This piece explores ethnographically how new “subjects” of corruption are formulated through discursive and practical negotiations over the appropriate behaviour of those who would have previously been understood as subalterns. I explore these questions in the context of a reconstruction project in post-conflict, post-earthquake Nepal. Newly rendered as “community members” and “users,” in the language of both governmental and non-governmental agencies, I suggest that residents of Nepal’s rural areas navigate rapidly evolving state structures, domestic labour markets, and transnational relationships by practicing new forms of agency that can put them at odds with the expectations of the external actors who offer resources and regulate their use.
“Gift of the Norway World Food Programme.” These words are stenciled onto the heavy burlap sack bobbing against the back of the man ahead of me. His hands steady the headstrap as we crest the ridge that separates his home village from the district headquarters, where he had picked up his ration of rice. I follow behind, breathless from the uphill climb, wondering what the road will look like now. I have been away for several months, during which time a new road construction project administered by the Rural Community Infrastructure Works (rciw) Programme in collaboration with the District Development Committee (ddc) has begun in earnest.
He sits down on the stone chautara, a memorial for the dead that doubles as a resting platform for travelers, and wipes his sweaty brow. I shuffle through the pine needles under foot to catch up. “Older brother, why does it say ‘Gift’? Isn’t that rice your payment for work on the road?” I ask after I have caught my breath. He laughs and gestures to the narrow dirt track snaking across the hillsides below. “Well, that’s what they call it. They say that we will benefit from the road, so we should contribute our labour for free. If it’s a free contribution, then we cannot ask for wages, so whatever we receive is a gift.” He shakes his head and rubs his nose in a nervous gesture I’ve seen him make before when he feels uncertain or out of his element. The donor logic he has just described seems to strike him as at once impossible and infuriating, yet incredibly clever.
Indeed, the road is funded through the German development corporation’s so-called “Food for Work” programme in conjunction with the Norway World Food Programme. The expectation is that community members in the settlements through which the new thoroughfare passes will freely donate their work to the project in exchange for food in the form of rice. “Work” is broadly defined, and can range from digging trenches to carrying rocks to breaking down large rocks with sledgehammers. This is a donor-enforced form of jana sramdan—“community contribution”—long a feature of infrastructural projects implemented by the Nepali state that rely on the uncompensated labour of its own citizens.
He stands up, strap tightening against his forehead. “Well, hopefully it will be worth it. If we make the road strong then our children will not need to carry such loads in the future.”1
Twenty years later, the road is now a wide two-lane highway that serves as the portal to one of the country’s largest hydroelectric projects. It is replete with reflective paint down the middle and concrete place markers every kilometre. The marker for the village where we are headed appears on the horizon and the jeep slows. “Oh, this is it!” exclaims my colleague from Vancouver, a Nepali-Canadian who has lived abroad for over 30 years. We are here to attend the opening of a community library building, sponsored in part by the diasporic organizations that he represents. After the 2015 earthquakes, he and many others worked hard to raise funds in Canada to support reconstruction projects back in their home country—of which this is one.
The driver parks skillfully on the roadside, avoiding the drainage ditch between the tarmac and the stone stairs that lead up to the school site. As we make our way up the hillside, we encounter several labourers sitting in the shade by their bamboo baskets, headstraps at rest. They are carrying hand-hewn rocks up to the building site to construct a retaining wall behind the new community library, in an attempt to keep the landsliding hill above at bay. “Eh, older sister!” one of the women shouts at me, “You’ve arrived?” “Yes,” I reply to this pleasantry. “Well, you can see we are working hard,” she continues, “But only because we are now getting paid properly. Things changed when we finally refused to work for free.” I nod, reticent to say more about this controversial issue in the presence of the school leadership and local officials who also accompany us.
The previous year, I had participated in a meeting with the School Management Committee (smc) and a government-employed engineer to discuss the reconstruction process at the school site. It was early 2017, almost two years after the 2015 earthquakes, and the cracked buildings were still filled with rubble. Teachers, parents, and community leaders had commandeered the one nominally functional room to serve as their office. Classes continued in the open air, under the protection of several large trees.
After many formalities, the parent chairing the committee asked if I could help secure additional funding from abroad. The engineer stood up and slammed his fist on the table. “That is the government’s job! Your school will be disqualified from future government support if you accept private funding.” He left in a huff, motorcycle revving while the head mistress served tea and changed the subject.
The meeting continued in subdued tones. The idea of seeking funds for a community library situated on the school site was born: it would not actually be the school, but rather an adjacent building with a separate institutional mandate and governance structure, in which classes could be held until the government rebuilt the school.
I returned to Canada bearing a proposal and budget that included wages for community construction labour. Somehow, in the dizzying negotiations that followed, that line item disappeared.
In Spring 2015, Nepal experienced two massive earthquakes. Together they killed almost 10,000 people, injured twice that number, and destroyed nearly 1 million homes.2 The epicentre of the second earthquake was located in Dolakha district, where I’ve worked as an anthropologist for over 25 years. Through the disaster and its aftermath, the landscape and built environment that I had documented through my doctoral research and subsequent book3 transformed radically. These material changes intersected in sometimes unexpected ways with the already ongoing process of social and political transformation wrought by Nepal’s decade-long civil conflict (1996–2006) between Maoists and state forces, and the subsequent process of state restructuring, which culminated in a 2015 constitution and 2017 local and provincial elections.4
In this context of radical material, political, and social transformation, this article offers an ethnographic exploration of how new “subjects” of corruption are produced through discursive and practical negotiations over the appropriate behaviour of those who would have previously been understood as subalterns. Newly rendered as “community members” and “users,”5 in the language of both governmental and non-governmental agencies, I suggest that residents of Nepal’s rural areas navigate rapidly evolving state structures, domestic labour markets, and transnational relationships by practicing forms of agency that can put them at odds with the expectations of external actors who offer resources and regulate their use. When such subjects exercise the power of refusal, the result is an often insinuated, sometimes explicit, charge of corruption by political and/or economic power holders against those conceptualized as the “beneficiaries” of infrastructural development initiatives. This formulation turns the tables on the classical definition of corruption as the misuse of resources by those in power. Instead, it creates a scenario where those managing infrastructural development from top-down positions of authority in governmental and non-governmental organizations mask their own misunderstandings (at best) or misappropriations (at worst) by painting those who are both the intended beneficiaries of their work, and the actual producers of that infrastructural development in material terms—through hard manual labour—as corrupt because they refuse to play by the “rules of the game” asserted from on high.
My ethnographic material develops this argument by highlighting how assumptions about the role of “community contributions” in infrastructural development were challenged in a project to rebuild a village school funded by a consortium of national ngo s, Nepali diaspora charities, and private sector interests. I interpret these experiences in conversation with existing scholarship which suggests that the appointment of “users’ committees” to implement infrastructural development can create “impossible publics.”6 They are impossible because they cannot in good conscience act as expected by external actors while maintaining commitments to their own locally situated agendas.
In Nepal, much of this impossibility has to do with the gap between the perception that agrarian livelihoods still exist outside of the cash economy, and the reality of uneven and largely informal labour market integration. Rapidly transforming labour markets and financialization7 have prompted a sea change in the way that citizens of rural Nepal conceptualize themselves as participants in infrastructural projects such as post-earthquake reconstruction and road-building. At the same time, newly elected local governments that came to power in 2017 have created a novel form of “local state” that offers a pathway to push back against centralized power.
These paradigm shifts have created a disjuncture between community expectations on the one hand, and state and donor expectations on the other—including members of the Nepali diaspora—which lead to accusations of corruption levied against the former by the latter. Rather than focusing on corruption within formal politics, or the civil service,8 then, I explore how the charge of “corruption” can be used to reassert traditional hegemonic power relations in contexts where previously subaltern members of the social order assert agency in new ways. Understanding how such subject positions are forged through experience for people actually implementing infrastructural development in their own communities may help to dissolve conceptual and pragmatic challenges that arise when the domains of disaster, corruption, and labour are treated separately by policymakers and scholars, anthropological and otherwise.
Background and Research Context
My research in Nepal’s central-eastern district of Dolakha has been ongoing since the late 1990s, a long-term commitment which has enabled me to track change over time at a micro-level. Dolakha is an ethnically diverse district, in which my previous research was conducted with the Thangmi community in particular. As an Adivasi Janajati, or Indigenous nationality group, in the past the Thangmi experienced social and political marginalization vis-à-vis the Nepali state.9 The village described in this article, where the community library was built, maintains a majority Thangmi population, whom until the 2017 provincial and local elections had next to no formal political representation from within their own community.
The 2017 elections put several Thangmi leaders in positions of authority within the new structure of local municipal governments for the first time, which helped create the context for the events described here. As one local leader elected in 2017 told me, “Hami ali ali janneharu le arulai tannuparne,” meaning “Those of us who understand [the system of governance] have to pull others along.” He was reflecting upon how the role of newly elected local officials like himself was to restructure the interface between citizens and their state, which sometimes required manipulating the existing system in favour of his constituents in order to push towards necessary transformation of the status quo. It is such forms of action which from an external perspective—whether that of state actors or international donors—can easily be tagged as “corruption.” But from the perspective of the local official and others with whom I worked, these forms of action were understood altogether differently as legitimate and much-needed assertions of political agency in a context where the entire state had been restructured, with the ostensible goal of encouraging previously marginalized communities to do just that.10
Like most anthropologists, I came to think about “corruption” by accident rather than design.11 My entrée to the set of questions that this article poses about the relationship between charges of corruption, disaster, and the labour of infrastructural development came through participating in a collaborative effort amongst several organizations to reconstruct an earthquake-destroyed school in the village in Dolakha where I had long worked. This eventually morphed into a project to build a community library adjacent to the school. The building was completed and opened as a library in July 2018, and continues to host school classes while the school itself remains under construction by the government at the time of writing in late 2022.
The process of constructing the library building required me, as the anthropologist, to act as a liaison and knowledge broker. I did my best to translate the perspective of each party to the others, which involved providing a research-based analysis of changing labour markets, infrastructural development paradigms, and political power structures to the project’s diasporic funders to help them understand why community members refused to work for free; and an explanation to community members of why their refusal was perceived to violate ethical principles by the donors.
To understand the political and social moment in which the events I describe here took place, we must first understand the basic contours of Nepal’s program for post-earthquake private housing reconstruction, as administered by the National Reconstruction Authority (nra). Established in early 2016, the nra consolidated donor funds to roll out a one-size fits-all program intended to benefit the approximately 1 million households whose homes had been destroyed. Promoted as an “owner-driven” model for reconstruction that would empower individual homeowners to rebuild through a phased subsidy program, the total financial envelope for reconstruction of a single “house” was Npr. 300,000 (approximately usd 2750), to be disbursed in three “tranches.” Accessing the first tranche of Npr. 50,000 required registration as an earthquake-affected household and signing of a cash grant participation agreement with the government, along with opening of a new bank account. The subsequent tranches could only be accessed upon approval of each stage of reconstruction by a government-employed engineer.12 Disbursement of each tranche was tied to a deadline by which work had to be completed. Homeowners who accepted grants but did not meet deadlines were often tagged as “fake victims” by the media, as well as by watchdog groups such as Transparency International.13
Building a Community Library
In summer 2015, after the immediate relief phase of post-disaster response began to transition into longer term plans for reconstruction,14 I received an email from a community-based organization (hereafter “the cbo”) active in the village in which I had long worked, requesting help with fundraising to rebuild their local elementary school. Around the same time, I received an invitation to a meeting in a downtown Vancouver office building, hosted by an organization representing Nepalis resident in British Columbia, Canada, where I had recently settled. As we gathered in the glassy boardroom of the engineering firm where one of the organization’s officers worked, I learned that they and other collaborating organizations were seeking a reconstruction project in which to invest funds raised during various post-earthquake fundraising activities.
Diaspora Nepalis based in bc were engaged in a series of ongoing internal debates about whether to donate to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund where they would have little knowledge of how their money was put to work, to large international organizations such as Red Cross or Oxfam, or to smaller community-based organizations in Nepal. Framed within imaginaries of corruption that mobilized concepts of “accountability” and “impact,” many viewed both the government and large ingo s with some suspicion, and were therefore in favor of the latter approach because they could more easily access information about how their funds were used and participate directly in the process.15 However, having been away from Nepal for 10 years or more in most cases, they lacked reliable connections to community-based organizations in the largely rural earthquake-affected districts. The officers were pleased to learn about the cbo with which I worked in Dolakha, and asked me to put them in contact. A collaborative project was born, which relied upon me as an intermediary in both directions.
Quickly it became clear that it was not appropriate for external organizations to meddle in rebuilding government schools. When the cbo approached the District Education Office and National Reconstruction Authority (nra) for approval, they were handed a draft mou which would have placed full fiscal and management responsibility for rebuilding and maintaining the school for perpetuity in the cbo’s hands if they accepted any funds from an external ngo. As a small, locally-run organization with limited resources, it was not in their best interest to do so. The Nepali-Canadian organizations then retooled the project to build a community library adjacent to the school, which would provide three classrooms for school use while not rebuilding the school itself—and at the same time introduce a new physical and digital library facility to the community.
After a formal agreement between all organizations was drafted and went through several rounds of revision, the project was approved by all involved organizations. A district-employed engineer drew up the architectural plans and budget for the building project. This was for earthquake-resistant reinforced concrete construction, which would both meet the nra’s post-earthquake building codes, and the even more stringent expectations of the many Nepali-Canadian civil engineers involved with the project. Construction began in 2017.
The Problem with Community Contributions
A problem soon arose. It became clear that the budget had been premised upon pre-earthquake rates for daily wage labour for construction. Moreover, labour costs had only been budgeted at all for skilled work, defined as masonry and carpentry. It was assumed that unskilled labour such as porterage of rocks to build a retaining wall would be offered for free as a form of “community contribution”—or jana sramdan in Nepali—by local residents whose children attended the school. Not only did the paid labourers who began working on the project threaten to quit after a few weeks unless their salary was raised, but the expectation of an in-kind “community contribution” of unpaid labour from each household was refused outright. Construction could not proceed along the planned timeline.
As one interlocutor in Dolakha who was a trained welder explained to me, “Because of the deadlines [to access reconstruction grants], everyone is rushing to build at the same time. My skills are in demand now. I can make much more money than I would receive from the government reconstruction [program] if I use my skills to build other people’s homes. But once the deadlines pass, there won’t be as much work, and then I can build my own home.” He had received the first tranche of reconstruction funding, but invested it in non-reconstruction expenses—he did not mind that he would miss out on the subsequent tranches because the relatively meagre funding paled in comparison to what he could earn with his skills on the open market for infrastructural development. These choices led to his labeling as a “fake victim” and “non-compliant beneficiary”—both allegations of corruption—because he failed to act like a predictable subaltern subject. Rather than simply accepting the aid offered to him, he was instead acting agentively to make his own cost-benefit calculations as a thinking subject.
This was much the same attitude that most potential labourers on the community library project held. While carrying bricks to build its walls in June 2017, one woman told me: “I have to feed my children. I have to build my house. My husband is away [for wage labour out of the country]. How can I work here unless I receive a wage?” She continued to explain how much money she could earn working on any number of public and private reconstruction projects, and appeared truly incredulous that the donors for this particular project would expect community members to work for free in such a context. She was one of the workers who threatened to quit unless their wages were included in an expanded budget, a demand that was ultimately successful and worked to reshape expectations on all sides.
But before that resolution was achieved, the funders became increasingly incensed about the fact that “the community” was not willing to contribute according to expectations. The donors’ assumption that a portion of the work could be funded in-kind through “community contributions” was understandable, as it was certainly in keeping with previous practice in the region for infrastructural development, particularly in the road-building sector. The lep (labour-intensive, environmentally-friendly and participatory) model for “green roads” implemented by the Government of Nepal’s Department of Roads (dor) and Department of Local Infrastructure Development and Agricultural Roads (dolidar) since the 1990s had come with the explicit expectation that communities would contribute between 20–40% of the total budget through in-kind labour.16 This was implemented through “user’s committees,” a concept borrowed from Nepal’s forestry sector, which has been globally lauded for its effective implementation of the “community forestry user group” (cfug) model for resource governance, even in crisis conditions.17
The specifics varied in each locale, and with each project design, but the notion that residents would be expected to donate a certain amount of labour to infrastructural development projects, and coordinate that contribution through a self-governing user’s committee, was also well-understood by my interlocutors in Dolakha. They participated in a generally high-functioning cfug, and had also contributed labour to many other infrastructural development projects over the preceding decades, for instance when the main road was first constructed beginning in the late 1990s, as described in the prologue to this article,18 or to build a local temple under the project management of a Japanese-funded ngo.19
Yet over the last two decades, with marked acceleration in the years following the earthquakes, the community contribution portion of such arrangements had been de facto abandoned all over the country (personal communication, Tulasi Sigdel). In some cases, community members raised funds to donate in lieu of their labour, or to contract heavy equipment such as bulldozers in the case of road-building, instead of building manually—substitutions which were strictly prohibited by policy documents. In other cases, they simply refused to get involved. When that happened, infrastructural projects would often be completed with just the cash budget of approximately 70–80%, which could lead to less than ideal material outcomes. Such practices were becoming common knowledge among government officials at the time the community library was constructed, as were its root causes: that increased monetization and shifting labour market expectations now make it impossible for people to work for free. Yet officials still labeled such arrangements as “corrupt” as part of a broader strategy to recentralize budgets that they felt had been unfairly removed from their control through donor policies of decentralization and participatory management.
… labour-based norms are still being applied [in rural road construction]… This has led to the subcontracting by user committees of contractors and equipment in the implementation of [road] works, both of which are strictly prohibited... It has also caused a shift in the make-up of many user committees, with increasing representation of local political parties and contractors instead of actual users. This in turn has increased the pressure… to implement works through public transfers to user committees, thus avoiding tendering procedures.21
Rankin et al go on to offer a compelling critique of this charge of corruption levied against user committee members who refuse to act like traditional subjects. They suggest that this new approach from the donor perspective seeks to lay blame upon “users” – in other words, community members – in order to justify a move away from the participatory development paradigms of the 1990s and 2000s and recenter the state and private corporations as ideal development providers. In the wake of studies like the one cited above, “the policy response from donors has called for a reduced role for users’ committees in the road sector in favour of carrying out a greater range and proportion of activities through a regulated market in contract tendering … and consolidating increased authority in centralised government agencies.”22
[In English]: When authority has been given to local level … everyone demands roads … Before there was the lep … but in that model, wherever the dozer moves, the road is built. In road construction, the policy is not so enforceable when implemented by local governments, but we can enforce in the private sector with contractors. There are two conditions [structures of governance] in road construction: users committees where there is massive abuse; only when contractors construct the road do they comply with code; but only few roads are constructed by contractors’ side; most are by users’ committees where they have no code. In technical terms we can regulate the road-building, but we cannot regulate the users’ committees behaviour” (Author recording).
The insinuation is that users’ committees are using heavy equipment (bulldozers) that they don’t know how to operate, instead of contributing their own manual labour as per the conditions of most project agreements. This statement emphasizes the users’ committees’ lack of technical compliance, but the official’s tone and body language also suggested his use of the term “code” was intended to convey a dual meaning: both a lack of technical expertise and a lack of ethics.
The irony here is that since the lep program ended, most roads are actually now built by contractors, not users’ committees, as the official above alleged. It is indeed in the private market domain of contractors that local officials are able to access funds through “patronage democracy.”23 The problem with users’ committees, then, for centrally-appointed officials who tend to come from elite groups (in terms of both class and caste), is that they enable access to previously inaccessible resources for marginalized community members—stripping the officials themselves of an important source of back channel revenue. From the perspective of users’ committee members, however, this dynamic creates space to subvert the “labour-based norms” upon which the entire system is premised, by substituting their own de facto indenture with mechanized means of construction on their own terms.
Shifting Labour Markets
With this information in hand, we can now return to further analyze the complications that the community library project encountered in the context of rapidly shifting labour market conditions. There too, the sense that community members’ refusal to work for free was a form of corruption was widely shared by representatives of the funding organizations. This included diaspora Nepalis involved in funding the project, Kathmandu-based Nepalis charged with managing it, and government officials at central and district levels. For community members and the cbo leadership, these assertions were hurtful for reasons that I explain below. Since the 2015 earthquakes, residents of rural Nepal have experienced a major paradigm shift at the level of everyday experience from the earlier ngo-driven model of “participatory community development,” to a highly financialized market-based model of large-scale infrastructural development driven by the developmentalist state. This shift is in part due to the then-ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal’s (ucpn) nationalist articulation of prosperity through economic development as the foundation of its political platform. Indeed, Prime Minister kp Oli began promoting “Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali” as his government’s motto soon after coming to power in February 2018 (following a previous stint from October 2015–July 2016), in a speech where he promised to attain the Sustainable Development Goals by 2022 through an open appeal to domestic and foreign investors and a zero-tolerance policy against corruption.24
From a local perspective, this policy has manifested in a rapid acceleration of general (non-disaster related) infrastructural development, particularly in the road-building and hydropower sectors. This occurred while community members were still struggling to rebuild their own homes in the wake of the 2015 earthquakes, as well as contributing paid labour to government and/or donor-funded reconstruction projects in the public sector, such as schools, hospitals, and heritage sites.
At the same time, Nepal has an extremely high rate of out-migration for wage labor elsewhere. Prime destinations include the United Arab Emirates, for instance to build Qatar’s World Cup Stadium under exploitative labour conditions;25 Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait to work as security contractors;26 and Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Korea to work in the service sector.27 The World Bank reported in 2011 that nearly one third of the country’s working age population was abroad,28 and that number has only risen since then.29 Several scholars have documented the subsequent labour shortage and deagriculturalization effects in many parts of the country.30
We can therefore begin to understand why there is almost no stomach for voluntary “community contributions.” Under these strained conditions, where an already existing labour shortage was exacerbated by the earthquakes and the high pressure on people’s time to complete their own house reconstruction by strict deadlines in order to receive subsidies, wages rose to approximately Rs. 1000–1200 per day for unskilled labour, and Rs. 1500–3000 for skilled labour in Dolakha, as in other earthquake-affected districts. This represented a near doubling of pre-earthquake rates.31 This is also comparable to what people expected to receive for labour on users’ committee managed road-building crews.
At a moment where there was an unprecedented amount of work available at a well-paid rate due to the high demand for reconstruction labour—and where people were still racing to make both the time and money to rebuild their own homes along a very tight, externally set timeline—why would they work under any other conditions? People expected to be paid at market rates for their labour, and the user committees established for most major infrastructural projects provided a governance structure to express and enforce such expectations.
It’s worth noting that this attitude pertained not only to externally mandated projects, but also to community-internal labour exchange. Before 2015, people would commonly exchange labour for both agricultural work and house-building. Relatives and neighbours would work without pay on each other’s land with the understanding that the labour time would be repaid in due course. Known as parma in many parts of Nepal, this system had already come under pressure before the earthquakes due to the out-migration induced labour shortage. After the disaster, any remaining vestiges of the reciprocal labour exchange system disappeared quickly. “Why should someone work at my house for free?” one woman whose husband was working outside the country lamented. “They know that we cannot repay their time, and since now everyone has money for reconstruction everyone expects to earn when it is their turn to earn, and pay when it is their turn to pay.” This attitude indicates that the new system of financialized labour transaction is in the process of being integrated into the social order at the most intimate level of kinship.
Many community members see the ability to make such demands of both each other and external actors as positive developments, in line with their growing sense of political agency during the conflict and post-conflict period. Indeed, as Rankin and Lewison note, “In Nepal, the participatory model of the 1990s also presents continuities with systems of mandatory labour contributions dating back to the feudal, autocratic regime that ruled the country until the 1950s.”32 Or as Shyam Kunwar puts it, “After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the provision of ‘corvee labor’ did not exist as it had in the past regimes. However it continued as jana sramdan (people’s labor contribution) for the development of their own village or area.”33 In other words, the notion that community members should donate their labour for free was not so much an innovation of the “participatory development” model of the 1990s, but rather a holdover from the corvée labour practices of the Nepali state which pre-dated it.34
In the specific local context of Dolakha where the community library was built, such practices had often been implemented by the regional rulers of the Newar ethnic community as a proxy for the central state itself. In the wake of the decade-long civil conflict (1996–2006), many of these traditional hierarchies had come crashing down.35 It therefore follows that after nearly a decade more of state restructuring (2006–2015), a process through which previously marginalized groups asserted the vision of a Naya Nepal, or “new Nepal” that would overcome past inequalities through new forms of political inclusion,36 participants in local development projects would want to shake off the historical yoke of jana sramdan.
In such a context, it is a deep irony that those who refused to donate their labour were tagged as part of the problem of corruption. Here the growing literature on refusal37 helps to take us beyond the dichotomy of elite domination/subaltern resistance which several scholars have identified as a problematic element in earlier anthropological literature on corruption.38
If people understand practices that may be deemed ‘corrupt’ as embodiments of “provisional agency,” then they recognize that social positions and capabilities are simultaneously subject to forces outside human control and negotiable through techniques of improvisation and recombination. This recognition works to disaggregate a rigid inverse relationship between morality and power that allows only for elite dominance or subaltern resistance.39
Here, then, the refusal to participate in the expected behaviour of “community contributions” indicates a new form of agency amongst people who had earlier been structurally unable to refuse.
What does it mean that in this case the object of their refusal was not the state, per se, but rather diasporic Nepalis who also conceived of themselves as asserting new forms of agency in their newly adopted home in Canada? Through my conversations with many of those involved on the donor end, I began to understand that they held a somewhat idealized and paternalistic notion of “the community” as a coherent, traditional form of social organization in rural Nepal that remained outside the reach of the global economy. As has been well-documented in diaspora studies, a nostalgic notion of the homeland that somehow remains outside the flow of political-historical time is common for those who have left—particularly in relation to contexts such as Nepal that have experienced rapid change.
Responding to global forces of liberalization, the Nepali labour market has in the past decades gone through a transformation of employment relations from being based primarily on overt forms of bondage tied to caste distinction and the political economy of agricultural production to become largely unregulated by customary demands and traditional occupations.40
The diaspora funders of the community library project were largely unaware of the ways in which these systemic shifts had affected local attitudes towards labour, and were instead operating upon a set of assumptions that may have been current at the time they left Nepal, but were now outdated. Their discomfort with the refusal to contribute labour, then, had a different source than that of the government officials cited above. But from the perspective of those expected to contribute labour, it was easy to misrecognize one for the other: the diasporic donors were also perceived as high caste, wealthy, and disengaged from local realities and needs. Past experiences of negative interactions with government officials with similar social profiles led to an attitude of mistrust and suspicion towards the funders. Despite their good intentions, the diasporic supporters’ distance from recent transformations, particularly around labour relations, made it difficult for them to understand the community’s refusal.41
In the end, the budget was increased to accommodate labour costs. The rate was still lower than community members would have liked, but it was a negotiated compromise that everyone could live with.
This analysis has brought together a set of common themes across the anthropology of corruption, the anthropology of disaster, and the anthropology of labour. Indeed, I suggest that the circumstances described here compel us to consider these often analytically separate domains in conjunction.
Several scholars have documented how post-disaster reconstruction provides ample opportunities for less than ethical use of funds. For instance, Michele Gamburd, in her book about post-tsunami Sri Lanka, The Golden Wave42 describes how that phrase itself comes to describe the disaster, due to the wealth of resources that followed in its wake—at least for those well-positioned to access them. To see such manipulation of aid as a short-term, ethically bereft instance of greed overlooks the long-term, future-oriented considerations of ethics and intentionality that come into view when we consider such behaviour as a form of provisional agency. Applying Diana Bocarejo’s discussion of “the ethics of living with bonanzas”43 in rural Colombia is helpful here. She describes the way in which peasants calculate carefully the distinction between illegality and corruption—the former being a sometimes necessary and justifiable act in the face of uncontrollable resource bonanzas derived from external sources; the latter being a morally irredeemable abuse by people in positions of power. Aid that flows in the wake of disaster can be considered a form of “bonanza,” whose management requires sensitive consideration from all who lie in its path, which sometimes results in deviation from externally imagined moral norms. This is not only because the bonanza is too good to pass up, but because ignoring it would risk further consolidation of resources and power in the hands of those who already control too much. In other words, the immediate material nature of the bonanza itself may be worth less than the long-term opportunity it provides to reconfigure power relations as a whole.
In this sense, if we understand labour markets themselves as “sites of struggle,”44 we can see how the act of refusal to offer “community contributions” was a well-considered method of struggle with both a short-term and a long-term result. The short-term result was the ability to negotiate for reasonable compensation during the time of the post-earthquake reconstruction labour bonanza. In a hitherto unprecedented situation of nearly unlimited demand for labour, it became possible for those in command of labour power to name their price. But everyone knew that this was a bonanza—in the time-limited sense in which Bocarejo uses the term—because the housing reconstruction deadlines set by the nra would bring a quick end to this situation at a specific and anticipatable point in time. One interlocutor who was in a leadership position with an ngo involved in reconstruction explained that everyone was working so hard now because they all wanted to make as much money as they could before the balloon went pop, as he put it.
The longer-term result was to reconfigure expectations on the part of donors and state actors about appropriate behaviour for “community members” or “users” in the context of infrastructural development projects. Refusing to contribute free labour served as a sharp rebuke of the paternalistic and outdated approaches of diasporic donors. At the same time, it set a precedent in a non-state context where the terms of engagement were more flexible. The switch from freely contributed human labour to bulldozers that had to be veiled in the formal project documentation of road-building user’s committees could be transposed into the open, here at the community library, as a shift from contributed to compensated labour. Rather than becoming new subjects of corruption when their understanding of what it meant to be a “community member” did not square with the one envisioned for them, they pushed back through their own process of subject formation.
As Sarah Muir and Akhil Gupta suggest in their introduction to the 2018 special issue of Current Anthropology on the anthropology of corruption, “periods of rapid institutional transformation frequently create zones of legal, ethical, and practical ambiguity,”45 but labeling such ambiguity outright as “corruption” forecloses the possibilities for, “a robust reimagination of the present in terms of desirable futures.”46 By considering how individuals imagine their futures as newly empowered political actors in a restructured state—beyond the roles of “user” or “owner” into which they are pigeonholed by both state and ngo-driven structures of governmentality—the ethnography and analysis offered here pushes back against insinuations of corruption on the part of those wielding power against those who are constrained by it.
Four collaborative research projects on which I have served as investigator, co-investigator or collaborator have created the context and offered funding for fieldwork in Nepal between 2017–2022: Expertise, Labour and Mobility in Nepal’s Post-Conflict, Post-Disaster Reconstruction: Construction, Finance, and Law as Domains of Social Transformation (sshrc); Infrastructures of Democracy: State Building as Everyday Practice in Nepal’s Agrarian Districts (sshrc); Urban Growth, Land-Use Change, and Growing Vulnerability in the Greater Himalaya Mountain Range Aross India, Nepal, and Bhutan (nasa), and Sajag-Nepal: Planning and Preparedness for the Mountain Hazard and Risk Chain in Nepal (ukri Global Challenges Research Fund). I’m grateful for additional support over time from Yale University, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the University of British Columbia, Social Science Baha, and the Central Department of Anthropology at Tribhuvan University. Colleagues involved in all of these research partnerships and institutions have offered valuable feedback, as did participants at the Christian Michaelsen Institute/U4 workshop in Bergen, Norway, at which this paper was first presented in December 2018. Elements of the prologue were first drafted in an online Flash Ethnography workshop hosted by Carole McGranahan and Sienna Craig in February 2022. Special thanks to Mark Turin, Saul Mullard, Antonio De Lauri, and members of the communities and organizations described in this article for their engagement.
This vignette is based upon an unpublished manuscript (Dolakha Road) that I submitted to what was then Himal magazine for publication in 1998. After acceptance, I withdrew the publication due to concerns over repercussions for the community members with whom I worked. After 25 years, those concerns have now faded, and the general contours of the situation have been described by colleagues elsewhere. See for instance: Kunwar, S. (2018) The Politics of the Road: Ethnography of Charikot-Singati-Lamabagar road of Dolakha, Central Nepal. Conference Paper presented at the Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya, Kathmandu, Nepal; Pigg, S.L. (2019) The Penstocks. Roadsides, 002: 1–10; Pigg, S.L. and Kunwar, S. (2021) On the Roadside: Pangs of Memory, Tastes of Futures. Multimodality & Society, 1(3): 350–365; Kunwar, S.L., Lewison, E. and Rankin, K. (2021) Labour and the Humanitarian Present: Thinking through the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes. In: Hutt, M., Liechty, M. and Lotter, S. eds. Epicentre to Aftermath: Rebuilding and Remembering in the Wake of Nepal’s Earthquakes. Cambridge University Press.
Initial assessments listed just over 600,000 homes; these numbers were repeatedly revised upwards by the National Reconstruction Authority in subsequent assessments. The reasons for these discrepancies will be discussed below.
Shneiderman, S. (2015) Rituals of Ethnicity: Thangmi Identities Between Nepal and India. University of Pennsylvania Press.
For a comprehensive scholarly engagement with Nepal’s 2015 earthquakes, see Hutt, M., Liechty, M. and Lotter, S. eds. Epicentre to Aftermath: Rebuilding and Remembering in the Wake of Nepal’s Earthquakes. Cambridge University Press.
In the context of Nepal’s so-called “owner-driven” reconstruction model, “owner” is another keyword in this set. See Limbu, B., Baniya, J., Suji, M. and Shneiderman, S. (2019) Reconstruction Conundrums. The Kathmandu Post, February 19; Limbu, B. et al (2019) Reconstructing Nepal: Post-Earthquake Experiences from Bhaktapur, Dhading and Sindhupalchowk. Social Science Baha.
Harvey, P. and Knox, H. (2015) Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. Cornell University Press, pp. 163–85; Rankin, K.N. et al (2019) Corruption as a Diagnostic of Power: Navigating the Blurred Boundaries of the Relational State. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 42(5): 920–936, pp. 927–930.
Hirslund, D. (2021) Brokering Labour: The Politics of Markets in the Kathmandu Construction Industry. Ethnography, 22(4): 495–514; Le Billon, P. et al (2020) Disaster Financialization: Earthquakes, Cash-flows, and Shifting Household Economies in Nepal. Development and Change, 51: 939–969.
For an incisive treatment of corruption in these domains in Nepal, see Gellner, D. and Adhikari, K. (2018) Guarding the Guards: Education, Corruption, and Nepal’s Commission for the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority (ciaa). Public Anthropologist, 2(2): 177–200.
Shneiderman, S. (2015) Rituals of Ethnicity.
Party politics are also an important part of community dynamics in Nepal, with party affiliations affecting relative access to resources.
Shore, C. and Haller, D. (2005) Introduction—Sharp Practice: Anthropology and the Study of Corruption. In: Haller, D. and Shore, C. eds. Corruption: Anthropological Perspectives. Pluto; Muir, S. and Gupta, A. (2018) Rethinking the Anthropology of Corruption: An Introduction to Supplement 18. Current Anthropology, 59 (Supplement 18): S1-S15, S5.
Limbu, B. et al (2019) Reconstructing Nepal.
Limbu, B., Baniya, J., Suji, M. and Shneiderman, S. (2019) Reconstruction Conundrums; Limbu, B. et al (2019) Reconstructing Nepal. This was another form of alleging corruption on the part of beneficiary “subjects.”
The Cultural Anthropology Hot Spots Forum, “Aftershocked,” offers a range of insights into the immediate response from actors around the globe. See https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/aftershocked-reflections-on-the-2015-earthquakes-in-nepal.
For instance, one contributor to a community email listserv wrote, “In the aftermath of Katrina even the American Govt failed. If we hold Nepal Government accountable and expect it to do all the works of such proportion, we must be ‘daydreaming’” (May 22, 2015). See further discussion of such opinions and their implications within the Nepali diaspora in Parajulee, R., Shneiderman, S. and Shrestha, R. (2020) Forging Community Through Disaster Response: Nepali Canadians and the 2015 Earthquakes. bc Studies, 205: 11–31.
Rankin, K.N. et al (2019) Corruption as a Diagnostic of Power, pp. 927–928.
Nightingale, A. and Sharma, J.R. (2014) Conflict Resilience Among Community Forestry User Groups: Experiences in Nepal. Disasters, 38(3): 517−539.
Kunwar, S. (2018) The Politics of the Road; Pigg, S.L. and Kunwar, S. (2021) On the Roadside.
Shneiderman, S. (2015) Rituals of Ethnicity, p.187.
Rankin, K.N. et al (2019) Corruption as a Diagnostic of Power, p. 930.
World Bank. (2013) Nepal Road Sector Assessment Study, p. 26.
Rankin, K.N. et al (2019) Corruption as a Diagnostic of Power, p. 930.
Rankin, K.N. et al (2019) Corruption as a Diagnostic of Power, pp. 932–33, following Corbridge, S., Williams, G., Srivastava, M. and Véron, R. (2005) Seeing the State: Governance and Governmentality in India. Cambridge University Press, p. 38.
Coburn, N. (2018) Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America’s Global War. Stanford University Press.
Hindman, H. and Oppenheim, R. (2014) Lines of Desire: “Korean Quality” in Contemporary Kathmandu. Anthropological Quarterly, 87(2): 465–495. These patterns of mobility are part of the larger phenomenon of “Global Nepalis,” which also includes elite mobility for education, army service, and other white collar professional training and employment. It is these latter forms of mobility that have created the Nepali diaspora community in bc who funded the library project. Gellner, D. and Hausner, S. eds. (2018) Global Nepalis: Religion, Culture and Community in a New and Old Diaspora. Oxford University Press.
World Bank (2011) Large-scale Migration and Remittance in Nepal: Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities. Report No. 44390-np, Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Sector Unit, South Asia Region.
Remittances account for over a quarter of Nepal’s gdp. Between 2009 and 2017, the Government of Nepal issued 3,554,683 permits for migrant workers seeking jobs abroad—approximately 12% of the country’s population. Government of Nepal Ministry of Labor and Employment. (2018) Labor Migration for Employment: A Status Report for Nepal: 2015/2016-2016/2017. Kathmandu.
Adhikari, J. and Hobley, M. (2015) “Everyone is Leaving. Who Will Sow Our Fields?” The Livelihood Effects on Women of Male Migration from Khotang and Udaypur Districts, Nepal, to the Gulf Countries and Malaysia. Himalaya, 35(1): 11–23.
Limbu, B., Baniya, J., Suji, M. and Shneiderman, S. (2019) Reconstruction Conundrums; Limbu, B. et al (2019) Reconstructing Nepal.
Lewison, E. and Rankin, K. (2018) Transnational Rationalities of Corruption: Framing Problems and Solutions in Nepal’s Road Sector. Unpublished manuscript, p. 12.
Kunwar, S. (2018) The Politics of the Road, p. 16.
Holmberg, D., March, K. and Tamang, S. (1999) Local Production/Local Knowledge: Forced Labour from Below. Studies in Nepali History and Society, 4(1): 5–64. Bhoomika Joshi also documents the practice of sramdan for road-building in the Himalayan region of Kumaon, India as a tactic of the early postcolonial Indian state, suggesting that this is a broader regional phenomenon. Joshi, B. (2018) Gift of Labour: Śramdāna, Community and Public in Postcolonial Kumaon. Conference Paper presented at the Association of Asian Studies Conference, New Delhi, India.
Shneiderman, S. (2015) Rituals of Ethnicity, Chapter 8.
Snellinger, A. (2018) Making New Nepal: From Student Activism to Mainstream Politics. University of Washington Press.
McGranahan, C. (2016) Refusal and the Gift of Citizenship. Cultural Anthropology, 31(3): 334–341; Simpson 2016) Simpson, A. (2007) Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, “Voice” and Colonial Citizenship. Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, 9: 67–80.
Jauregui, B. (2014) Provisional Agency in India: Jugaad and the Legitimation of Corruption. American Ethnologist, 41(1): 76–91; Muir, S. and Gupta, A. (2018) Rethinking the Anthropology of Corruption: An Introduction to Supplement 18. Current Anthropology, 59(Supplement 18): S1-S15.
Jauregui, B. (2014) Provisional Agency in India, p. 85.
Hirslund, D. (2021) Brokering Labour: The Politics of Markets in the Kathmandu Construction Industry. Ethnography, 22(4): 495–514, pp. 496–497.
In other areas of Nepal, diaspora-funded projects have apparently met with less outright refusal, but have faced operational difficulties down the line. See: https://www.recordnepal.com/wire/features/a-ghost-settlement-in-gorkha/.
Gamburd, M. (2013) The Golden Wave: Culture and Politics after Sri Lanka’s Tsunami Disaster. Indiana University Press.
Bocarejo, D. (2018) Thinking with Illegality: The Ethics of Living with Bonanzas. Current Anthropology, 59(Supplement 18): S48-S59.
Hirslund, D. (2021) Brokering Labour, p. 510.
Muir, S. and Gupta, A. (2018) Rethinking the Anthropology of Corruption, S9; following Smart, A. (1993) Gifts, Bribes, and Guanxi: A Reconsideration of Bourdieu’ Social Capital. Cultural Anthropology, 8(3): 388–408.
Muir, S. and Gupta, A. (2018) Rethinking the Anthropology of Corruption, S6.