Of course, we have a lot to blame ourselves for endemic poverty but could it be that we are poor because our neighbors want us poor and dependent?
Nepal is poor. Period. There’s no question about it. Many have analyzed our poverty from different angles. Political instability, corruption, domination of certain ethnic groups, visionless leaders, undemocratic, fatalistic, feudal and discriminatory society are cited as some of the reasons for poverty by scholars. We are busy analyzing our real and perceived flaws and blaming ourselves for the miserable conditions we are in. But then name a single society that is not grappling with at least three of these issues. All seem to be doing well. Only we seem to be going nowhere.
Of course, we have a lot to blame ourselves for endemic poverty, but maybe there’s more to it than our own shortcomings. Could it be that we are poor because our neighbors want us poor and dependent on them? Sadly, the geopolitical angle of our poverty is yet to be seriously explored in detail by our scholars and journalists for various obvious reasons. To paraphrase Robert Kaplan, an influential writer on geopolitics and strategy, we are not asking the rude questions politely for the fear that it will make us unwelcome at the dinner table and at some fancy conferences (from In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond).
Lofty diplomatic rhetoric aside, all nations want to maximize their national prestige. They want to be seen as powerful, dominant, benevolent and moral. They want to control at least what happens in their vicinity, if not the whole world. It is precisely this feeling of being important that makes nations spend on military, creating their individual spheres of influence and forging security and economic alliances. As Henry Kissinger put it aptly, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. The more you have it, the more you want it. It applies to individual leaders as well as countries.
Our sheer misfortune is that we are between the two countries that are emerging as major players in today’s world and which have recently discovered the power aphrodisiac. And just like the powerful players before them, or the existing ones, they are forcefully asserting themselves in the neighborhood. China’s tensions with Japan, Korea, India and Southeast Asian nations over the islands in South China Sea, and India’s problems with China, Pakistan, and its desire to influence its smaller and weaker neighbors stem from one fact: They are looking for respect and prestige and to attain that they have to appear better, stronger and powerful than the rest. In other words, keep others poor and weak.
It is also essential for them to prove it to their people that their countries through aid, loan, or coercive measures, can indeed affect the functioning of other countries, and that the history of guilt and shame due to their exploitation by the Western colonial powers is now already behind and they are now a confident and competent powers just like the ones that exploited them in the past.
If we are to analyze our poverty from this realist-psychological angle, we can safely argue that keeping us poor and weak serves the objective of our neighbors. To cement their control, they are pursuing the policy of economic imperialism, which the foremost realist theorist of the 20th century, Hans Joachim Morgenthau describes as “….a rational method of gaining power...if a nation cannot or will not conquer territory for the purpose of establishing its mastery over other nations, it can try to achieve the same end by establishing its control over those who control the territory.”
The governments are formed and brought down by either of our neighbor. We are “in no position to pursue for any length of time policies of any kind, domestic or foreign” to which the country supporting the government would object (see Morgenthau’s classic Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace). Hence, no development and no economic growth because the neighbors would want the rulers and the elites happy and rich, not the country as a way to keep on being influential player. And the only way to achieve that is by creating political turmoil, while engaging in soft power promotion with token help that actually we can do without, but which our leaders are made to accept and attend the elaborate gift giving ceremony (once a neighboring country’s embassy got all of our former Prime Ministers and who’s who of Nepali politics attend such a ceremony to mark the beginning of an expansion of a road stretch in Kathmandu) as a way to subjugating us or as anthropologists say, to maintain and (re)enforce the hierarchy.
Other ways to enforce that hierarchy include making our prime minister tour their countries for almost a week but their own leaders spending a few hours to a maximum of three days in Nepal, as if they are too busy and important, while our leaders have nothing better to do and can spend days touring their countries, and offering help to Nepal Army that does not in any way improve its combat and other capabilities, but goes a long way in proving that even our security forces are dependent on their support. Enough to make us think of ourselves as small and an international basket case.
This is what’s being constantly enforced and reinforced as a way to make us keep on following their diktats. Our leaders, scholars and media are further making it easier for them to do so by feeding their ‘big country ego.’
The power and security aspects make it imperative for our neighbors to keep us poor because if we are rich, we will spend on military capabilities as rich countries do and we will be free to take sides or remain neutral in case they have conflict with each other or somebody else. They will be forced to treat us as equals, meaning there will be one less country kowtowing them. It doesn’t augur well for their international prestige and power.
But we don’t have to be always poor. There’s an instant way to riches: instead of accepting the control of both of our neighbors, accept only one’s. This will result in whoever we chose as our development partner, or to put it honestly, our dominant master, spending money on infrastructure than on other “aspects”, tariff free access to our products to its market and modernization of our military. The secret to prosperity, as examples show, lie in exploiting the rivalry of the powerful countries. You choose one over the other, and voila, you are amply rewarded. You start from there. Then change the relationship to almost equals, if not equals and, third, when no one can stop your economic wheels already set in motion, assert yourself. When you are rich or almost getting there, you will have other powerful friends, so, the once dominant power that supported you will not remain that dominant.
The question our nominal rulers, our own rulers, need to ask is: Do we want to keep harping on almost outdated Panchsheel—the five principles of peaceful coexistence and non-alignment—or learn from the once poor but now rich nations, choose a side and move up the economic ladder so that in the not so long run we can be really independent or at least better than what we are today?