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On 22 August, I participated in Kathmandu’s Gai Jatra Pride festival along with three other representatives from the Embassy. It was an amazing experience, with a brilliant blend of the traditional Gai Jatra festival that falls on the same day, LGBTI symbols and banners, and a huge number of participants of all ages – in costumes, dressed up in sarees and in casual clothes.

The parade was organised by a local LGBTI rights organisation called Blue Diamond Society (BDS), which the Norwegian Embassy has supported since 2008. An Australian friend heard that Norway had officially supported the parade and that I had gone to it as part of my job, and made a simple joke: “that’s so Scandinavian.” Because I am a perpetual over-thinker of all things, that got me to… well, over-thinking.

According to my personal value system (and, to an extent, that of my country) BDS, Gai Jatra Pride and other measures to improve the human rights and welfare of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal are very good investments. The advocacy of BDS has been a direct cause of Nepal being one of the most progressive countries in the region with regard to LGBTI rights, a milestone of which was the inclusion of a third gender category in the 2011 national census.

The vast majority of the people in the Gai Jatra Pride parade were not Western or Norwegian, neither are the majority of the people doing the campaigning, advocacy and project work. They are Nepali LGBTI activists exercising their own voices and carrying out work based on to their own perspectives and values.

However, the choice to support BDS over another Nepali organisation working for something completely different is, as my Australian friend touched on, informed by a very Scandinavian value system.

I can think of other countries whose majority values I would not be as happy to see reflected in development support.

This is another case where it’s difficult to reconcile an anthropological attitude of cultural relativism to development work – though if the focus is placed on local agency the mental acrobatics become a little bit easier.

The situation in Uganda, where I have also done project work, is a very different one. There, mere association with LGBTI causes could be a huge detriment to the perceived trustworthiness and ethical stance of a development partner in the eyes of many local stakeholders, even if their involvement in the country were far removed from LGBTI advocacy.

Though activists in Uganda have held their first two Pride parades in 2012 and 2013, it would be impossible to take these processions through Kampala in the same way as Gai Jatra Pride wove through Kathmandu, at least without grave danger to the participants.

Even in a remote location, activists join the parades at great personal risk.

A common argument from Ugandans speaking out against LGBTI rights draws on arguments of cultural relativism and indigeneity.  “Homosexuality,” the argument I have often heard goes, “is not part of our traditional African culture.” However, others have argued that the wide-spread vehement hatred of LGBTI in the region is at least in part a consequence of the significant presence of Christianity, originally brought to Uganda by the colonizing British and more recently by evangelists like Rick Warren from the US (and other places.)

The issue seems to be relevant to a greater or lesser degree in a lot of – or even all – development work. The UN in Nepal has recently been subject to a lot of criticism from Nepali commentators because of its increasing focus on measures combating ethnic and caste discrimination, which some feel is an unwelcome foreign imposition in the way local society works.

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Of course, this work is largely carried out through working together with Dalits and indigenous groups that are themselves Nepali activists. But even if we’re just supporting local change agents, the choice of which agents to support represents a value judgement. On the level of principle, do the facts that we have money to spend and the inclination to do so give us the right to make these judgements?

Should our Western values automatically be given a privileged position?

My opinion is that Norwegian support to LGBTI rights and welfare in Nepal should not cease – rather the opposite. My motivation in writing this is in part an attempt to counter the lack of attention paid to the Pride procession at Gai Jatra in Nepali media (as of now, I have been unable to find any mention of it.)

But that’s what I think.

Should what I think matter in this context? And how do we decide when it does, and deal with the ethical consequences if it doesn’t?


The Complexities of Cultural Development


by Iris Leikanger

Networking. At worst, there's free wine

There are two interns at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. Luckily for us, our responsibilities go somewhat beyond fetching the coffee. The diplomats and local counsellors are keen to include us in all sorts of events – from meetings at UN House to receptions at the Ambassador’s residence.

We’re becoming experts at being the least important, least interesting people in the room.

It’s hard not to get dejected when you’re introducing yourself to some civil society big-wig, and stating your name and job title is directly followed with “oh,” and the other person’s interest in talking to you visibly plummeting. Especially when they go on to unsubtly excuse themselves and slink off to talk to the UN executive or important local politician at the other side of the room.

However, these situations can also be fantastic opportunities for networking, learning and meeting some genuinely fascinating people. After all, as a person starting out at the bottom rungs of the development ladder, getting a chance to meet some people who can help you climb it is definitely worth the time spent feeling awkward and small while holding a glass of wine. So with that in mind, here are some tips I’ve discovered for navigating those situations when you’re the least important person in the room:

Watch what the people around you are doing and copy them

You don’t want to be the only person asking the waiter for wine if everyone else is on soda water. Nobody else is going to care what you’re drinking, but it will make you feel more awkward and self-conscious than necessary.

The benefit of being the least important person around is that most of the time, hardly anyone is paying attention to you. This gives you a perfect opportunity to learn by observing the people who have been in the game for years. A diplomatic reception or civil society workshop is a pretty different setting to a university party, and you should take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to behave in these contexts.

Everyone else is more interesting than you, and they want to talk about themselves

You may not be very interesting (yet), but chances are most of the people you’re meeting are – and they probably know it. Development types are often very happy to talk about themselves and their work to a wide-eyed intern who asks intelligent questions and seems genuinely impressed with what they have to say. Asking good questions and active listening are key, and knowing something about the person’s field is especially useful because it will enable you to say more than “oh, that sounds really cool” when they start explaining what their organisation does.

An anecdote: A few weeks back, I met the Director of a local climate change NGO at a reception, at the time only knowing his organisation and not his rank. I engaged him in a discussion about the integration of social and natural science in environmental work and the importance of smallholder agriculture (both personal areas of interest). He ended up inviting me to a workshop a week later, where I sat starry-eyed listening to people debating a climate change adaptation programme I’d be happy to start working for tomorrow – an opportunity I never would have gotten if we hadn’t had that conversation.

Do make sure you don’t monopolise a single person for too long, no matter how fascinating they are. The vast majority of the time, networking events are for mingling and circulating, not long in-depth debates. Better to take the person’s contact details and continue the conversation another time.

Don’t be too obvious about wanting a job from the person you’re talking to

The people I’ve found are the most dismissive when I say my job title are often my fellow bottom-rung hangers-on, who have come to these events purely for the purpose of career climbing. Not only is it annoying for the people you spurn, but it’s painfully obvious to everyone else if you spend your evening making beelines between every executive you can find, handing out business cards like SWEDOW. Just be subtle, and be aware that people who aren’t Directors can be equally as interesting to talk to, if not more.

If all else fails, find the other unimportant people and make friends

If you’ve tried to engage the big-wigs without luck, you can always just seek out any other interns that are there. Receptions often have free drinks, so why not create a party within a party and make some friends instead?


Networking: A guide for interns