Crisis and Social Transformation in Nepal

Project Team

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. 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.

The Maoists introduced, often forcibly, measures aimed at addressing centuries-old, deeply-rooted forms of discrimination. The concepts of awareness and rights were used as an entry point for the Maoists’ political and military actions as they abolished feudal structures and the caste system, introduced parallel peoples’ structures of governance, and encouraged affirmation of ethnic identity. Perhaps more profoundly, the Maoists actively promoted women’s empowerment, including participation in the ranks of the insurgency itself.

The Maoist message resonated in isolated and marginalized hill communities that had seen little or no development in  two or three decades. This research therefore endeavors to understand whether the Maoist message still sticks, or whether the feudal structures are re-establishing themselves. Further, this project considers tensions emerging at the village or community level, including what is happening to returning female combatants, and how the Maoist message relates to other drivers of change.

Specifically, the research seeks to document and analyze 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. In addition, the study is comparative, linking with other Feinstein research on the implications of conflict on gender and social transformation (in Sudan and northern Uganda in particular).

Nepal was one of the 12 countries included in the Humanitarian Agency 2015 (HA2015) research (the Nepal case study can be found here, and the HA2015 full report can be found here). As a follow-up to the case study, we conducted 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.

Feinstein’s 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.

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, the study 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, against the backdrop of the Maoist insurgency, how 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 Organizations

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

A research team visited Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan in April and May of 2011. The research conducted there explores several questions: What is the future of the time-tested universalist principles around which humanitarian action is organized (neutrality, impartiality, independence)? As those principles collide with sovereignty-based and nationalistic discourses, and as the humanitarian agenda is reframed as a dominant discourse aligned with northern liberal peace and globalization agendas, how is the agency and independence of humanitarians affected?

Within the context of these disputes and uncertainties, this study considers the future ability of the humanitarian system to reach the most vulnerable.

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 Terrai

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.

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.

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.