Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Buddha

Kathmandu

A version of this article appeared in the October 2014 edition of Echelon magazine. This version only includes photographs taken by me in 1985.

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All those trekking boots leave a huge environmental footprint however lightly a trekker treads.

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The first hippies arrived in Kathmandu round about 1967. Numbers increased as western interest in eastern mysticism and exoticism grew in the west, in part thanks to the Beatles. A Kathmandu street south of Durbar Square called Jochen Tole became “Freak Street”. The hippies tended to spend more time interacting with the local population than traditional sightseeing tourists.

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Today, the neighborhood of Thamel is still Kathmandu’s main tourist haunt, packed with guesthouses, restaurants, shops, and bookstores. Freak Street is still there in a different form and online booking sites offer 114, hotels in the area.

 

Tourism is a major source of income for most of the people in Kathmandu, with several hundred thousand visitors arriving annually. Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world visit Kathmandu’s religious sites such as Pashupatinath, Swayambhunath, Boudhanath and Lumbini, the supposed birthplace of the Lord Buddha.

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Has Nepal benefited from tourism? The direct contribution of tourism to GDP was Nepali Rs 67bn (4.3 % of total GDP) in 2012, and is forecast to rise to Rs112bn in 2023. In 2012, tourism directly supported 553,500 jobs (3.6% of total employment). This is expected to rise to 829,000 jobs (4.2% of total employment) in 2023.

 

I visited Kathmandu a long time ago, in 1981. I visited again in 1985. The changes I observed during that short time were a sign of the negative effects of tourism. I will offer a little anecdotal evidence. On my 1981visit, the place seemed relaxed and safe, with little motor traffic. On my return in 1985, the traffic was much worse and there was a discomfiting edginess in the air. It was impossible to walk around the city without being hassled by young men selling drugs.

 

The first approach was “Want some grass?” A polite “No thank you” would raise the stakes to “Want some cocaine?” Rejection of the cocaine option would elicit an offer of heroin. It got to a point where I angrily told one pusher to leave me alone. Those may not have been my exact words. He in turn angrily told me to get out of his country.

 

Although Kathmandu in 1981 was no longer the hippie-haven it had been in the 1970s (events in Afghanistan and Iran had put the kibosh on cheap overland travel) there was still a residue of hippiness. By 1985, the hippie delusion had finally gone sour and declined from grass to heroin.

 

Nepal was a closed country until 1950. In 1956, air transportation was established and the Tribhuvan Highway, between Kathmandu and Raxaul (on the border with India) was started. I crossed from India at Sunauli, which is now a venue for violent scams. The Nepalese government set up organisations in Kathmandu in the 1950s to promote tourism. Tourists started to trickle in. Today tourism is the most important aspect of the country’s economy. From a mere 6,179 tourists in 1961-62, the number jumped to 491,504 in 1999-2000. With the end of the Maoist insurgency in 2009, there was a significant rise of 509,956 tourist arrivals. Tourist numbers have further increased since the country discarded the monarchy and became a Democratic Republic. Today, Kathmandu boasts several five-star hotels like Hyatt Regency, Hotel Yak & Yeti, the Everest Hotel, Hotel Radisson, Hotel De L’Annapurna, and the Shangri-La Hotel. Some of the five-star hotels have casinos.

Despite that, one could feel wandering in parts of the city that one was back in medieval times. Some dwellings have living accommodation upstairs and cattle on the ground floor – an integral cowshed rather than an integral garage. Butcher shops have rows of shins and hooves standing outside like shoes in a hotel waiting to be polished.

On both of my visits, I left Kathmandu to go on organised treks in the mountains. In 1981, this was a gentle stroll in the Annapurna region accompanied by a BBC crew making a Holiday programme.

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The 1985 trek was more strenuous, going close to Everest Base Camp and camping at Thyangboche Monastery. We had started the trip by flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla in a Cessna light aircraft. A programme titled Most Extreme Airports, broadcast on The History Channel in 2010, rated Tenzing-Hillary Airport as the most dangerous airport in the world. On arrival, it seemed as if the plane was just flying straight into a mountain.

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The return trip was worse. We arrived back at Lukla to find that the Nepalese royal family had commandeered all the planes in the country for some holiday junket. (In 2001, the heir to the throne, Prince Dipendra, killed nine members of his family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, and himself). We had to wait a few days until an army helicopter came to rescue us. To show my appreciation, I gave a bottle of duty,-free Johnny Walker to the pilot. I had not expected him to drink it as he was flying. The helicopter was zigzagging through huge walled chasms of rock. The pilot was cheerily turning around to chat and taking huge gulps of whisky.

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That trek was made more strenuous because what was described as “freak weather conditions”. Heavier rains than usual had caused mountain lakes to flood and landslides had blocked the usual trails. I still have nightmares about one particular stretch. I had to inch my way along a very narrow path feeling sand dropping on my head from above and the ground crumbling under my feet into the precipitous ravine way below. I realise now that the presence of freaks like myself may have contributed to “freak weather conditions”.

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Since the 1970s, 97% of all visitors to Nepal have been trekkers. Today there are more than 900 legitimate trekking companies in Kathmandu. All those trekking boots leave a huge environmental footprint however lightly a trekker treads. In theory, the government grants protection to the 13% of Nepalese land designated as National Parks. The Sagarmatha National Park, which includes Everest, suffers from pollution and deforestation directly related to the impact of tourism. Sherpas use local forests as part of their subsistence lifestyles and management of their tourist lodges. One trekking tourist in Nepal can account for five kilograms of wood a day.

 

Nepal has little in the way of easily-extractable natural resources. Its greatest asset is its spectacular scenery and tourism has been described as an extractive industry. In particular, Nepal has Mount Everest, also known in Nepal as Sagarmatha and in Tibet as Chomolungma. At 8,84,8 meters above sea level, it is Earth’s highest mountain.

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Tourism brought changes to the Everest region in particular, making it one of the wealthiest areas in Nepal. In 2012, Mount Everest expeditions contributed over 911 million rupees to Nepal’s economy. Many Sherpas have enjoyed prosperity through tourism-related employment with jobs for trekking agents, tour operators, sirdars (trekking field managers) high altitude climbers, porters and cooks.

 

Mount Everest itself is getting crowded and littered with abandoned tents, sleeping bags, oxygen cylinders, coffee makers and gear to watch movies inside tents – even the corpses of climbers who never made it down add to the refuse. All trekkers need a government permit but there are currently no limits or quotas on permits issued by the government of Nepal to climb Everest. In the spring of 2012, thirty permits were issued for foreign Mount Everest expedition teams comprising 325 climbers, 358 high-altitude climbing Sherpas and 230 kitchen staff. Nepalese tourism authorities said recently that climbers must bring down 18 pounds of trash when they descend.

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Tourism has undoubtedly enabled many Nepalese to improve their lives. Some research has suggested that families who are involved in tourism are likely to achieve more in education. Tourism-related funds have contributed towards schools being built in the area by NGOs such as the Himalayan Trust. In many villages, tourism has helped improve water supply, but this can lead to greater inequality, as only those villages near tourist centres have improved infrastructure.

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Tourism brings an insidious corruption. Trekking along  a remote mountain trail, I encountered a young woman carrying a small baby on her back. she looked so careworn and downtrodden that I felt deeply sorry for her. The only way I could think of to help was to give her some money. She was clearly offended- she was not a beggar and she had not asked this foreign interloper for money. All along the trails, small children ask for pens. If you say you have not got a pen, they ask for sweets. If you have not got sweets, they ask for money.  Even in an urban setting this can happen. A group of children was going through this routine near the Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur. Our local guide scolded us for giving anything: “Our children must learn to fend for themselves, not learn to be beggars”.

In spite of the efforts of NGOs and the money coming in from tourism, Nepal still ranks 138th in the world in overall human development. Half of the Nepalese population lives in poverty. Poverty in Nepal is concentrated in rural villages and among lower castes and ethnic minorities. Villages are often located in remote, mountain areas that are geographically isolated and far from basic services. Rural healthcare services are at best rudimentary, with government health posts often going unstaffed and undersupplied for years.

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Philanthropy – the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 8 2014.

I am not sure who originally came up with the phrase “Philanthropy – the last refuge of the scoundrel”. I first encountered it in an article published in October 2012 by the novelist Howard Jacobson on the subject of Jimmy Savile. Savile used his reputation as a philanthropist to sexually abuse children. I recently encountered a use of the phrase in a book by James O’Toole: Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, published in 2005. James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver. O’Toole shows how a range of people embarked on quests that led them closer to achieving a good life based on awareness and values rather than riches and fame.

Aristotle: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

 

I recently became embroiled in an argument on Facebook about Otara and Odels. Someone who thought he was supporting my point of view wrote that Otara should be spending her philanthropic funds on people rather than dogs. Compassion is not a zero-sum commodity. Anyone who loves animals is likely to have empathy for people. People who are cruel to animals – GW Bush, Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred West, Prabhakaran- are likely to be cruel to people. A friend of mine who is engaged in practical hands-on animal welfare was sceptical when Otara embarked upon Embark, predicting that it was a publicity stunt. I chided her for her cynicism but there has been criticism of how Embark operated. We will see how it goes now that Otara has more time to personally supervise it.

 

Noisy Philanthropy

 

I do have issues with celebrity philanthropy. The late Paul Newman raised $150m for various good causes. He explained a dilemma: “One thing that bothers me is what I call ‘noisy philanthropy’. Philanthropy ought to be anonymous but in order for it to be effective, you have to be noisy. Because when a shopper walks up to the shelf and says, ‘shall I take this one or that one?’ you’ve got to let her know that the money goes to a good purpose. So there goes all your anonymity and the whole thing you really cherish”.

 

Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

When I was working with my cynical friend on an animal welfare campaign, her daughter had the brilliant idea of approaching ethical philosopher Peter Singer for support. Peter Singer has a motto: “make a difference”. He certainly made a difference to the way I live my life. Way back in the 1970s, I read articles by Singer in the New York Review of Books that made me see things in a radical new light. His subsequent books Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation reinforced the message of the articles. Singer argued that the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary. He popularized the term “speciesism”, to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals. I was rather disappointed when Singer asked me to remove his name from my mailing list. He was not interested in giving painless direct help for the welfare of animals by simply lending his name.

Outsourcing Compassion

In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Singer argued that it is morally indefensible that some people enjoy surplus abundance while others starve. When one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will not have the same moral weight as saving another person’s life. Singer claims to donate 25% of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF. He acknowledges that there are problems with ensuring that charitable donations are effectively spent.

In Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel, The Dog, the main character, X, is concerned about the working conditions of construction workers in Dubai. He deals with his concern by paying 37% of his gross salary to Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. This sounds like a big sacrifice but it is a comfortable way for X to delegate his conscience. O’Neill makes blatant the bad faith of Singer’s thinking. Singer’s method of giving means that it does not matter whether the money does anything to relieve suffering or poverty but it certainly boosts the giver.

 

Bono – Mrs. Jellyby in a Ten-Gallon hat

Novelist Paul Theroux has noted the similarity between the secular saint known as Bono and the philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby tries to save starving Africans by financing coffee growing, making pianoforte legs for export and bullying people to give her money for those purposes. Theroux wrote in the New York Times on December 15 2005: “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.”

Bono says at U2 concerts, “We don’t want your money, just your voice.” Bono wants you to give the government your money in taxes and spend it for him. Bono’s ONE organisation wants Western governments to spend tax dollars on development and aid programmes. Many voices, those of William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo the most eloquent among them, have argued that aid does more harm than good to the countries receiving it.

Theroux taught in Malawi as a volunteer Peace Corps teacher 45 years ago and knows the country well. Despite large amounts of financial aid, Malawi “has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.” “I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens.”

In 2008, Bono’s ONE Campaign raised $14,993,873 in public donations — of which only $184,732 (or just over one percent) was distributed to charities. More than $8 million went to salaries for executives and employees at ONE.

In 2008, New Internationalist readers chose Bono as their Artful Dodger of the year. For many years, Bono’s home country of Ireland had not taxed the income of “artists”. Then the Government decided to set a cap of $200,000 a year – a fortune for most artists, but not for U2. Ireland is still a corporate tax haven and Bono would have done well enough had he decided to stay home. The Netherlands offered a more attractive deal, because of its link with offshore tax-havens in the Antilles. It seems that Bono wants ordinary people to pay through their taxes for his causes but does not want to pay tax himself.

Geldof

 

I was one of those caught up in the mass hysteria generated by Live Aid in 1985. I responded to Bob Geldof’s exhortations to pay up to save the starving Ethiopians. Live Aid turned Geldof from a has-been pop performer into a global charity superstar. Not everybody was impressed. World Music champion Andy Kershaw wrote of the Wembley concert: “It became clear that this was another parade of the same old rock aristocracy in a concert for Africa, organised by someone who, while advertising his concern for, and sympathy with, the continent didn’t see fit to celebrate or dignify the place by including on the Live Aid bill a single African performer.”

Alex de Waal estimates that the relief effort may have cut the death toll by between a quarter and a half. However, critics say that NGOs were complicit in the Ethiopian government’s “resettlement” of 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others. Donor governments and mainstream relief NGOs turned a blind eye while government officials raided refugee camps. This was a totalitarian scheme masquerading as a humanitarian effort. The conservative estimate of those dying en route is 50,000. MSF’s (Médecins Sans Frontières) estimate is double that. Asked about allegations that 100,000 had died in the transfers, Geldof said, “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”

Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. Whilst making a fortune for charity Geldof has also shown an aptitude for making himself rich. One of his companies, Ten Alps Communications is Britain’s fastest growing media, entertainment and marketing company. The company deals with some unsavoury allies, creating “branded environments” for BP, Glaxo Smithkline and Microsoft, and even the British Foreign Office. When Geldof tried to relive Live Aid with Live8, Nestlé, BAE Systems and Rio Tinto sponsored some of the concerts. Nestlé has been accused of benefiting from the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa by selling more milk substitute products; Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining corporation, has been condemned for human rights and environmental abuses; BAE Systems, according to Mike Lewis of the UK’s Campaign against Arms Trade, is “fuelling conflicts across Africa”.

Many people involved in the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign were not happy with Geldof. He chose to hold Live 8, without consulting the MPH organisers, on the same day in 2005 as the main MPH demonstration in Edinburgh, stealing most of the media coverage. Geldof praised Tony Blair and GW Bush for saving millions of African lives and promoted the Washington Consensus of free trade, foreign direct investment and privatisation.

 

 As with Live Aid in 1985, Geldof was criticised for not including any African musicians. At the final press conference that concluded the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the South African activist Kumi Naidoo acted as spokesperson for Make Poverty History gave the coalition’s verdict that: “The world has roared, but the G8 has responded with a whisper.” Geldof turned on Naidoo in front of the assembled media, attacking his statement as “a disgrace”. African civil society representatives went on television afterwards to make public statements dissociating themselves from Geldof’s remarks.
Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was a practical philanthropist. He knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. Carnegie established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death and he set the template for other philanthropists through his well-written thoughts on the theory and practice of charity. Carnegie urged the wealthy to provide for themselves and their dependents and then make it their “duty” to use the rest of their funds for their communities. He warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

 

This echoes The Buddha’s aphorism about the wealthy man who enjoys his riches without sharing, digging his own grave. Those of us who are not wealthy would be advised to give directly to those in need rather than outsourcing to huge corporations or overweening rock stars. Make a difference to the poor not to the rich.

 

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