We’re huddled in the chilly, crisp air on the roof of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been to Beverly Hills multiple times, but this is the first I’m peering down at the postcard-famous streets from a rooftop. There’s a gated feeling – a feeling of secureness and security from my vantage point.
We’re here for the closing ceremony of Competition X*, a 21-day competition to develop a business plan as a solution to socially and economically uplift a society. Our challenge was to uplift a rural village in Nepal devastated by the 2015 earthquake with a budget of $5,000. In our team of five, none of us had been to Nepal before, but during the competition, we were allotted six questions per week that we could ask our point person in Nepal. There was a midpoint challenge and the winning team would be able to ask an extra two questions. We were also given five mentors based in the Los Angeles area. After three busy weeks of researching, planning, and ideating alongside juggling school finals and spring break, we’re about to find out who will be the winning team who will get to go to Nepal to implement their solution.
“And the winner is … team UCLA!”
We jump with excitement, smiles flood our faces, and congratulatory hugs and handshakes are exchanged with fervor. There’s applause all around, the music is playing, the cameras are flashing. After a tough three weeks, it was quite the moment. The judges had chosen our business plan to implement for this village. We were told by multiple people we had a strong business plan because we had immediate, short, and long-term solutions, but now, it was finally real. Our plan included: 1) introducing beekeeping to the village for honey, both to use and sell; 2) growing a bamboo nursery to minimize landslides and to produce bamboo products to use and sell; 3) planting apple trees to stabilize the ground, and also for a source of food; 4) investing in a Cinva Ram so villagers can make bricks out of dirt to rebuild their houses, and 5) building water collection ponds in the terraces to collect water.
As happy as I was for the team and the villagers who would be receiving this support in Nepal, a part of me was also excited to get an all-expenses paid for trip to Nepal.
A lot of logistical hurdles and three flights later, we’re exiting the Kathmandu Airport and I see Louise and Jackie* (part of the Competition X team) smiling, waving, and soon embracing us. They bestow traditional scarves on us, signaling a weeklong adventure is about to begin.
We’re driven to the hotel through the bustling streets of Kathmandu and we’re treated to a hearty Nepali-Chinese dinner. Louise explains that our first day will be a day of cultural immersion, to help us better understand and integrate into the Nepali culture. Among other things, we visit Boudhanath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple, and a Tibetan Monastery. We’re given time to roam the streets, shop, and explore.
The following day, we commence our journey to the isolated village, where we will be implementing our solution. It was a jagged ride, eight hours of bumps of bruises through the unforgiving terrain. We were tossed and turned in the narrow constrain of the jeep the way corn kernels leap around in the microwave.
We emerged in the fleeting sunlight of the day to a pristine and unseen corner of the world. Mountains beyond mountains, lush green life covering the landscape, layers of terracing spilled over the hills. We immediately break up and start walking around the village. We’re invited into a “house” – a house, made from solely wood and metal. A metallic sheet draped over planks of wood arranged in a square. There inside, the air was heavy, doused with smoke from the little stove. The little stove sat next to a wooden board, and the wooden board was used as a bed.
Back at camp, as I climb into my tent, I can’t help but feel a little guilty. The locals are sleeping on planks and are wearing clothes too hot for the summer and too cold for the winter. Yet here I am, cozy and warm in my sleeping bag. The locals barely have enough to eat, yet we come in with Jeeps filled with food and are eating like royals. In the morning, we’re brought a small basin of water to wash our face and brush our teeth. Although we are a world away from the paved roads of Beverly Hills, we’re still so comfortable in the shelter of our tents and sleeping bags.
Over the next few days, as we explore the village and make our way around scoping for sites to construct a water collection pond and where we can plant bamboo and apples, the nagging feeling of guilt doesn’t go away. We have camera men constantly following us. Sometimes we’re asked to repeat actions, such as shoveling dirt, just so they can be sure they have complete footage of us and are documenting our trip.
I know the premise of the work we’re doing is good. We’re giving a hand up, not a hand out. The intent is to uplift the community sustainably, not just inject them with a one-time sum of money. I believe in this mission, or else I wouldn’t be here.
What I question is my presence in this community. I’m living comfortably in a tent, I’m eating well, and I’m well taken care of by the Competition X team. Okay – maybe there are no bathrooms, but they’ve dug a hole and created a makeshift one for us. The children love hanging around us and everyone in the village has been very welcoming, but deep down, I wonder how they feel about us.
I’m weary about this duplicity of being both a guest and an outsider. There’s a notion of treating your guests very well and making sure they’re comfortable. But as an outsider coming into help the community, you want to be respectful and live as close to the way locals do. Therefore the tension between the two creates a weird positionality. I was, however, told that the villagers were thrilled and happy that we were here to help.
Looking back on my trip to Nepal
It’s been about three years since the trip to Nepal. After we left Nepal, I’ve had little contact with the team and don’t have much knowledge on how the projects are going. I’ve made an effort to inquire on the status of projects, but the replies I’ve gotten have been a little general such as “it’s going great!”. Even if things were not going well, I wonder how I’d be able to help from so far away and having such little grasp on the context.
My experience in Nepal gave me my first peek at development work. I went on this trip before I even decided to pursue international development. Now that I’m reflecting on the trip, I question if we made a long and lasting impact. It feels like my involvement was a bit like that of a half-finished Sudoku puzzle. We generated ideas and initiated the project, but we never followed up ourselves. I’m sure the organization is following up and evaluating the projects, but we haven’t necessarily been kept in the loop. As the villagers struggle and trudge on, we’ve all returned to our respective “Beverly Hills”.
This is not to say that this work shouldn’t be happening nor do I regret my participation; a lot of good work needs to be done and I’m so honored to have been part of the experience. I believe there isn’t one right way to do this work. However, I do think we need to be cognizant of our involvement, how we enter communities, how we can be respectful, and how we can ensure our involvement is not just a one-time CSR stunt. Most importantly, in the words of Louise, “shine a torch at your feet and see if you’re making a difference”. We need to make sure the premise of our work embodies the right vision.
I don’t have the answers on the best way to do this kind of work, nor do I know if such answers even exist. However, this first exposure to development work helped me realize the importance of long-term sustainability and monitoring and evaluation (M&E). I think the organization should have created (or even put the onus on us to create) a M&E plan to ensure proper and systematic follow up. It’s crucial to see projects through and have a concrete plan to do so. The work doesn’t and shouldn’t end when you leave. You’ll continue to be involved in it long after, even if it’s a different capacity.
*Names have been changed.