Crisis and Social Transformation in Nepal

How does the work of aid agencies during and after conflict affect people’s perceptions of change? What can we learn from recent experience? Our work in Nepal has uncovered a number of interesting issues around the humanitarian-development relationship and the challenges of social transformation in a (hopefully) post-conflict environment that we feel are important to research both because they are largely unexplored and because of their potential policy implications.

Nepal was one of the 12 countries included in HA2015 research. As a follow-up to the case study, we have decided to conduct additional research both to deepen our understanding of the root causes and dynamics of the crisis and to track its impact on local communities’ perceptions of change and what drives change. The Maoist agenda was built around awareness and rights in the sense that the Maoists used these concepts as an entry point for their political and military actions. Their message resonated in isolated and marginalized hill communities that had seen little or no development in the past two or three decades. Our research will therefore endeavor to understand whether the Maoist message still sticks, or whether the feudal structures are re-establishing themselves, and how the message relates to other drivers of change.

The Maoists introduced, often forcibly, measures aimed at addressing centuries-old, deeply-rooted forms of discrimination. Feudal structures and the caste system were abolished, parallel peoples’ structures of governance were introduced, affirmation of ethnic identity was encouraged, etc. Perhaps more profoundly, women’s empowerment was actively promoted, including participation in the ranks of the insurgency itself.

Now that the conflict is over, at least formally, what remains of these various forms of empowerment? Have the feudal structures and social norms re-established themselves? What is happening to returning female combatants? Are they being shunned or are they asserting themselves? What kinds of tensions are emerging at the village or community level? These are some of the issues that will be explored through focus groups and interviews at the community level. In addition, a comparative dimension will be introduced in the study through linkages with other Tufts/FIC research on the implications of conflict on gender and social transformation (in northern Uganda and in Sudan in particular).

The overall objective of the research is to better understand the dynamics of social transformation in Nepal in the context of the Maoist insurgency and its aftermath. Specifically, the research will seek to document and analyze the nature and drivers of change at the community level through interviews, focus groups, and retrospective analysis. The project also aims to provide an evidence-based picture of social transformation and derive from it key conclusions of relevance to aid agencies and policy makers.

Tufts/FIC research in Nepal is coordinated by an interdisciplinary team including Antonio Donini, Dyan Mazurana, and Jeevan Raj Sharma, who is based in Kathmandu. This work builds on extensive research and policy development experience on humanitarian, livelihoods, and rights issues in other conflict-affected countries including Afghanistan, Sudan, Uganda, and the Horn of Africa. In late 2008, Tufts/FIC established a presence in Kathmandu with a full-time researcher based there. This has allowed us to develop networks and working relationships in the research and aid communities. We are now well-recognized by aid agencies, donors, local research institutions, and university departments as a research group working on conflict/post-conflict, gender, migration, and social transformation issues in Nepal.

Aid and Violence

retrospective study of the relationship between aid and conflict in Nepal was released in 2009. Based on a literature review and extensive interviews in Kathmandu with aid agency personnel and local researchers, it looks at how aid policies contributed to shaping the events that led to the conflict and at aid agencies’ efforts to adapt to the conflict environment. More specifically, the research attempts to answer the question of whether or not the conflict was a consequence of development failure and how development policies and activities interacted with other drivers of the conflict.

Local Perceptions of Conflict, Aid, and Social Transformation

This research aims to understand how, against the backdrop of the Maoist insurgency, local people in Nepal perceive and understand change. Based on extensive interviewing and focus group discussions in eight different ethno-geographic areas, the research builds up an evidence-based picture of how local people and communities experience change, what (among the events of the past decade) is most meaningful for them, and what they perceive the drivers of change to be. The report was released in April 2010.

Youth Participation and Transformations in the Maoist Organziations

This research aims to understand transformations of young men and women within the Maoist party during the so-called “people’s war,” as well as the transformation of the Maoist party organizations—mainly the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Young Communist League (YCL)—during the conflict and post-conflict period up to 2009. The research is based on interviews with members of the PLA, YCL, and other party cadres. It focuses on how young men and women view their involvement in the insurgency. It attempts to understand the question of “becoming and being a man or a woman” in the Maoist insurgency. The key questions are: How did young people make decisions about joining the armed struggle? Why did some leave the village to join the armed struggle while others stayed back? How do they view their involvement in the insurgency? How transformative was their participation in the insurgency?

Sovereignty, Globalization, and the Future of Humanitarian Action

Our research in Nepal and Sri Lanka will answer the following questions: What will be the impact of sovereignty/nationalism-based critiques on the future of humanitarian action and in particular on the humanitarian system’s ability to reach the most vulnerable? What is the future of the time-tested universalist principles around which humanitarian action is organized (neutrality, impartiality, independence) in a more complex, globalized but also potentially more polarized world? Work on this research project is ongoing and we expect case study reports on Nepal (as well as Sri Lanka and Pakistan) to be finalized in late 2011.

Labor Mobility, Vulnerability, and Social Transformation in Nepal

The aim of the study is to document, understand, and explain the changing forms of labor with specific focus on vulnerability and exploitation of labor in the context of Nepal. We are particularly interested in understanding the drivers of bonded and other modern forms of “unfree” labor in various sectors of work and employment and how they are influenced by wider processes of social transformation that are shaping Nepali society. Our study looks at the nature of labor from the perspective of individuals and communities at the lower end of the socio-economic scale and the decisions they make to improve their human condition. We pay particular attention to the social and other pressures that affect the decision making and organization of laborers with an aim to understand why some people end up in exploitative relations/conditions and others don’t. We distinguish between forms of exploitative labor as they existed in the past in traditional Nepali rural society and contemporary forms of labor in various branches of the economy (e.g., service sector, construction sector, manufacturing sector, etc). Our approach treats bonded labor as integral to the overall landscape of forms of labor, rather than as a separate form of exploitation. On the basis of earlier work in this field, we can safely assume that the emergence of new forms of bondage is strongly connected to the intensification of circulation and labor migration, and increased monetization of commodity exchanges and of social relationships. Data collection and ethnographic research on this project started in the spring of 2011.

Living In The Margins: Coping With Flood Risks And Managing Livelihoods In Nepal’s Far-Western Terai

As a part of the larger DRR and livelihoods programming project, the purpose of this study is to develop a grounded socio-culturally and economically embedded understanding of the impact of floods on people’s livelihoods from their perspectives. We are particularly interested in livelihoods and relevant interventions that could reduce risk in Nepal terai, focusing on the risk and impact of floods. We are interested to critically assess the DRR programs implemented by the government, international organizations, and other local initiatives, and how far they reflect the livelihood strategies of the vulnerable population and the wider political-economic context in which the local population is embedded. Therefore, the key focus of the study is to explore the strategies used by the flood-affected population—both households and communities—to cope with risks associated with flooding in Nepal terai. We are mainly interested in the relationship between physical and natural capital with livelihoods and risk reduction in the marginal areas of Nepal. The data collection for this project started in December 2010, and the research report will become available in summer 2012.

Our research on conflict, aid, and social transformation in Nepal has attracted a considerable interest in the aid and research community in Kathmandu. We have been asked to present our findings at United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), UN coordination meetings, university departments, and Kathmandu-based research organizations. Our report on Aid and Violence has attracted considerable attention in Nepal. UN agencies have engaged with our research findings on gender identities of Maoist combatants. We are frequently consulted by UN agencies, donors, other INGOs, journalists, and academics on conflict, aid, and social transformation issues. At present, we are in the process of expanding our research on issues including migration/mobility, vulnerabilities of marginalized groups (such as bonded laborers and female migrants), integration of Maoist combatants, and torture.

In Nepal, we hope to contribute to ongoing debates in the aid community on the nature of the crisis and on policies for addressing it both from a humanitarian and development perspective. This will be done through country-level briefings and seminars. At the international level, we expect our findings will constitute useful lessons for donors and aid agencies who struggle to adapt their policies and activities to sometimes rapidly changing conflict and post-conflict environments.

Towards a “Great Transformation”? The Maoist Insurgency and Local Perceptions of Social Transformation in Nepal

This report presents the findings of a two-year field research project on local perceptions of social transformation in rural Nepal. The findings, and our interpretations of them, are presented in...

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Aid and Violence Development Policies and Conflict in Nepal
Cover photo-Aid and Violence Report
By Antonio Donini | June 2009

This project arose from earlier Tufts/FIC field-based research on local perceptions of the work of aid agencies in Nepal during which the conflict/development failure angle emerged as a recurring theme.

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Our work in Nepal has been collaborative from the start. UN agencies (in particular OCHA), donors, and NGOs have sought to involve us in their own debates on the nature of the crisis and the humanitarian-development relationship. This will continue and will be extended to Nepali research institutions and universities.