Kathmandu – From Nepal’s Yeti-infested Himalayan peaks to her lowland, tiger-ridden jungles, two thousand people embracing trees do not seem a lot. More Nepalis are on motor bikes between my home and the airport. Yet the tree-huggers outnumber their older, decrepit countrymen selling hashish in the tourist quarter of Thamel, and vastly surpass under-attended rallies of Maoists, who were almost completely thrown out of office by the voters last autumn.
So what? It is supposedly enough tree-huggers to win an entry in the Guinness Book of Records: the current title-holder, Portland, Oregon, could not even muster a thousand last summer. Moreover, most of the Nepali team were school kids, in their typically crisp uniforms with neckties. Nobody has been seen in Portland wearing a tie since the Johnson Administration.
What should today’s thinking conservative make of all this? Well, efforts to enter the Guinness Book ought not to matter: Either they keep hoi polloi harmlessly busy, or if the attempt is fatal it is commemorated in the Darwin Awards.
As for tree hugging itself, we must remember Prince Philip’s acid rejoinder when some dippy reporterette asked if he was environmentally “green.” “Lifelong I have been a conservationist,” he over-articulated between clenched teeth. “I have never been a bunny hugger!” She probably missed the point.
Imaginative conservatives, and even mere thinking ones with only one or two candlepower, are conservationists, even if they do not consciously follow the model of Saint Russell and plant trees incessantly. Nobody, frankly, hugs many bunnies because they either scamper away into Bambi’s forest, or they crap on your shirt. Trees are another matter.
Conservatives like trees. They keep us from seeing or hearing the neighbours. They shelter birds, which fill the air with joyous song and despoil BMWs. But we do not embrace them: Hugs we save for our children, our spouses, or when nobody is looking, the more comely or virile servants. Moreover, conservatives do not hug trees because it might give people The Wrong Idea, namely that we are liberals of some kind, and are saving up for the prefrontal lobotomy.
Hence the problem of being seen to love trees, if not embracing them, is a problem of appearances. Nepalis do not bother with such things. Many are sweet, sincere and uncomplicated. Many are religious and translate their syncretic mix of Hinduism and Buddhism into a respect for nature: only Nepal has an annual holiday honouring street dogs, which are garlanded with orange chrysanthemums and fed little treats. Then, confused, they are dumped back onto rubbish heaps: It is all karma.
In Nepal, trees are winning. A clever development programme has reversed Nepal’s two percent annual deforestation in the 1990s, to about two percent woodland growth since 2005. The winning approach gives villagers property rights over the fruits of the forest and turns them into policemen protecting timber from their own gangster-politicians. This makes immediate sense to any married couple of hard-scrabble Nepali farmers, who even if illiterate are almost certainly sending their daughters to school in the best uniforms they can afford. But you do not see them in the forest hugging trees: (a) because they are busy farming, and (b) they are not idiots. For that you need Western tax-dollars.
Around seven percent of Nepali GDP, half of their government’s expenditure, comes from foreign aid. The rest comes from remittances from Nepali workers overseas, poor farms, and nearly a million tourists. Of that seven percent, perhaps between 25% and 50% is stolen by Nepali officials, and despite that, Western diplomats fight like cats to spend more. Western aid to Nepal only dipped a decade ago, when our love of supporting corrupt Third World officials was only temporarily surpassed by our desire to slaughter Middle Easterners who, back then at least, meant us no harm.
When not busy killing, we do love to squander. A long-time Western aid official in Nepal recounts donor meetings, when one complains of a government ministry not keeping its reformist agreements, and how a foreign junket will be postponed as punishment. “Before the coffee is cold,” he explains, “the other Western donors are out the French doors and over the garden wall, promising the miscreant bureaucrats that if they take new money on offer there will be no discipline – when aid comes from their country, all meals are ice cream and bed-time never arrives.” So attractive is Nepal as a diplomatic post, and so eager are Western governments to shovel aid money anywhere possible, that the already-crooked Nepali bureaucrats are bribed to steal and squander even more.
Yet sometimes it works. Forests are growing, and while adult literacy is only 57%, for age 15-24 it is nearly 90% for males and 80% for females. More than 90% of each attends primary school. No figures on necktie-wearing are available.
The big international problem is the Western bureaucratic urgency to spend foreign aid no matter what, whether it is stolen or squandered or brings heartening success. Being selective in what gets funded would cut budgets overall, and still free up money for successful programmes. But do not hold your breath.
This phenomenon is well described by the Public Choice School of economists, who analyse the incentives and disincentives of government as if it were a business. For several reasons macro and micro, government wants its budgets to grow, no matter what. As World Bank officials apologised to me when I recommended suspending loans to Ukraine in 1998, “We should, but that would disrupt our spending schedule, our overseas assignments roster and our promotions timetable.” Your tax money is relatively unimportant, like results.
Nepal’s student tree-huggers are a different phenomenon, as are the grown-ups who organise the event, drive them into the forest in SUVs, give them a snack afterwards and so forth. This is the social legacy of Western foreign aid. Bar one, all of my neighbours are employed by various aid projects, and frequently I cannot fall asleep before two a.m. for them all singing Kumbayah.
White, tan or brown they all dress identically, in cleaner versions of hippie shirts and sandals. They all dine exclusively on curried vegetables rendered unidentifiable in a blender. They all fret that using the blender, for eight seconds or so, hastens global warming and the death of the planet. Only my downstairs neighbour, Sariat, is spared: he spent several years as a waiter in Southern California, serving fusion-food to rich ideologues, and consequently returned as an almost compulsive entrepreneur and imaginative conservative.
But most of our aid-funded neighbours are die-hard goo-goos (1920s American slang for believers in Good Government). As Upton Sinclair observed, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”
The world capital of this phenomenon is Rwanda, where nearly half of GDP comes from foreign aid and the social effects are astonishing. A policeman stopped me at the airport for the crime of carrying a plastic bag – they are banned in Rwanda. He let me off with a warning and gave me a legal and environmentally-friendly paper bag, printed with a government slogan to save the planet. I later discovered that no Rwandan under the age of fifteen can remember plastic bags or ever tasted fresh bread (apart from the children of bakers) – bread goes rapidly stale in paper bags, and it is all the young have ever known.
Every Utne Reader’s pipe-dreams are law in Rwanda. Were Al Gore darker he would be Rwanda’s president-for-life, instead of their de facto president-for-life Paul Kigame. But it is not all roseate Progressive dawn there. Kigame is using foreign aid to build a police-state of Orwellian proportions, as the pro-big-government donors look on adoringly. Rwandans cannot get a driver’s license without approvals from umpteen levels of Citizen’s Committees, all controlled by Kigame’s people. But he sings Kumbayah in a beautiful baritone.
I arrived in Rwanda and was met by a cynical, French, ex-colonial soldier who said, “You hev picked a good time to veesit, mon ami! We air – how you say? – between genocides!” Pray not.