In Search of Wisdom: The Power of Communities

While the local and global dynamics of society and economy are becoming increasingly complex, countries like Nepal are unable to expand the material and intellectual capacity of its citizens at a sufficient pace to cope with the changes. The elites and office bearers of Nepal are unable to deliver anything substantial that lasts, although they have always remained busy cooking a template of development to be dispersed from Singha Durbar. They keep on changing the template but it keeps on failing because it cannot factor the diversity in beliefs, values, knowledge, and skills of people and local social dynamics across the population. The craze for producing a bumper crop of development and progress seems to further exasperate the situation by setting its eyes on the elites of the country and the keepers of the international wealth who are at the top of the pyramid while utterly neglecting the bottom. I believe that the prosperity, progress, and happiness have eluded us for long because of this very inability of ours to recognize the true utility of the grassroots people and communities.

In my view, progress is cumulative advancement of our knowledge, skills, wealth, and happiness, encompassing both personal and public domains. Public properties like highways, schools and forests bear the imprint of our progress as much as the qualities and quantities of things we possess privately. In that light, a number of questions related to progress come to my mind. “What utility the people and communities can have in bringing progress?” “Are people mere recipients of elite ingenuity or the creators of ingenuity of their own?” “Do the communities and people rise due to the expansions of their own thinking or by working on factories supplanted here and there by select individuals?” And I conclude that the essence of our progress and happiness is in the existence-of-hope, motivation-to-search, and motivation-to-act at an individual and community level.

Instead, it appears that the “makers of Nepal” have always been in search of a magic key to open the import-gate of progress and happiness. What would actually be helpful is that the elites ease-up a bit and start believing on the power of the people who are much less educated than them. If the people and communities embarked pursuit of knowledge, improved their tools and techniques gradually, and instrumented their social and economic systems with mechanisms for continuous monitoring and improvement, we would have been far ahead already. We would have had drive for self-improvement, mechanisms for measuring vital indicators of development and progress, and a culture of innovation.

When we are driven by pursuit of knowledge, our acts of doing and our acts of learning continuously complement each other leading to improvements in systems and in our ability to look after them. We become empowered from within and our progress becomes sustainable. We see growth of expertise in leadership, planning, management, innovation and industry in our communities. However, having slept for too long, the elites are in search of complicated theories and ready-made products, which are likely not designed with us in mind, for import. In one generation we might lose the know-how of making Doko and might be relying on cheap plastic containers, which over time litter our villages and poison our water. At that point, even if we wanted to go back to the Doko, we cannot. Would not we be better off to develop slowly while securing our independence than to “develop” quickly at the expense of being subservient to bigger powers? Today, while the “miracle makers” are busy brewing ineffective top-down approaches, the people, who would build the nation from the bottom, remain forever waiting for a miracle to descend.

The right role for the leaders is to encourage and facilitate the bottom up development and make entrepreneurs out of ordinary people. For example, education is the facilitator of the bottom-up development because it allows people to do something on their own, whereas an imported factory represents a top-down approach to development. The reason top-down approach is grossly insufficient is that it makes people vulnerable to foreign powers and diminishes their potential for entrepreneurship in exchange for a temporary gain. People become occupied with small things never getting an opportunity to understand the big picture and to explore possibility of other endeavors which bring durable benefits. A smart thing a government can do for its people is to be a conduit to bring in the knowledge and expertise from around the world to local communities and not the endeavors of which know-how and the big picture belongs to someone else. If they can bring something other than knowledge and expertise, that would be discovering competitive advantages and securing raw materials, energy, telecommunication, transportation, trade infrastructure, standardization, and regulations.

To uplift the vast population that lives under poverty and subsistence agriculture, the government should devote itself in creating sustainable and empowered communities. It can do so by demonstrating that people themselves could improve their livelihood by organizing the local know-hows and human, material and natural resources available in their own communities while inculcating pursuit of knowledge. It seems obvious to me that the key to our improved livelihood is in the enhancements in agriculture, health, sanitation, and trade of goods or services. The key to bringing optimism among us is in realizing that we could improve-upon our achievements year after year through the mobilization of our resources. And the key to bringing us to a level playing field with the rest of the world is in knowing that we possess the same potential for intellect, knowledge and ingenuity as anyone else around us. And empowerment of communities is the fastest and broadest way of realizing that we ourselves are the masters of our destiny.

If we could embrace the path of people empowerment, the political, economic and social clout of people will suddenly increase and they will stop being fooled by “smart politicians.” Empowered communities will have their own potential and weight to stand against the subservience to the central power. This is because, in the process of becoming empowered, they become united as people and learn to work in unison for their collective interest and success.

The cause of community empowerment has, however, been lost for long in the semantics of political slogans. Although overwhelmingly urgent, political or social movements seem to have not fully grasped the cost of ignoring the causes of community empowerment. We have this hangover for the central power learnt from the past despite seeing one failure after another. How many years did Hem Bahadur Malla become a “true representative” of the oppressed Madhesis of Dhanusha and Pashupati SJB Rana of the Tamangs of Sindhupalchok? As long as I can remember! Did their relentless work at Singha Durbar ever uplift those Madhasis and Tamangs? Never! They succeeded in forever subjugating those people because they knew how to take away the power of the communities and vesting them onto select individuals. This remained true in the post-1990 Nepal almost as it was in every decade since the 1950s. Let us not go to pre-1950 Nepal because it was too dark an age.

A succession of political movements could not build empowered and united communities in Nepal because they didn’t grasp the power of “community empowerment”. Most movements tried to impress the people with alternative slogans developed out of a greed for central power. They could not outfox Tribhuban, Mahendra, Pashupati and Hem Bahadur because the movement leaders were playing the game in which their opponents had the strategic advantage. Consequently, they were predisposed to lose. That is the reason why Nepal’s political movements faced setbacks time after time. Mahendra and Pashupati were far clever players of central power and knew how to use and abuse the communities to get the power while neglecting the very same people from the comfortable quarters of Kathmandu. Post Panchayat politicians also followed the same technique but could not demolish the power base of the likes of Surya Bahadur, Pashupati and Hem Bahadur until the Maoists came up with a political game not mastered by those stalwarts.

Although many people try to credit the success of the Maoist movement in Nepal on their military muscle, the secret of their success was in something else. The Maoists were working hard in empowering the local communities by freeing the previously marginalized people from the dominant elites of the villages. Maoist strength grew leaps and bound along with the sense of empowerment of the people they “liberated”. And they succeeded even through their cadres were poorly trained and some were responsible for blunders and miscarriages of justice in time and places. However, the Maoist success did not stop because the grassroots based work is highly fault tolerant. As long as the majority keeps on doing the good work, they could withstand the fallout from the failings of the minority. This luxury is unavailable to a centralized system. A centralized system quickly collapses if one person at the top makes a blunder. Therefore, the key capability of the Maoists to incapacitate the formerly powerful politicians came from empowering the Tamangs, Madhesis, Dalits, and the marginalized at the community level.

Since the last year – knowingly or unknowingly – the Maoists have diverted their energy into centralized politics and have agreed to so many demands of elitist parties and international players that they are on the verge of disempowering the communities who had felt a sense of empowerment. Repeated hearing of “Maoists could be included in the government only if they ‘correct themselves’” seems to have actually changed the Maoist heart. Because of this shift of focus on center and the corporate world, the Maoists have invited structural weakening of their core frame that gave their true strength. They seem to be busy trying to outsmart others in the centralized power politics but, of course, they have no strategic advantage in it. They want that Maoists reverse their achievement in the local communities in empowering the marginalized and bring back the old hierarchy, which subjugated our people for long. But if the Maoists were to keep on sticking to the game of community empowerment, Nepal’s people will be empowered enough to survive on their own. And, if Maoists are true to their principle, it should not matter whether they come into power or not, as their first objective of empowering the poor and marginalized would have been accomplished. Conversely, if they set their eyes on power more than on empowering the people, Nepal will continue to suffer for a long time to come.

It is, therefore, imperative that all well meaning political and social groups should take up the cause of community empowerment if we do not want our successive political leaderships work on empowering the corporation than the people. We must know that the nature of the corporate world is to make us lose empathy and treat people like commodities. A corporate mind does not know how to empower the communities at grassroots level but it is in its nature to take away whatever social spirit there would have been left. Corporations know how to treat people as collection of greedy and self-serving individuals and use them to maximize the production, sales, and profit. No where else this corporate take-over of the society and slow death of local communities is more apparent than in the USA and Canada. All affairs of the communities and the countries here are gradually being taken over by the corporations. Today even the community housings and condominiums are operated by the corporations and not by the people who live in those houses. Even the work of collecting and distributing the food for the hungry is done by some designated corporations and not by individuals in the community who know those people – essentially removing the human empathy from the equation and bringing in the mechanics of collection and distribution of goods into place. How could we achieve empowerment of people and improvement of lives when we abandon the path of social unity and collective work? And this disease is about to spread around the world.

It is not to say that the community empowerment cannot take a wrong turn. It can veer off to undesirable directions if our eyes are not open and checks and balances are not in place. In my view, empowered communities can continue seeing success only until the time they keep themselves in small, locally manageable, lean, agile, co-operative, and competitive units. But if they become overly ambitious and grow too big, they themselves will turn into corporations and make people subservient to that corporation. That is what happened in the Soviet Union. On the name of strengthening the collective spirit of the communities, they “collectivized” the systems of production and distribution at such a massive scale that it made some abstract entity called nation to be their owner. However, that nation was not a community but a mirage created at a distance by the elite politicians using people’s nationalistic pride into their advantage. Therefore, social movement should not go overboard and start building communities that are larger and larger till they occupy the whole country!

The key message here is that people should be paramount in all endeavors of empowerment not some abstract entity that cannot carry out face to face human interaction with all the stakeholders. We must, therefore, begin to solve the difficult problems of our society at the community level. Until the day we reach the root of the society, which is found in the local communities, and nurture it, building of an egalitarian and prosperous society will not begin. Can there be a better time to wake up and put those acts together than now?

Leave a Reply