The news and images from Afghanistan recently have been painful to watch. I have been in and out of the country for about 15 years now. First time in 2007, as the Belgian head of mission. Pol-mil work, as they call it in diplomatic jargon. I was exhausted after two years and took a career break, which never happened because the country had drawn me in. The UN offered me a consultancy contract to help them spin off all of their information technology projects: I transformed Afghanistan Information Management Services from a UN project into a national NGO. Then I moved on to the Asia Foundation, resourcing and leading programmes such as the Performance-Based Governors Fund. Around 2011-2012, I was probably exhausted, although I did not feel that way. I just thought it was time for me to try to settle somewhere else. I fell in love with an American USAID worker, who had worked in Afghanistan but moved to Nepal. Hence, I went to Nepal and settled there, but still went to Afghanistan for shorter or longer jobs (see my LinkedIn profile for the detail of my career).

About four years back, I divorced my American lady. She went to Africa. I went back to Belgium and reintegrated. New job. Re-connecting with friends and family and, first and foremost, my two wonderful children who had then started university. My daughter is a full medical doctor now, and my son is in his last year of engineering studies. I still need to find a woman here to make my reintegration complete, but that will come when I am ready for it (I had not one but two divorces in my life – expat life is nice, but it does come with unanticipated family sacrifices).

I continued doing consultancies, though. My last consultancy job was a three-month stint – yes, in Afghanistan. It was just before C19 outbreak (end of 2019 and beginning of 2020). I worked with the EU and the Ministry of Finance on a direct budget support program, evaluating whether the criteria for releasing a few hundred million Euro were met. I was invited to the Palace by high officials. There is no way you can just walk in there, like the Taliban did. When I was there, even tanks would not have been able to break through the defenses. I was, therefore, utterly shocked to see the Taliban were able to walk into the Palace just days after they had reached the outskirts of Kabul.

Now I am watching the news and images from Afghanistan. I thought I had no tears left inside of me, but it is not true. My heart bleeds. I think many people like me went to these far-flung places more because of a desire for adventure. Because you want to be some kind of hero doing good. A great professional. You think you want to get involved but, deep inside, that is not what it is about. But Afghanistan is a special country: even if you are not involved, it drags you in. Its sad history but, more importantly, its people. I will not be emotional. This blog is not about emotions, but I do want to share what I have to say about, which I summed up in a brief LinkedIn post on the events. I write this:

“It is tough to watch what is happening in Afghanistan. All people who have worked there probably feel betrayed. Not by Americans. Not by Afghans. But by their leadership and governments. It did not have to be a worse repeat of Vietnam. It is a dishonor to the US veterans and those who have died or were injured there, the very ones Biden talks about in his press briefings.

Those 400,000+ of internally displaced since the fighting started this year, the distress, thousands of Afghans climbing the walls to get on the tarmac of Kabul Airport, and – worst of all – the total dashing of any spark of hope that was left (many Afghans honestly did believe in some kind of national reconciliation). That could have been avoided. That should have been avoided. It will stick with Mr. Biden as his single biggest foreign policy failure forever. And it will stick with worldwide sentiment about the intentions and capabilities of the US Government for decades longer.

US force (tested shock and awe tactics) always wins the war, but is uncapable of winning the peace that should come afterwards. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, just to name a few everyone knows. But there are also smaller troublesome interventions which led to nothing: Uganda, Somalia, Lebanon, etcetera. Perhaps I should label the invasions of Panama and Grenada as successes – just to make it look somewhat more balanced? And the Kosovo wars, of course. There were a few stalemates and returns to the status quo ex ante too. But – when looking at the investment, in terms of casualties and money – the record is all but but impressive.”

I will not say anything more about it (the words do not come easy, this time) except, perhaps, one thing. The longest war that the US has been fighting is the Cold War. And it won that too. But it is very clear it is not winning the Cold Peace that ensued. Further antagonizing China, Russia, Iran, etcetera seems to be both Republican and Democrat long-term policy. There is no difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden there. The US Government is making yet another big long-term mistake here.

Post scriptum: For the fleeing ex-President Ashraf Ghani (whom I met personally only once, but that meeting did reinforce my earlier impressions: he was/is too arrogant to lead a country), I have only these words: “Not only were you an inept leader, but you turned out to be a coward as well!”

Former President Karzai had the decency to stay behind – now, when a heroic President is needed – and, when thinking a bit further back in Afghan history, when Russian forces were rapidly leaving the country (in 1996), President Najibullah also stayed in Kabul – till the (bitter) end (unfortunately, he was effectively killed by the then-equivalent of the Taliban but, while that may have led to Ghani’s flight, Karzai at least shows real courage and ancestry now).

The latest news (Al Jazeera, 18 August, 09:41 GMT) has it that Anas Haqqani, one of the leaders of one of the hard-core factions of the Taliban, has met the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for talks, together with Abdullah Abdullah, who would probably have been a better President than Ghani (but the 2019 presidential elections did not allow to declare who of the two (Ghani or Abdullah Abdullah) actually won those). This is promising, or something that might be promising. Or, at least, we may think the next Taliban regime may actually be some kind of true national reconciliation government.

Finally, I should also encourage you to read alternative narratives, like this editorial article on Al Jazeera. It does help to, perhaps, think somewhat more positively about the turn of events.

International laborers

I am in Dubai airport, waiting to catch a plane en route from Kabul to Kathmandu. Dubai airport was built and is serviced by foreigners. All of the hubs in this sheikhy region are. I’ve seen most of them. They all look more or less the same-and surely the people who work in them. Poor Nepali, Indians or Bangladeshi clean the toilets and the public areas. Philippinos, or others who happen to speak somewhat better English that the others, run the shops and eateries. Africans are making inroads into this job market as well. The fanciest jobs – airline staff, for example – are reserved for pretty ladies from all over the world, just like anywhere in the world. Asian or Eurasian, it doesn’t matter: a stewardess has to be pretty, smile and look smart. The diversity of stewardesses matches the diversity of travelers. Wherever they are in the pecking order, they’re international laborers. Just like most people who are transiting through here.

The South Asian laborers working outside, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun, sip from their bottle of water as they take a rest. The Russian, British and Singaporean stewardesses at the table next to mine sip Costa coffee, just like me. [I am actually not sure about the last girl’s nationality but she sure looks like the ‘Singaporean girl’ of the publicity.] We are lucky.

Am I an international laborer? My consultancy job in Afghanistan pays more than what I could earn in my home country with my experience and degrees. I chose to go abroad. So… No. I am not an international laborer. But then people servicing this airport-including the pretty stewardesses over there-think they made a choice as well, don’t they? [Did I choose to go abroad? Perhaps not-but that’s another story: I am where I am and I am happy with that. It’s no use complaining anyway, is it? In fact, when I see a pretty stewardess, I always think about that Belgian ambassador who married one. Both of them were lucky people (she was beautiful and he was rich and powerful), but they never seemed to be happy together, and so I always wondered why they chose to be together.]

In any case, let’s go back to the stewardesses and me. How are we different? Job-wise that is. Both our salaries are determined not in national labor markets but by global demand and supply: Dubai has to keep up with Doha, or vice versa, or with Brussels or London, and USAID-approved salary scales in Kabul can’t be too out of whack with USAID’s in Baghdad. So are we a global commodity?

If we are, then we’re obviously less of a commodity than the South Asian crew outside, digging up God knows what. They really are a commodity, I would think. They’re probably as bad off as the Belgian laborers, whose sight led Marx to re-write the theory of capitalism at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps they’re even worse off. Surely if they’d be working on some sheikhy construction yard outside of the airport. It was on the news that, in the past year, since construction started for the UEFA Cup in Qatar, a few thousand Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi construction workers have died there from ‘accidents’ building stadiums and other infrastructure. Let’s try to put that number in perspective.

As a percentage of the trade in ‘voluntary slaves’, it may not be an awful lot. Probably about the same percentage of the US and other foreign soldiers – as part of the total presence – who died on Afghan soil for a cause that no one really understands. [As for the term ‘voluntary slaves’, I don’t have a better one. What else should we call them? Upon arrival, their passport is taken away, and they can’t switch employers, even if they’re not being paid. That qualifies as ‘slave’, I think.] In comparison to the number who dies from heart attack in an average European country, a few thousand is also a rather relative number. And madmen machine-gunning innocent men, women and children in a US school or shopping mall kill as much, it seems. Conflicts or natural disasters also easily claim a few thousand victims. So what’s a few thousand?

I think the number is an indicator of the state of our over-populated world, and it’s a horrendous statistic, just as horrendous as the number of women who end up as sex slaves, or the children that get sold, in the poorest of the poor countries, to pay off a debt, or because the parents can’t afford to feed them. Trafficking in human beings – national and international – is a gray zone, but there’s gray that’s almost black, as opposed to gray that’s close to white. Those Nepali workers dying in ‘accidents’ in Qatar surely qualify for the very dark grey zone as far as I am concerned.

But let me go back to where I am – Dubai airport – and the human beings who are working here, i.e. the men and women I can see as I am typing these words: the lady serving Costa coffee, the stewardesses chatting away, and those poor guys working just next to the runway, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun scorching the earth.

A benign view is that this ‘recycling’ – direct or indirect – of petrodollars serves at least two purposes. First, infrastructure gets built in what would, otherwise, just be desert, worth only as much as the market price of the oil beneath it. We can’t blame the sheikh countries to try to diversify their economy, can we? The second argument is also economic: labor has become an internationally tradable community, and the theory of comparative advantages tells us the world should indeed take advantage of that, because – when you add everything up – taking advantage of it will increase the world’s GDP more than when not taking advantage of it. An even more fundamental argument, perhaps, is that if sheikh A doesn’t take advantage of it, sheikh B and C will, and so then we have unfair competition, and that’s, surely, a no-no for any economist, isn’t it?

Perhaps. That all makes sense. I actually am an economist. However, I can’t think of many countries that have become rich by exporting their labor. None actually, including mine: Belgium’s brainy people work abroad, like me. So if a country suffers from exporting its labor (usually the best and brightest leave indeed), there might be some conflict between national and global interest here. That’s one. [Strangely enough, I find myself saying here something that Comrade Prachanda in Nepal regularly says in his speeches. So I am not in good company.]

My second point is more subtle. I’ve detailed the micro- or meso-economic logic behind the gross macro-economic simplifications underlying the comparative advantages theory in one of my other posts, and it’s a mixed story. When you walk about a bit in the Himalayan mountains, you see entire villages becoming dependent on remittances, with grandparents taking care of children, and no one taking care of the fields. The parents that should care about the kids and/or the fields are all gone: they work in Kathmandu or abroad. Comparative advantages: cheap labor goes where it’s better paid-or where it’s being paid at all. And then those fields don’t matter anymore: the remittances pay for cheap food stuff coming along the new bulldozer road that some crazy politician ordered built – often at the cost of great environmental degradation – to win a few more votes and, hence, why should we care about those unproductive fields? The road changes comparative and, in this case, even absolute advantage: growing your own barley in the high mountains instead of buying cheap rice from the over-populated Terai plains is stupid, isn’t? And then those parents are not there to raise their kids, but then they can pay for boarding school in Kathmandu as soon as they’re like ten or twelve years old. Indeed, there are not many teenagers in those villagers either: just old people and small kids.

You’ll say I sound like one of those old people. Well… 45 years is a pretty decent age in Nepal and so I should probably admit that I actually am an old man, still struggling to come to terms with a ‘revolution’ that started some 300 years ago. Indeed, the communications revolution that helped triggered the industrial revolution – railways and steam ships connecting huge factories with markets across the world – is still unfolding. It’s also spreading production and, hence, wealth. You may look at your iPhone as a product ‘made in USA’, but it actually comes from everywhere and nowhere. It’s a ‘world product’, literally: it was designed where it’s cheapest to do design (the US is still awesome for that), its components were built where it’s cheapest to build them (China), and it was assembled where it was cheapest to do so (China and Taiwan). It’s also stocked everywhere and nowhere really. Wherever it’s cheapest.

So why am I complaining? Frankly, I don’t know. We’re all part of what’s going on. I should kneel and thank God I am not one of those South Asians digging outside. The War in Afghanistan was – and still is – crazy but I cannot, and will not, complain about it because it pays my bills as a development consultant. In fact, if I should say anything at all about my job, I should only note that guys like me are increasingly following the mess: South Sudan, Syria, and now Iraq once again… I am at the forefront of globalization really.

Indeed, we’re not doing any development there. We’re just following the money. Aid agencies are now all formally or de facto extensions of their political counterpart: the State Department, or the Foreign Office, or le Ministère des Affaires Etrangères. The communications revolution has also shortened planning and implementation horizons: money gets re-directed – in a matter of months, or even weeks – to wherever there’s a ‘problem’ that needs ‘fixing’. There’s no sequencing anymore: war; humanitarian aid; negotiation, reconciliation and peace-building; reconstruction; development; whatever-all needs to happen simultaneously. Why? Because we can. In our globalized world, we can be everywhere and we can do everything.

Can we? No. Of course the international community is now in a position to re-direct billions of dollars to wherever the international media directs its gaze, but one can’t fight and reconstruct simultaneously. Worse, pouring in resources while the conflict is still raging usually worsens the fight-because now there’s even more to fight for: international resources (not only money but also international credibility or other assets-civilian or military). So we come and meddle with good intentions, but the first impact is usually negative: we deepen the conflict.

Obama is right to look inwards again: he needs to fix the problems of Americans first. The rest of the world used to take care of itself, until the myth of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ made the white men think they had a moral responsibility to do so. I am one of those white men. My problem is that I don’t feel any moral responsibility anymore. I am just doing a job for which there’s demand, and for which I’m qualified and smart enough apparently. Just like the stewardesses. A job in an inter-connected world. So I am an international laborer too. I feel for those guys outside. When everything is said and done, I actually am one of them. What could I do to help them?    

Is Doomsday thinking on the rise, and is it warranted?

Answering the first question (is Doomsday thinking on the rise?) is difficult. Facebook posts from friends and acquaintances on all kinds of worrying trends (like the melting of glaciers (and of the North Pole itself), changing weather patterns (which resulted in more cyclones and devastating flash floods in recent months here in South Asia), over-fishing, the continuing deforestation of the Amazon forests etcetera) would surely suggest so. But then that is not very objective as a measure, is it? In any case, even if Doomsday thinking would not be on the rise (I note that all generations have indulged in it), perhaps it should be. Let us take a look at the crude facts.

When I was born back in 1969 (by the way, that’s a year which I associate with men landing on the moon, not with Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war, as the currently retiring flower power generation does), the world’s population was only half of what it is now: 3.6 billion, as opposed to an estimated 7.2 billion today. Isn’t it amazing to realize that we, as compared to the previous generation  (I am part of generation X it seems, but I’ll readily admit I had to look that up), have to share the world with twice as many people?

More worryingly (for our children and grandchildren in particular I’d say), the world’s population continues to grow fast, even if the world’s population growth rate has come down from more than 2% per annum then (again, ‘then’ is when  I was born: sorry for my egoistic perspective) to an estimated 1.1% today. Still, it means that my children (I think they’re generation Y or Z – I am not sure actually), when they will have my age (around 2040 that is – so when my generation will be retired), will live in a world trying to take care of not less than 9 billion people.

In fact, that statistic may be optimistic, as it assumes the world’s population growth rate will continue to decline as it is currently doing: it should be around 0.5% per annum only then. Of course, statistics are tricky – especially when they rely on all kinds of assumptions, as is the case here. While it is clear that, at some point of time, the world’s population will have to max out, it is impossible to predict when that will happen, and how. UN figures suggest the world’s population may max out at around 10 billion around the end of this century (2100). As evidenced from the graph below, that assumes a medium-growth scenario only (the orange future line). Still, even such middle-of-the-road scenario (which assumes a classical demographic transition scenario really: advances in medical science bring down the death rate first, while the birth rate declines a few decades later only – with a big population surge in-between as a result) means continued expansion and, hence, many many more mouths to feed indeed.


Ten billion people in 2100? That’s an awful lot. But 2100 is also three generations from now. Hence, we may just shrug our shoulders and think it is not of any concern to us and our children and/or grandchildren really (what letter could we possibly use for the generation after Generation Z anyway?).

A more interesting question, perhaps, is the question of how many people could possibly be fed.

Back in the 18th century, Thomas Malthus (who, besides being a cleric, also was one of the world’s first true ‘political economists’) was of the opinion that “the power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” In other words, Malthus was of the opinion that man would indeed overpopulate Earth and just eat everything and then die in some kind of mass famine or some other kind of man-made catastrophe – like bacteria in a Petri dish running out of nutrients. Well… Sort of. While few would subscribe to such a view nowadays, scientists do suggest that 10 billion people may really be all the Earth can carry – in some kind of sustainable way that is.

Let’s look at the basics. First, real food prices (i.e. the price of food in comparison to the price of other goods) – and nominal food prices as well actually – have come down historically. That has not only helped to sustain the population growth we have been witnessing, but it actually made it possible, as many of those who had children over the past few decades were poor, very poor (I mean not able to pay for much else than food). Moreover, predictions are that food prices will continue to decline over the next decades as agricultural yields will probably continue to rise at a higher rate than the world’s population growth rate. [Recent price hikes are/were temporary only, and have nothing to do with population growth.] So we could say that ‘the world’ has managed to cater to a doubling of the population without any impact on food prices. Moreover, ‘the world’ is likely to continue to support even more people.

Second, while the world’s population has been growing rapidly, the number of hungry or undernourished people has remained stable (around 800 or 900 million). In fact, their number has gone down in all regions of the world – and very notably so in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in Latin-America – except for Africa. Now we all know that Africa is a continent suffering from a deep and complex crisis – much of it with roots in historical wrongs that cannot be corrected – which can surely not be explained by pointing to population growth statistics only. In short, one might actually say that the number of hungry and undernourished people has come down significantly – both in relative (percentage-wise) as well as in absolute numbers – without being factually wrong. Indeed, speaking in general (and we know the limitations of that), many more people have better lives now than twenty years ago (I apologize once again for looking at the world from my own perspective). That’s good news – if only because it also causes population growth to slow down, as parents finally see it makes sense to have less children. [I think the most significant invention of the 20th century was birth control, and Malthus would probably not have written what he wrote if he would have known about it. Indeed, advances in medical science (and in food production) are responsible for the explosive growth of the world’s  population, but so they also made family planning possible.]

In short, food is surely not the issue – not now and, most probably, not for the coming generations either. The real issue is how we can govern ourselves as a species in relation to our environment (could we please stop polluting it and establish some kind of equilibrium situation in regards to the management of our natural resources?) and – equally important if not more – in relation to the marginally different other members of our species (could we please stop murdering each other for religious or political purposes?). Personally, I am not all that optimistic in these regards – but then that’s probably because I live in a beautiful but very troubled country which does not inspire much confidence to me (but then I have to admit I am just a casual western observer of course): Nepal, if anything, has gone backwards on all of the aspects of development: political, economic, ecological, and societal. Indeed, no one really believes in the ‘malleability of society’ here (we just pray that this country will go through its next election in a more or less peaceful manner) – let alone in the capacity of man to steer the world’s destiny.

So what?

Well… Frankly, I don’t know. I am part of that European generation that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was twenty at the time and, as students usually are, very critical – but more of others than of myself I guess. A lot of my views on life in general are influenced by that event and, more importantly, by what happened immediately afterwards: I have the impression that Bush’s strange victory over Al Gore (remember the margin of 537 votes only?) in 2001, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Gulf War II quickly put an end to whatever dreams my generation had in terms of a just new world order. More recent events – like what is going on in Syria right now – have been equally discouraging, if not more (especially because we’re supposed to be the generation ‘in charge’ at the moment).

So, yes, I do think that global warming, over-fishing, environmental degradation etcetera are serious problems. And, yes, I do believe that biodiversity will continue to suffer from us humans expanding our footprint and, in a sense, overpopulating the world indeed. I also believe that mankind will be confronted with more regional crises and disasters, both natural (especially weather-related) as well as man-made (such as the current crisis in the Middle East) – or a combination of both (think of the increased frequency of hurricanes). I am also skeptical (very skeptical actually) as to mankind’s capacity to manage such crises. But so I do not believe in a soon-to-come dinosaur-like extinction of our species because of climate change, disease, a supervolcano eruption or an asteroid crashing into our planet (i.e. extinction through one of the four commonly advanced causes of the mass extinction of dinosaurs (and 70% of all other living species at the time) some 66 million years ago) or, as Malthus predicted it, from generalized hunger. Frankly, I think mankind will be able to produce the resources it needs. So what do I believe then?

I think we will end up having to share our planet with 10 billion others indeed. I also believe that this crowded world will have many good things (even more good things than today, although I cannot imagine the next generation will be able to improve the current mountain-bike designs :-)). However, it will also have its fair share of Big Issues, and I think our/my generation has not done much to make it easier for our children and grandchildren to manage these Big Issues – or even to prepare them for it.

That being said, I also realize that, unlike my parents, my generation has not had to live through a world war or so. I can only hope the world of my children and grandchildren will – at the very least – be as good as mine. Whether or not that will be so will depend on whether or not the generation of our children and grandchildren will turn out to be better managers than ‘my’ generation. That may or may not be the case. In any case, I think the world is much less malleable than we all implicitly assume it to be: a lot of it is probably just pure chaos in my view (and that may be a good thing actually). Hence, they will probably have as much trouble as we have (had?) to find levers for well-intended collective change.

As Gandhi (and others) famously said: if you want to improve the world, you need to start with yourself. So let’s ask ourselves how well we did in that regard and – when pushed on the question of what we did to make this world a better place (as we are obviously) – advice generation Y and Z to consider that question as well.

On climate change and global warming

The flash floods in Uttarakhand (and in other areas of the Himalayas – but the burst of a glacial lake made things worse in Uttarakhand) and the increasing number of freak weather phenomena in Europe and the US (such as Europe’s extraordinary cold spell this year, or this year’s record number of hurricanes in the US) have given the issue of global warming a prominence which it did not enjoy before. While that is good in itself, I do not expect it to have any real impact on international and national policies. As one expert puts it: “At its root, global warming is the product of the decisions and behavior of 6.5 billion human beings.” While this expert (his name is Anthony Leiserowitz), after having stated this obvious fact, then passionately makes the case for some kind of New World Order, I think it is entirely unrealistic to expect these decisions and behavior to change over the next decades.

While I was travelling from Nepal to Belgium a few days ago (do politicians sincerely believe that a tax on aviation emissions – the IPCC has estimated that aviation is responsible for around 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change – will change the travel plans of people like me – or you?), I had a pleasant conversation with a representative of a major European lamp producer (yes, lamps: the bulbs you are using to light your house). He just came back from a visit to a factory in Chandigarh, India, to which his company had outsourced the production of their energy-saving light bulbs. The man obviously liked his job – a quality which I greatly admire: because a job is so important in one’s life, I think one should really be passionate about it. That being said, the economist in me quickly grasped the irony: we, in Europe, are now saving energy by using energy-saving light bulbs produced in an Indian sweatshop. What’s the energy saved here – if we’re looking at it from a global perspective?

This is obviously only possible because the costs of international transportation have come down so much, and because markets have effectively become world markets. Even labor has become an international commodity now, as anyone who has traveled through a Middle Eastern airport will have noticed: these airports would not be there if it weren’t for the cheap Asian workers they are exploiting – people who are separated for their country and family for at least a year or even more.

I should write a separate post on this but it is clear there are societal costs to the increased international mobility of labor at both ends: domestically we lose jobs and suffer high unemployment – a key ingredient of social malaise – while the temporary or permanent immigrants do earn good money but struggle with integration and other psychological issues and – in the majority of cases – also leave a gap in the social fabric back home (as I live in Nepal, I could tell more than one story about this – but then this post would be way too long). But, again, humanity – despite all of the forms of collective action it is capable of – will not reverse globalization: it does not want to – and even if wanted to, it can’t.

Indeed, the trends we have observed since the end of the second World War will not change. The costs of international transportation will continue to decrease (and, if they would increase – because of rising energy prices or because of some kind of international tax (no, don’t think about it) – they will not increase significantly) and markets – for products, for capital and, importantly, for labor – will become more, not less, integrated. More importantly, no international deliberations will be able to request or force developing countries to not become developed: cities like Mumbai or Kathmandu (or Kabul, if you want a more outlandish example of a burgeoning urban area) will continue to grow, and the ‘middle class’ in all of Asia’s and Africa’s countries will continue to grow and want what they want: a refrigerator, a TV, and a motorbike (or, better, a little car). That will continue to fuel global warming.

European or American politicians are utterly unable to do anything about this. So, yes, the ice sheets covering the Antarctic and Greenland, and the Arctic sea ice, will continue to melt. And, yes, many island nations (the Maldives, the Kiribati islands, the Seychelles,…) and even some nations (Bangladesh – and large parts of Holland!) are under threat. And, yes, there will be more disasters like the ‘Himalayan tsunami’ of June this year (which killed thousands), or like the tornadoes in the US (which killed dozens), or like the floods in Central Europe – which damaged thousands of homes.

Global warming and its consequences are here already – and it’s only going to get worse. As usual, some will be more affected than others. But history has never been equitable – and humanity has never been able to change its course. We will soon be 7 billion. It will only get worse.

Roads and development in Nepal

Much of the donor money which was spent in Nepal after the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was spent on infrastructure. For tourists, the effort to build roads stands out, as many classic trekking routes have lost their charm because of the road-building drive. Indeed, it is not so nice to trek along a dirt road, or to see jeeps on dirt roads nearby bring the locals to the same place as the ancient trail you’re following – but in an hour or so, while you will be walking all day. According to the third Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS-III), which was carried out last year, not less than 94% of the Nepali population in rural areas now has access to a dirt road within 30 minutes. Access to basic health care centers, primary schools and other facilities also confirm a huge improvement since 2005/2006 (i.e. when the second survey (NLSS-II) took place).

The quality of these dirt roads is abominable. I biked along such roads between Trisuli and Gorkha, thereby avoiding the main highway Kathmandu to Pokhara (which I find too dangerous for biking), and then I also cycled further west of Beni and Baglung, in an attempt to cycle to Dhorpatan and then on to Dolpo. In the Indian Himalayas (I’ve biked through Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Ladakh and Kashmir), I would easily cover 100 to 150 km per day. Not here: 50 km per day is a very good average. It’s not the gradient of the slopes: the Manali-Leh road has, most probably, the longest and steepest climbs in the world and, while they’re tough, I don’t mind. It’s the poor quality of the roads. Nepal’s dirt roads are extremely badly constructed: bulldozer roads really – extremely rocky, extremely muddy, or extremely sandy: it is difficult to move on them (the Census reveals that the population qualifies about a third of the roads as vehicle-impassable) and, if you do, it is at the expense of a lot of material wear and tear. Only jeeps, trucks and 4WD buses can go on them, and they break down too. As for me, I had to replace the whole drivetrain after the ride.

But so the roads are there, and they do bring cheap rice and other consumables from the plains. They also bring satellite dishes and TVs, along with other household investment items – but I am mentioning the satellite dishes and TVs in particular because of their cultural impacts. These cultural impacts are not very different from what happened in my home country forty or fifty years ago. My father was the first to buy a black-and-white TV, and the whole neighborhood came to gape at what they presumed to be the American lifestyle. They saw it in color later, which led them to buy their own TV. So that is happening here too (but the black-and-white phase is skipped of course). However, as an economist, I am more interested in the economic effect of these roads – i.e. the effect of the cheap rice and other consumables. What does it do to a village?

Economists tell us that better connectivity – i.e. not only roads but also mobile telephony – integrates markets and reduces transaction costs: roads make it cheaper to ‘export’ or ‘import’ goods and services from one region to another, and the phone makes sure you are not taking too much risk when doing so because price differentials (the price of a bag of rice in the nearest town for example) can be ascertained instantly. There are no surprises any more. Hence, farmers in the hills and mountains can sell their surpluses of rice, wheat or barley – or whatever they are able to sell – and buy cheaper… well… cheaper rice and wheat basically. Huh? How does that work?

It doesn’t. Cheap imports do reduce the incentive to produce food stuffs locally. It is a well-known fact that cheap food imports (e.g. cheap wheat flour) have a negative impact on local food production, changing consumption patterns (who eats manioc in Kinshasa nowadays?) and introducing dependency in the process. Economists do not look at that as a problem. On the contrary, it is part of a process of economic specialization during which countries or regions exploit their comparative or relative advantages vis-à-vis each other. Let me recall the basics of that theory: comparative advantage refers to the ability to produce a particular good or service at a lower marginal and opportunity cost over another. There is no need to have an absolute production advantage. Even if one country (or region) is more efficient in the production of all goods than the other (i.e. if it has an absolute advantage in all goods – which is probably the case in Nepal: whatever product we are considering, it is cheaper to produce it in the plains than in the mountains), both countries or regions will still gain by trading with each other, as long as they have different relative efficiencies. For example, if, using machinery, a worker in one country can produce both shoes and shirts at 6 per hour, and a worker in a country with less machinery can produce either 2 shoes or 4 shirts in an hour, each country can gain from trade because their internal trade-offs between shoes and shirts are different. The less-efficient country has a comparative advantage in shirts, so it finds it more efficient to produce shirts and trade them to the more-efficient country for shoes.

That’s the theory. So what products or services should be produced in the hills and mountain zones? What is their comparative advantage? In practice, the theory of comparative advantages and/or specialization does not work. If anything, it is labor which is being exported. Indeed, most people in the more remote areas are happy to stop cultivating their land, and families push their men and sons (and their able young women as well) to seek some kind of employment in Kathmandu or, even better, somewhere abroad. Yes, the equivalent of the American Dream in Nepal is to become a dish-washer in Dubai, a security guard in Kabul or a nanny in London (of course, women are also being offered more sinister possibilities for employment abroad: trafficking of women is a huge issue in Nepal).

The roads make it easy: your beloved ones can use them to visit you during the weekend when in Kathmandu (it only takes a dreadful journey on bus and/or by jeep), or once or twice a year when abroad.

The statistics don’t lie. The Census data shows that, over the past decade, Nepal’s population has grown from 23.1 to 26.5 million people but that, at the same time, not less than 27 districts (out of a total of 75 districts) recorded negative population growth during the last decade. [The Census uses the same nice economic euphemism: negative growth. Decrease doesn’t sound right I guess.] These 27 districts are all hill and/or mountain districts and, hence, the conclusion is quite straightforward: the newly built roads in the hills and mountain zone make it easy to leave. There are 17 districts with a population of less than 150,000 now, and they account for 6% of the population only (1.6 out of 26.5 million). All of the districts in the mountain zone (except for Sindhupalchok north of Kathmandu valley) have a population of less than 200,000 people. A quarter of the population now lives in a town (defined as a village of more than 20,000 people) or one of the larger municipalities.

The Census also took stock of the above-mentioned phenomenon of seeking employment abroad or in the capital: in one into four households, one or more members of the household are absent or working abroad indeed. The total number of such absentee family members adds up to close to 2 million people, as opposed to about 760,000 only a decade ago (i.e. in 2001). These people are currently the main breadwinners of Nepal – even if they’re not present in the country.

It is an inconvenient fact that economic development is, more often than not, disruptive and, hence, comes at the expensive of huge social-economic costs. Some win, some lose: one can only hope there are more winners than losers. In Nepal, however, the social costs of development seem to be enormous. Grandmothers or uncles and aunts take care of kids, as their father or mother is trying to earn some money for the whole family in Kathmandu or abroad. As they grow older, they will be sent to a private boarding school – if the family can afford it – because that’s the gateway to a job in Kathmandu or abroad. In the worst case, they will only make the army of the unemployed swell even larger. While Nepal’s social fabric has not broken down – as yet – the current political quagmire would seem to indicate that the system may be close to it.

But so what do the locals think of it all? That question is easy to answer. All of the people I met think the new roads are good: they bring development. So who am I to criticize?