Development Projects in Tibet

From HIMAL, Volume 6, Issue 1 (JAN/FEB 1993)

Were Tibet a developing country rather than a sullen Autonomous Region (U-Tsang and a truncated Kham), the prevailing mantras in seminars and gostis in Lhasa in 1992 would all be about integrated hill (and high plains) development, the girl child, or the the myriads of other development cliches that are externally attached. Land Cruisers bearing foreigners bearing gifts would jostle each other on the way to the Potala to discuss sustainable development programmes. The area around the Jokhang would probably be the preserve of the local super-elites living off realestate values and commission-agenting. The area might also have hosted the expatriate colony — Lhasa’s own Dhanmondi.

Developing Tibet?
A Survey of International
Development Projects
by Ann Forbes and Carole McGranahan
Cultural Survival, Cambridge The International Campaign for Tibet,
Washington D.C.
May 1992, U$S.95
ISBN0 939521 474

Instead, the talk in Lhasa and among friends of Tibet worldwide is not of development. It is almost entirely political, centered around issues of refugees, the Great Return, the Hart stranglehold. While each of these issues is important, too little attention has been given to the economic issues that are of concerns to the six million Tibetans who remain inside Tibet. (There are about 1.21akhs in exile.) The economic issues that need to be discussed include those of trade (with the south), the free trade zones, and of development focus.

This book by Ann Forbes and Carole’ McGranahan, while clear on the unfair treatment meted out to Tibet by the Chinese, is low on polemics as it goes about its main concern, which is to describe the work of the major foreign-funded development projects in Tibet, particularly in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. They take up bilateral, multilateral and NGO projects in Tibet and provide project descriptions, objectives, funding and other information.

This book is probably one of the first available to a general audience outside China that takes up questions of development in Tibet. And surprisingly we find a large number and variety of international development agencies (multilateral, bilateral and NGOs) already working within Tibet.

The “largest and longest project in Tibetan history”, it turns out, is the five-year World Food Programme plan which goes under the rubric “One River, Two Stream”. The plan is to’ spend US 17.7 million (US 6.7 million WFP contribution, the rest Beijing’s) to develop the Lhasa River Valley with enhanced agriculture, animal husbandry and forestry. UNFPA and UNICEF are engaged in a U$ 2.2 million project aimed at maternal child care/ family planning, while UNDP and the Italian Government are helping a geothermal project get started with US 13 million.

The authors report of serious environmental and cultural concern in Lhasa with the Yamdrok Y umtso hydropower station that uses waters from a lake 120 km to the south. Apparently, the Panchen Lama was an outspoken opponent of the project, but with his death the main obstacle is gone and lack of information hampers further activism.

Also described are the Woodlands Mountain Institute’s assistance for the establishment of the Chomolongma Nature Preserve in Tibet, which lies adjacent to the Nepali frontier from the Sishapangma area to the Arun River. On the south is the Makalu-Barun Conservation Area which was inaugurated by the Nepali Prime Minister last November. Meanwhile, Wildlife Conservation International, headed by zoologist George Schaller, is working on the Changthang pleateau in the northwest to establish the world’s second largest nature preserve. “The vastness of the reserve will encompass its animals’ migrations,” says Schaller.

We also learn of the Boulder-Lhasa Sister City Project, mired from the start with controversy over doing business with the Chinese. The authors, scrupulously reportorial in their writings, nevertheless imply that the project promoters were “Tibetan Buddhist entrepreneurs” out to make a fast buck. At present, it seems, the Boulder (Colorado) City Council has withdrawn endorsement of the project.

The report provides information on “Chinese/Tibetan Initiatives” whose goals even those following Tibetan affairs might not have been clear about. For example, the International Fund for The Development of Tibet, which cooperates with the China National Research Institute for the Development of Ethnic Areas in raising funds for development projects in Tibet, particularly to accelerate “the transformation of abundant indigenous natural resources into an economic advantage for ethnic minorities who live in the ethnic autonomous areas.” Apparently run with a lot Western public relations savvy, the Fund lists research and consulting services, introduction of capital and technology, and “undertaking exchanges” as its goals. It has recently received a US 25,000 grant from the National Endowment for Democracy of the United States.

On the ethical front, Forbes and McGranahan discuss the old question of whether to work from within or from without. And, rightly, they concede that the choice as to whether to work in Tibet is complex and “there is no ‘right’ answer.” But their position is clear: “Unless people living in the devel op i ng areas are allowed to have say in that development, their resistance to such projects will also eventually undermine the projects’ success.” And, “In a situation like Tibet, the question of who is in control of the country always looms in the background…Though the Chinese Government has given the Tibetans more economic freedoms, the Chinese Communist Party…continues to have the final say in all major social, cultural, political and economic decisions.”

In the discussion that follows the project descriptions, the authors identify the Chinese Government’s proclivity for large-scale, top-down projects premised on increased productivity. The 1980 visit of Hu Yaobang to Tibet did mark a turning point in the Chinese Government’s policies, they write, and there has been an effort at the policy level to improve social, cultural and economic conditions on the Plateau, but these policies have not been effectively implemented by officials.

The authors suggest that foreign projects hire Tibetan-speakers, conduct ethnographic research on a grassroots level, and strive to get a clearer sense of “the exact relationship between exiled Tibetans, the Tibetans living in the village, and government officials in the community and in Lhasa and how this relationship changes over time.”

The book successfully demonstrates “the complexities of international development in Tibet”. It also help remind us that, were it not for 1950 and 1959, Tibet would be a developing country, a member of UNCTAD, the World Bank, the IMF, making the same mistakes that the poor of the world are making the world over. This issues that the authors highlight are those that affect the people the world over. But the Chinese factor, in the end, is the biggest question as far as the development of Tibet is concerned.

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