNP), and, more recently, the Students´ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in accessing a considerable amount of foreign funds over the past decade has led to a proliferation of ngos in Leh district. Almost every village, it seems, now has some non-profit school project, while more and more environmental, rural development, and public health-oriented organisations are putting up signboards in Leh town.
It could be argued, as some Ladakhis do, that it is only fair that the colonial powers repay some of the wealth they have extracted from the blood, sweat and tears of their former colonial subjects, although this is a problematic argument with respect to Ladakh (where the British were often seen and in some respects did act as protectors of the interests of the locals against the usurpatory designs of the princely Dogra rulers).
One famous Ladakhi ngo, which had been plodding along in what many locals and outsiders thought was an unproductive direction, suddenly in the late 1980s received a vast increase in its funds through the effective marketing of both Ladakh and the project in line with Western expectations and stereotypes about the region. This economic equivalent of steroids promoted the rapid growth of the organisation and reinforced the negative trends which soon became evident in its work. In spite of more than a decade of vehement local criticism and warnings about the direction the project was taking, foreign donors continue to line up to give money, partly encouraged by the reports of consultants equally blinded by the Shangri-La imagery.
Several other ngos have gone through similar developments, leading to great increases in staff, cars, and other “operating costs”, while achieving little of substance in the field. In a few recent cases, some foreign donors have finally owned up to the years of mismanagement that they themselves had encouraged and funded. These donors have either cut back support or pulled out altogether. But as one ngo leader points out, for every donor that pulls out, there are many more willing to take its place.
The donors are keen to support projects which appear to meet the politically correct criteria of the day: community participation, uplifting the poor, protecting the environment, empowering women. And how nice if all this can be done in Shangri-La! Ladakh appears to have it all: a barren but picturesque landscape inhabited by photogenic, smiling villagers; a warm, fuzzy 2500-year-old philosophy made safe for 20th-century Western new-agers, with a built-in ecological ethic; an “evil threat” in the form of Westernisation and (bonus!) Islam; and articulate English-speaking leaders who are excellent spokesmen for fund-raising efforts.
Ladakhi ngos are the perfect ´counterpart´ to the development industry, never mind whether all this money actually accomplishes very much. In any case, if the living conditions of the people in Ladakh continue to deteriorate, this merely indicates the need for more aid to the ngos.
Already, every Ladakhi, it seems, has a guest house, a taxi, an STD/ISD/PCO shop, and a German Bakery. Before long, there will be an ngo for every cause, every village, every monastery, every household. And the Western funders will still be clamouring for more.