Culture as a roadblock to economic development in Nepal

A pilgrim offers prayers at Jwaladevi (Fire Goddess) Temple at Dailekh, Western Nepal. The source of the fire is considered to be divine. (Image: Saurabh Shah)

(Opinion/Saurabh Shah) In Dailekh District of Nepal’s west lies Jwaladevi (Fire Goddess) temple which houses a natural undying flame that people worship to have their wishes fulfilled. Other similar sites near the temple are worshipped as well; pilgrims attribute a divine source of power behind the ‘natural, undying light’. However, through rational eyes, Jwaladevi is a potential natural gas deposit. If explored it might help chip at Nepal’s total reliance on gas imports and contribute to the nation’s much needed economic growth. Instead we pray to a potential exploitable source of economic prosperity, in the same time probably praying for economic prosperity!

This contradiction brings up Max Weber’s argument that ‘culture and tradition can affect development. He stated that it was the Protestant culture and the strict work ethic it promoted which powered European economic development. Most people looking at Jwaladevi would follow Weber’s logic and assume that development in Nepal is constrained by tradition. By that extension, assume that Nepali people lack appropriate drive for development. The reality however, can be debated – it is established that Nepalis are a determined lot—whether it comes to building billion-dollar businesses or winning global recognition for social causes. We have achieved a remarkable reduction in our poverty head count within a span of seven years – from 46.1% to 15% . Even Weber would have to concede that culture is not a strong barrier to Nepal’s economic development. But if so, why has Jwaladevi not been explored yet?

An argument could be that economic development has not brought an increase in education levels that would promote rational economic thinking on Jwaladevi. However, that is unlikely as adult literacy rate was at 60% in 2011 and predicted to have increased further since then. More possible is that local sensitivity plays a part in why Nepal has not explored sites like Jwaladevi. Yet sensitivity alone cannot be the lone factor given the importance afforded to economic development in Nepal.

Perhaps the issue behind Jwaladevi is deeper and broader than what we see. It could be that we Nepalis do not have a collective commitment to a defined set of economic goals. Haa Joon Chang, the institutional economist, lays it out in his book like this – South Korea in the 1960s was one of the poorer countries in the world. Koreans, perceived as neither industrious nor innovative, were seen to have a culture not suited to development. What happened next was an unexpected turn of events. The Korean government at the time implemented a long term industrial development strategy that promoted economic development above all else. It set both ambitious economic development goals and collectively oriented individual Koreans towards it. People were encouraged to save, purchases of imported goods were labelled anti-Korean and a strong work ethic was seen as a trait of a true ‘Korean’. The saved foreign currency and improved worker productivity were used to develop export oriented industries. Daewoo, Posco and Samsung are just some of the global companies we know that took off in this period. As a result Korea is now one of the most innovative and successful economies of the world.

Via quoting Chang’s book, I am not implying that we need active nationalist propaganda blasting across the streets of Nepal. What we do need is a collective acceptance of and willingness to sacrifice towards common economic development goals. Goals that the government, no matter the party in power, must commit to for the long term and motivate the Nepali people towards. Once this is achieved there may be more proactive exploration of resources such as Jwaladevi.

As opined by Saurabh Shah

Mr. Shah regularly writes informed opinions on national and international economic policies, their impacts and on politics. He is a graduate from London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). 



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