By Siromani Dhungana
At one point on his last day in office as head of DFID Nepal, Dominic O’ Neill was waiting for reporters. And a photographer.
“So, you guys want to take a picture?” He said as he fixed his tie. “This will probably be the last meeting with journalist in my nearly two years of stay in Nepal.”
“Tomorrow,” he said on Friday, “I will be leaving this beautiful country. I will never forget this land. Be it Humla, Mustang, the Tarai or Hilly belt, my desire to visit all the parts of the country will always remain the same. This county will always stay fresh within my heart.”
In an hour long conversation with us (friends Gaurav Aryal and Amish), Dominic addressed a range of issues- from donors’ role in Nepal to socioeconomic situation. What Dominic says as head of DFID Nepal is important because the UK aid agency, called Department for International Development (DFID), is currently the largest bilateral donor in Nepal. DFID “disbursed £55.9m of bilateral development assistance” in Nepal in fiscal year 2012/13. The UK also “disbursed £3.56m as debt relief.” According to DFID Annual Report and Accounts, UK aid to Nepal for the FY 2012-13 was divided into several sectors:
UK presence in Nepal is generally free of controversy. Apart from recruiting fearless and jobless Nepali youths to their Army, the British government has been building bridges and roads in Nepal that have helped to ease lives of millions of Nepali people. Lately they have been accused of using their aid money to reengineer Nepali society in such a way that pits one community against another.
I started the discussion by asking Dominic what he felt about donors’ role in Nepal. Has Nepal become too dependent on donors?
“I believe we [the donor community], at least the UK government, do not want the country to be dependent on donors,” he said. “All we want is too see the country improving its economic indicators.” He said that donors’ money has been channeled to the neediest sectors such as education, health, agriculture and the result would be devastating if the aid flow to such such sectors were to be cut.
Development work has been seriously and negatively affected in the absence of elected bodies at the local level. The problem has been complicated by the political parties who often tend to put their organizational interests ahead of the overall developmental requirement of a village or a district. Excessive politicization of development work has seriously undermined accountability and transparency of public expenditure. Dominic acknowledged this and said holding local elections was key to face this challenge.
“What I found at the local level is that the political parties divide local resources not according to the need of local people but rather to their interest. If the local election was held, the situation would have been much different and the resources might be utilized in a responsible manner,” he said.
When you are interviewing a British diplomat (who also oversees the UK aid spending in Nepal) question about DFID fueling ethnic division in Nepal and favoring one community against another cannot go unasked.
Dominic responded to the question by stating that DFID (a British government ministry) “is mandated to work on poverty issues, not politics. Our aim is to support the poorest of the poor section of society but not to fuel any ethic disharmony.” He used the term ‘social inclusion’ to describe what DFID has been doing to help poorest of the poor in Nepal.
DFID Nepal tweets related to opening of the British-built Sabha Khola river bridge. DFID Minister Alan Duncan officially inaugurated the bridge in April:
My own understanding is that a bridge like the one DFID built over Sabha Khola in January or a road that connects villages to national highway will have much more impact in reducing poverty in Nepal than spending (and wasting) money in the name of enhancing capacity of Nepali people. But a bridge over Sabha Khola doesn’t benefit the well connected and influential people in Kathmandu who are regular faces in cocktail circuit and have direct access to diplomats like Dominic. These well connected and influential people in Kathmandu can only benefit and get share of aid money that comes to Nepal if that money is spent in the name of capacity building. It is an uphill task for Kathmandu diplomats to get themselves out of Kathmandu’s cocktail circuit and go to villages to taste the local raksi.
On his part, literally speaking, Dominic seems to have tried. While talking about some of the most memorable things that he did in Nepal, Dominic said: “I really enjoyed drinking local raksi.”
Dominic recalled his first visit to Nepal which took place in 1994. “I stayed here for three weeks. I trekked in Annapurna circuit. Being in such a lovely place was an amazing experience.”
“I am leaving tomorrow (Saturday) but I want to come back with my family and go for trek. I want to talk with Nepali people and stay in the remote parts of this country,” he added.
But for now some adventure in Africa where he is headed to take up an important responsibility at the African Development Bank.
“My further career is with African Development Bank where I will be dealing with some crucial development issues in Africa,” he said.
Comparing Nepal with Africa, he said Nepal has tremendous potential of hydro-power and Africa has mines and minerals. The question is whether resources has been used in a proper manner to improve the economic condition of general public, he added.
The coffee was finished. So was the interview. I thanked him for managing time for interview despite a busy schedule of his last day in office.
“But I will be remembering Nepal forever,” he said as we shook hands.
[Full version of Dominic’s interview will appear in the upcoming issue of the magazine New Business Age.]