Pandemic is a chance to rethink development

COVID-19 offers an opportunity to recalibrate Nepal’s economy towards self-reliance and preparedness

Ivan G Somlai

But to sustain that, individuals, countries and economies must consciously reduce consumerism, realign our means of production, and rethink economic ‘growth’.

For Nepal it is a chance to recalibrate the economy and steer it towards more self-reliance, and preparedness for future disasters of this nature.

From my frequent stays throughout Nepal since the 1970s I have encountered many projects that attempted, altruistically, to abet local and women’s development by the introduction of multifarious craft and agricultural production designed for non-local markets.

Products included fruits and vegetables for the palates of the expatriate families in major centres, and simple or imaginative crafts for the ever-growing tourist industry back then.

Gradually, in the process of increased sophistication and quality improvement, particular products required the input of not only whatever was locally available, but some enhancing component like a special fertiliser for certain vegetables, or unique components for handicrafts.

Then there was the essential aspect of getting whatever was produced to suitable markets, usually in the capital or some tourist region. I recall enquiring with the implementers of such projects in remoter areas about how they obtained their ‘enhancements’ for production. And how did they get their products to market? The answer involved some type of transportation.

But when roads became predictably impassable during the monsoon, travel in either direction became impossible or transport costs considerably increased. When labour strikes, political strife, demographic shifts affected the ability to sell products, locally developed production stalled and, in many cases, collapsed.

E F Schumacher of the ‘Small is Beautiful’ fame understood this. A Gandhian economist, he promoted local production but from local resources, in order to remain independent from intermediate variables, such as the need for outside components and long distance transport, that was outside anyone’s control.

Self-reliance, perhaps not everywhere or always, makes sense. I am not suggesting that we eliminate import/export globally. But when critical societal crises arise, as now with COVID-19, it has not taken long to realise that countries and economies reliant on importing food, materials and components from overseas can quickly become incapacitated.

The answer is not to eliminate extraterritorial interaction, but try to support, improve and promote local production and marketing within reasonable limits, along with a reduction in excessive consumerism.

Tourism is a unique case. It survives on the ease of travel for visitors from outside who come to the country and spend their money. For this reason, while self-reliance is still relevant, there are other critical considerations that have to be taken into account to mitigate and decrease health and safety problems.

Notably, these include the travel routes and their maintenance, leadership and guidance with continuously refreshed skills and knowledge, as well as accommodation and food services that can practice and maintain industry-standard hygiene and sanitation. These components require improved training and monitoring.

If promoting large increases of tourist volume through campaigns like Visit Nepal 2020, hosting facilities, and transport services must be prepared to act immediately on critical directives – distancing of guests — in the event of some infectious outbreak like the one we are experiencing now.

It may be a good idea for the government to plan for strategically located facilities in case of predictable health issues like infections, and not just for rare outbreaks like coronavirus. Just as there are certain services that are in place only seasonally in particular regions, so extra health and safety assistance can be deployed to supplement unavailable or inadequate services. This could be a ‘pay for service’ self-sustaining operation.

Despite the sound recommendations after last year’s Everest traffic jam, there has yet to be a concerted effort to bring all essential agencies of government and private companies to collaboratively work out enhanced management of critical climbing areas and over-tourism generally. Non-action on this may also contribute to the less frequent, but disastrous, health emergencies like COVID-19.

Iván G Somlai is Director of EthnoBureaucratica based in Canada, and was a former consultant with Nepal’s Ministries of Health, Industry, and Tourism.