2013 WFP internship journal


This summer, Kenan is sending rising junior Virginia Dillon to Nepal for an internship at the World Food Programme office in Patan. KIE has built a relationship with this organization through its DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted program. Tune in to this site to hear about Virginia’s experiences throughout her internship.

June 12

Namaste maro sathi,

Nearly two weeks ago now, I left Durham for the Kathmandu Valley to spend ten weeks working at the U.N. World Food Programme’s Nepal Country Office. As a Durham native whose house stands a mere five miles from West Campus, wandering half way across the globe has been a true test of my independence.

After a two-day adjustment period, I began my internship at WFP in the Kathmandu satellite city of Patan, where I am also living. With no observable traffic laws, my walk to work closely resembles what I imagine to be the realized version of Frogger, for those of you acquainted with the 90s video game. Thankfully, Ram the Taxi Driver—my first friend in Nepal—has taught me how to navigate the roads like a true Nepali.

While at WFP, I am working in Monitoring and Evaluations with a team of five highly experienced staff members. Despite receiving a negligible portion of WFP funding, Monitoring and Evaluations functions as one of the programme’s most important divisions, as it is responsible for analyzing the effectiveness and impact of WFP projects. The M&E team publishes reports and circulates them to donors—governments, organizations and individuals—whose funding makes WFP operations possible.

Over the last two years, I have developed a desire to understand the capacity of United Nations agencies and other international institutions to remedy the legal and humanitarian voids left by governments. More generally, through volunteerism, personal relationships and coursework, I have developed an itch to understand how aid of any kind can more effectively service those it aims to assist.

Before leaving for Kathmandu, I began to read a book that had been sitting idly on my shelf for some time. The book, written by New York University economics professor William Easterly, analyzes why Western nations’ aid to “the rest” has been ineffective and harmful. This, of course, is a matter of opinion, but Easterly provided a powerful suggestion to fix the problem. Instead of being “planners,” who promise big plans but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out, aid agencies and individual volunteers alike should strive to be “searchers.” Searchers find ways to make a task specific to the community it is designed to help and feasible in its size. Searchers use a bottom-up approach, allowing aid beneficiaries to inform assistance plans and help implement them.

To this point, my opinion on the effectiveness of aid is rather muddled based on conflicting readings and varied perspectives. In the coming weeks, I hope to better understand WFP’s role in assisting Nepal’s food insecure populations and to observe where the agency sits on the planner to searcher spectrum.

June 19

Despite my short time in Nepal, I’m beginning to acclimate to the cultural norms that feel so peculiar after twenty years in North Carolina. I’m getting better at remembering that, contrary to the logic I’ve always assumed to be true, a nodding head means “no” and a shaking head means “yes.” I’m even becoming an expert at the customary bargaining with shop keepers, proclaiming, “500 rupees is too much, how about 400?”

I was feeling more comfortable with the ins and outs of living in Kathmandu until this weekend, when the political realities of Nepal’s transitioning government became clear during a countrywide Maoist strike that effectively shut down the city.

On a day-to-day basis, the friendliness of the Nepali people and the Valley’s scenic views make it easy to forget that Nepal as a country has a lot to negotiate. Since the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended a decade-long civil conflict and established a multi-party democracy, Nepal has experienced a lengthy stalemate linked to the drafting of a new constitution. Without a constitution, the interim government can not effectively protect or fulfill the rights of its citizens, and the fragmented party system does not seem to be close to reaching a resolution.

In light of Nepal’s political tumult, nation-wide demonstrations of civil unrest, locally known as bandhs, frequently eliminate access to basic services, including transportation. Even people in support of the interim government and its decisions stay off the roads and close their businesses to avoid attracting violent protestors, who often vandalize vehicles and shops owned by defiant Nepalis.

For the first time Sunday, an unstable Nepal was the Nepal I witnessed. The Unified Communist Party of Nepal, known as the Maoists, declared a strike following the announcement of Constituent Assembly elections for November 19 this fall.

While vehicles are prohibited from operating during bandhs, the staff of my hotel assured me that pedestrians avoiding major streets were entirely safe. So, motivated by curiosity and a growling stomach, I decided to take a walk. The usually bustling streets in my neighborhood lacked their typical traffic, with the exception of primarily Western pedestrians. Most shops, businesses and restaurants closed, and the few that remained open did so discreetly, with cracked doors and lights off. Staying far away from the main roads, I did not encounter any protestors, but police in full riot gear patrolled the streets, nonetheless.

In reflecting on Sunday’s bandh, my initial sentiments fluctuated somewhere between amazed and concerned. How could large numbers of Nepalis justify shutting down an entire city over plans to establish a constitution? It seemed backwards to demonstrate in this way.

After further contemplation, I realized the political situation in Nepal exemplifies the importance of understanding its relative development. In many ways, the country isn’t a different place. Rather, it’s a different time.

Living in Kathmandu each day, I see evidence of obstacles to development in disheveled roads, inconsistent electricity, and political conflict. In my work with the World Food Programme, I see the evidence in statistics on food insecurity, gender disparities and barriers to education. Nepal, a low-income, food deficit country, ranks at 157 out of 187 countries on the 2011 Human Development Index, but the countries at the top of the Index did not avoid the issues Nepal now experiences; they simply faced them earlier.

Understanding Nepal’s potential in the context of relative development gives added meaning to World Food Programme projects, too. Nepal’s political and social issues very much affect the activities of WFP and other non-governmental organizations, but the reverse is also true. Humanitarian agencies target Nepal’s most vulnerable populations, adding further considerations for planning and implementing projects to the already unfavorable circumstances of nation-wide political and social unrest. Knowing this, WFP must intervene purposefully so that its initiatives do not cause additional harm and contribute to the environment of harmony and prosperity intended for Nepal.

June 26

I have a confession.

The picture of Hindu holy men on the front of page of this blog—I paid for it. It was a set-up similar to taking pictures with Cinderella or Mickey Mouse at Disney World, a seemingly crass but appropriate comparison. The priests, sadhus, sat on the outer levels of a designated temple, and Pashupathinat tour guides funneled visitors toward them for photos in exchange for a few rupees. It was the sadhus’ undertaking while on break from meditation and prayer.

Throughout the Pashupathinat grounds, my tour guide and I passed dozens of other sadhus, elaborately-dressed holy men who adopt renunciant lifestyles in pursuit of ultimate enlightenment. I asked my guide about the courtesies of photographing these men, to which he responded, “Just wait. There’s a time for that later.” Sure enough, we came to the specified picture site, where three sadhus posed with other foreigners. The sadhus, like seasoned veterans, told me to sit with them. One sadhu draped his four-foot long heap of dreadlocks over my shoulder, knowing well what constitutes a 50 “like” Facebook picture in the Western world. He wasn’t wrong.

But was I wrong for exchanging money for photos with the priests? Cultures are highly dynamic, given that internal and external forces continuously influence them. I once read a quote about tourism that said “while traveling, take nothing but photographs,” alluding to the need to mindfully respect the cultures we visit. That day, though, I realized there’s a sad irony interlaced in this quote, as it is very possible to exploit other cultures through even photography.

I thought about this concept a lot at Pashupathinat, and it rarely leaves my mind now when taking pictures with human focal points. The tour guide, who didn’t get a cut of the sadhus’ earnings, emphasized that tourist contributions for photos were imperative to the sadhus’ access to food. However, I wasn’t providing sadhus with handouts, the tour guide noted. They were providing a service by taking pictures with me, and I was reimbursing them with rupees. It was like any informal good-for-good exchange.

Given that truth, was it so wrong? After all, the sadhus set their own price, I handed the money directly to them, and they willingly participated in and even encouraged the trade of photos-for-rupees.  In fact, upon Googling “Pashupathinat sadhu,” I realized that those same sadhus I met at that same temple apparently frequent the tourist picture scene.  As a big believer in individual autonomy and the ability—and right— for every person to give their own consent, I frequently take pictures of Nepali people who provide their permission when I ask if I may photograph them. How, then, was taking pictures with autonomous, consenting sadhus any different?

Respect for individuals should factor in to the considerations we weigh as visitors in a new place, but the ethics behind photography and tourism extend beyond a lens. There’s a reason tourists are compelled to take pictures with sadhus, a reason I immediately chose a sadhu picture for my blog, and a reason behind Lonely Planet’s choice of a sadhu as the Nepal guide’s cover model. These pictures capture a part of culture that makes a country intriguing and different from our own. However, they also eclipse the pedestrian truth of modernity at the expense of a stereotype. Nepal is not a country of sadhus or of primitivism, and any attempt to describe the Nepali people in a pithy blog post would be committing the same over-generalization I seek to avoid here. Let’s just say that in Kathmandu Valley, people’s interests and routines are not drastically removed from those I see in the States.

While I’m not convinced that exchanging money for a few pictures with sadhus is misguided, I am sure that photographs of this nature—pictures of foreign people dressed in traditional clothing—do lead to ethical compromise. Sure, sadhus provide compelling insight to Nepal’s vibrant religious populations, and a handful of the most devoted Hindus still follow this renunciant lifestyle today. But by choosing a picture of sadhus to submit alongside my first post, I inadvertently misrepresented the Nepali people, who are certainly not most fittingly depicted by an ash-covered, naked priest with dreadlocks. So, today I leave you with new portraits in effort to share the more ordinary, but no less interesting, actual day-to-day lives of Nepali people.

July 8

Last Thursday, I woke up with an inkling of ex-pat disappointment. It was July fourth, and no one was noticing.

Of all the foreign stereotypes of the United States, few seem more prevalent in Nepal than the perception that Americans are culturally ignorant at best and arrogant at worst. In Kathmandu, the ostentatious American consulate near to one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods serves as a daily reminder of the United States’ comparative wealth.

The weekend prior to Independence Day, I hopped on a domestic flight to visit Nepal’s scenic lakeside town of Pokhara. I traveled with friends I’ve met in Kathmandu, all students who are researching or working here seasonally. One of my traveling companions, a Nepali who studies in New York, was singing to himself – a tune he indentified as Nepal’s national anthem.

Inevitably, a conversation about identity and national values followed Siddhartha’s rendition of “Sayaum Thunga Phulka.” Between the five of us who traveled to Pokhara, we come from four countries and three continents, speak eight languages and our ages range from twenty to twenty-six. This diversity fostered an extremely stimulating discussion, which left us all reflecting on our own backgrounds.

I’ve never been one to buy into the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism and frequently dismiss overbearing patriotism as a sentiment best left to politicians, but today I became acutely aware of the degree to which my identity relies on my nationality and I rely on my identity. To people who are unfamiliar with the U.S., I’m from North Carolina (where?), I study at Duke University (what’s that?), and I think a person hasn’t experienced fine dining until he’s tried Chick-fil-A. Translation: I’m an American college student who likes to eat.

In this way, the characteristics through which I define myself – my identity – has been challenged by cultural boundaries that limit non-Americans’ understanding of what I’ve come to consider central to my person. This is true even of people who speak English as their second language with exceptional proficiency. As a non-sequitur, in mentioning Chick-fil-A, I also learned that my jokes are just as bad in Nepal as they are in States.

More importantly, though, the conversations in Pokhara exposed how drastically my American-informed perceptions of politicized topics vary from the perspectives of my companions. Tactless comments from men on urban Kathmandu streets seem much more offensive to me than to Surabhi, who is from Delhi, India, where the state of gender relations remains at the forefront of news coverage based on a recent series of brutal rapes and ongoing negativity. To Halvor from Norway, even debating the death penalty is a travesty in itself, despite a 2011 massacre in Oslo leaving ninety-three people dead and the gunman in prison for only a few years. To Rahin, whose parents are from Bangladesh, child brides and arranged marriages aren’t shocking.

Over the course of our conversation, not all juxtapositions in perspective were negative, but those that were emotionally-charged seemed the starkest. At some point, Sid again brought up the Nepali national anthem, which initially catalyzed discussion about identity, and quoted the first line:

“Sayaum thunga phulka hami, eutai mala Nepali”/“We are hundreds of flowers [but] one Nepali garland”

Aptly, Sid recognized the commonality amongst differences. Despite varied perspectives across cultures and continents, we were all connected by our conceptualization of gender relations and the death penalty, and by our need to fit them into schemas of right versus wrong, normal versus jarring. At its core, Sid’s point confirmed that, while in Nepal, I had been focusing too strongly on the dissimilarity between myself and Nepalis, between the United States and Nepal, and had been ignoring the cohesiveness of shared human experiences.

July 18

In my spare time, I enjoy reading blogs about almost anything, and recently I’ve channeled a lot of my blog-related enthusiasm towards expanding my perspective on the field I’m working in—international development.

A number of seasoned aid workers publish their musings on industry dynamics online, and two recurring points have had particular resonance in my thoughts about working with WFP Nepal, probably because I am the poster child for both critiques. The first recurring point criticizes INGOs for hiring expats to occupy positions locals could fill, and the second recurring point lambasts the existence of volunteer or intern positions in aid work altogether.

To some degree, both points are valid, but particularly the first. Considering William Easterly’s “planner” to “searcher” spectrum discussed in my first post, locals who are acutely familiar with their own country’s customs and needs can efficiently negotiate a bottom-up method to aid delivery. Under this homegrown approach, humanitarian work most effectively serves beneficiaries by respecting their preferences and catering to the needs they directly identify. Expats without that inherent knowledge may also be able to act as searchers, but not with comparable insight.

Recognizing the first point in the context of project development, I certainly agree that a country’s own citizens are most qualified to design initiative structures for the INGOs serving their peers. Local aid workers devise schemes that will best serve beneficiaries, who know the same traditions as the aid workers of their own nationality assisting them. The similarity between workers and beneficiaries matters particularly in the field, where communication barriers can be a formidable challenge.

To me, the importance of maintaining INGOs comprised primarily of locals cannot be over-emphasized, and WFP Nepal successfully accomplishes this. Out of WFP Nepal’s workforce of nearly two hundred, over ninety percent are Nepali. Given their higher aptitude for relating to aid recipients, it’s a sad reality that locals employed at INGOs collect a fraction of the paycheck foreigners receive for the same work.

A place for foreigners in an INGO office does exist, though. About 150 people work in the WFP Kathmandu office, and while nearly everyone speaks English, fewer than five speak it as their first language. The language proficiency of native English speakers is important, as most reports disseminated to donors and to WFP’s Rome headquarters are written in English.

Along the same vein, Western governments contribute the majority of WFP Nepal’s financial resources, and trained consultants from donor countries know well how to draft proposals that appeal to the benefactors there. Just as locals know how to best cater to local beneficiaries, foreign consultants know best how to draft a successful funding proposal for foreign governments.

Returning to the development blog world’s conclusions, the second recurring point—that volunteerism doesn’t have a place in the aid industry— is hardly a novel idea. In fact, it’s similar to a frequent criticism of programs like DukeEngage, which the university has made efforts to remedy with education initiatives such as DukeEngage Academy.

The criticism looks something like this: A bunch of foreign volunteers spend a few weeks in a developing country building infrastructure. The volunteers leave thinking that, in a short period of time, they were capable of fixing a problem in a less-fortunate place, leading to a shallow and incorrect understanding of the core foundations of poverty. Their experience ignores the complex understanding needed to come up with sustainable solutions. To beneficiaries, it communicates that they are passive recipients without project ownership, who are lucky to have foreigners build them infrastructure they did not ask for and may not have needed.

As I said, I have heard this criticism many times before, but since working with WFP, I have developed a slightly nuanced take on it. First, bottom-up, beneficiary-informed initiatives are the only way to ensure effective results, and beneficiary participation is equally crucial in establishing sustainability. Foreigners providing a service for beneficiaries instead of alongside them hurts progress rather than bolsters it.

Second, observing my co-workers has demonstrated that international development demands certain expertise, requiring qualification and years of experience. Volunteerism in development receives criticism from the industry’s professionals for allowing untrained individuals to undertake work for which they lack qualification, and I empathize with this sentiment. Direct or indirect communication implying that “anyone can do it” or “it’s not that hard” undermines the importance of the brains behind the projects’ physical manifestations. Although it lacks the shine of site-level work, I’ve come to believe that activity inside offices—not at project sites—engineers the real change and awareness of how to best achieve development.

August 2

Before landing in Kathmandu at the beginning of June, most knowledge I had about Nepal related to the Bhutanese refugee camps in the southeast, and before starting my work with the World Food Programme, I understood about food insecurity in the country only through the lens of refugee issues as well. As it turns out, initiatives in Sanischare and Beldangi, the only two camps still in operation, are actually among the simpler of WFP activities.

So, then, what does WFP Nepal do?

Between the country office in Kathmandu and the three sub-offices in Nepalgunj, Damak and Dadeldhura, the organization implements a wide variety of initiatives aimed first and foremost at relieving food insecurity. Staff also carefully design these initiatives to yield outcomes aligned with Millennium Development Goals and to fill more precise needs. Pregnant and lactating women receive special micro-nutrient supplements, as do children under five, in an effort to combat stunting and malnutrition. School meal programs distribute daily lunches to children in primary school to increase enrollment and attendance. Many schemes focus specifically on women to increase female empowerment and financial influence.

Geographically, WFP still operates in the two remaining refugee camps, but the bulk of its initiatives deal with food insecurity elsewhere in the country, mostly in the mid and far-western hills and mountainous regions. Unlike in self-contained refugee camps, where the prescription for food aid changes very little, ventures in the west are more logistically complicated, as they are based on community-specific needs and vary drastically.

The principal difference between processes in the southeast and in the west lies in the levels of beneficiary involvement required in exchange for food. WFP and its implementing partners issue unconditional food rations to encamped refugees on a fortnightly basis. Because the government of Nepal prohibits refugees from owning land or engaging in gainful employment outside of designated camp areas, their food insecurity is fairly consistent. They can not produce food commodities for themselves and rely largely on rations as a livelihood strategy. WFP provisions meet the standard requirement of 2,100 kilocalories per day and comprise of rice, pulses, oil, salt, sugar and Super Cereal, but do not include all food stuffs required for a rounded diet.

Understanding the rations’ limited nutrition value, WFP conducts vocational training courses and loan scheme programs in Beldangi and Sanischare to equip refugee communities with marketable skills to bolster their incomes and provide them with more purchasing power. With additional earnings, they are able to buy other necessary food items such as vegetables, meat and milk. As a by-product of the trainings and loans, many refugees have gained employment or established self-employment through small businesses, reducing their need for potentially harmful wage labor jobs.

Despite relatively simple food distribution processes, refugee operations do present unique challenges related to camp-host community relations and ongoing resettlement. Given the socio-economic changes that an influx of refugees imparts on the areas near it, tensions between displaced persons and the equally needy populations around them can be high. Recognizing this, WFP operations provide opportunities for both groups in the form of its vocational training, loan scheme programs and reclamation gardening. Vocational training also benefits refugees in the context of resettlement, as they can use the skills they acquire in the third country. Regardless of the particular program, though, the process of reaching Beldangi and Sanischare presents few challenges.

Unlike in the southeast, reaching vulnerable areas outside of camps can be quite thorny, particularly in the midst of the flood and landslide-prone monsoon season, which has put most field missions on hold this summer and has unfortunately kept me from gaining field experience. In some districts, road access is non-existent, and WFP uses mules, sheep and porters for food delivery. In instances of the most extreme emergencies, WFP delivers food by helicopters.

WFP beneficiaries in the mid and far western regions receive either food or cash in exchange for work on creating an asset, whereas refugees receive their rations unreservedly. The community members identify the asset which would be most beneficial to them, and households that choose to engage in project development receive food, cash or a combination of both. Examples of assets created under WFP activities include irrigation canals, agro-forestry plantations, and protective structures for micro-hydro turbines, among many others. These programs expand earnings, limit remittances and create mechanisms for community accountability through user committees at each site.

Regardless of location, WFP plans its schemes using a beneficiary-informed approach, and the communities it works in directly participate in planning and implementation phases. The field of international development has come to accept this approach as the most effective in engaging beneficiaries, who are ultimately responsible for maintaining the results agencies catalyze. Historically, lack of feedback from the poor themselves prior to and after activity completion has been a main problem in the aid world, and WFP operations systematically mitigate it.

August 12

Ask anyone working for WFP Nepal what the organization’s biggest obstacle is and you’ll get one response: money. It’s the same answer I heard when I interviewed in May, and it’s the same answer staff provided to an incoming high-level administrator during a meeting last week.

The importance of money in aid work extends past the obvious “we-need-money-to-do-what-we-do,” because the need for operational finances creates collateral issues. With innumerable aid organizations across the globe, funding is in high demand. But when an organization finally receives financial support, the donors who provided it become the focus of processes. To put it simply, the need for money strains agencies to produce results that appeal to benefactors thousands of miles away and detracts attention from producing results on the ground.

While at WFP, I assisted an independent American consultant in finalizing a USAID McGovern-Dole proposal for $27 million USD – quite a hefty sum to say the least. The McGovern-Dole program “seeks to improve nutrition and promote education for the world’s poorest children by providing donations of U.S. commodities as well as financial and technical assistance.” If granted the funding later in this fiscal year, it would last WFP Nepal between three and four years and contribute to its mother-child nutrition and school feeding programs.

During the process of finalizing the proposal, the self-admittedly jaded consultant expressed that, in her experience, all funding proposals like this one focus on the requirements of donors. These requirements revolve almost exclusively on creating a framework that will look good on paper without much thought on implementation processes. Her job, she said, was just to draft a proposal that would pass.

When multiple continents separate donors from project sites, aid agencies end up rewarded for setting vague goals that may give only the illusion of impressive progress. For instance, a donor may care about the sheer number of school meals distributed with its funds but simultaneously ignore that two commodity shipments never made it to the project site or that the school kitchen where preparation took place was unsanitary.

Knowing this, agencies or the consultants drafting proposals for them set increasingly lofty goals rather than realistic ones in order to collect funding, and meeting goals becomes increasingly difficult. How many Millennium Development Goals will the project meet before the 2015 earmark? How many U.N. Development Assistance Framework goals will the project meet before the end of next fiscal year? At the end of the day, indicators like these reveal little about progress within individual communities, which vary greatly in their needs.

While much of this assessment includes broad generalizations, I would be surprised if many exceptions exist, particularly among large, governmental donors. However, I don’t think that aid agencies adapting to the established process indicates any shortcoming on their parts. At the end of the day, money is imperative to humanitarian organizations’ continued existence, and their proposals don’t fabricate statistics or exaggerate actual outcomes, they just support broad, unspecific goals.

In speaking with development professionals, it seems like reform in process needs to start with donors, particularly governments, for whom these funding programs are extremely political. USAID, for one, explicitly states that its has the purpose of “furthering America’s interests” and has a history of “advancing U.S. foreign policy interests.” Admittedly, goals and expectations vary depending on the donor, but benefactors should be more concerned about funding projects that yield the best results for particular communities than whether or not their logos are stamped on the side of a commodity bag.

August 19

image-8-400Shortly after landing in Nepal almost ten weeks ago, one thing became evident quite quickly: in order to really understand Nepal, its people and its politics, I was going to need to understand its religions. The physical manifestations of spirituality were immediately evident. Hindu shrines sit on nearly every street corner, Buddhist prayer flags drape across backyards, tika marks adorn many foreheads and a good number of restaurant offerings are exclusively vegetarian. Once I adjusted to the stimulus overload of outward signs, I became more aware of the less obvious and more complex byproducts of Nepal’s religious culture.

When I first arrived, the idea of a still-entrenched caste system struck me as strange in a place as welcoming as Kathmandu. People of all different faiths live harmoniously among one another, and literally worship alongside each other at temples. Despite this, upward mobility is largely non-existent, and individuals show complacency with their predetermined place in the social structure.

At Pashupathinath, one of Hinduism’s most auspicious temples to Shiva, bodies are cremated openly alongside the Bagmati River. However, where a person is cremated depends on his or her status, as high caste people are cremated up river so the ashes of lower castes do not flow down river into them and disrupt the appropriate sequence of reincarnation.

Even now, young adults are expected to marry within their caste and to attain a job in line with their relative standing in society. When a co-worker’s father died, she was prohibited from speaking to people of other castes, including myself, for nearly two weeks. Nepal, by the way, is the only south Asian country to openly allow gay marriage and it also allows complete freedom of religion. What a strange juxtaposition between maintaining antiquated social constructs and supporting progressive ideas.

Within a week of seeing the significance of caste, I made an exploration of Hinduism and Buddhism the focus of my time outside of work. I talked to friends and co-workers about the role of eastern religions in their lives, bought books, visited temples (many, many temples), stayed at a Buddhist monastery for a weekend, listened to regular lectures from a local Tibetan monk, took up yoga and learned to meditate. An expert I am not, but I certainly gained insight into the centrism of spiritual practices for the Nepali people and somewhere along the way gained an ounce of personal clarity as well.

As in other parts of South Asia, religious beliefs seem to correlate to some degree with caste. Hinduism remains the country’s prominent religion, but many people of lower castes converted to Buddhist practices, in which caste is insignificant. Buddhist dharma emphasizes an individual sense of purpose lacking in Hinduism and has gained footing particularly with urban dalits, untouchables, in Nepal, though people of all classes embrace its practices. Buddhist ideas seem to give more general respect to the poor, as well. The abbot of a Kathmandu monastery spoke about Buddhism’s perspective on giving money to beggars. Rather than giving resources to shelters or ignoring beggars altogether, he said that needy people should be thanked for creating an opportunity to exercise generosity.

Before my time in Nepal, integrating religion into conversations about ethics exhausted me. I have always considered spirituality to be intensely interesting, and it’s certainly central to understanding cultural phenomena. Still, for a long time I’ve preferred to separate religion from ethics and morality, simply because I’m a proponent of the idea that it’s entirely possible to live ethically without subscribing to any faith at all. Yes, many religious values promote mindful living, but in my experience, people of different, traditionally Western faiths often focus on the nuanced differences in ideology rather than the common principles between them.

My views on discussing religion and ethics are starting to shift, though. To me, Nepalese society powerfully illustrates how religion can be a non-factor. Despite the seemingly backwards nature of the caste system, people live well together and are able to discuss competing ideas with ease. In a Western context, this ideal is one to aspire to rather than to deem impossible, as I was inclined to do before living in Kathmandu.