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Development’s Entanglements with Ethnic Classification and Affirmative Action in Nepal.
Sara Shneiderman, Research Fellow, St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge.

In 2004, the Nepal Federation for Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) introduced a new 5-tiered classification system to categorize Nepal’s 61 officially recognized ethnic groups as ‘endangered’, ‘highly marginalized’, ‘marginalized’, ‘disadvantaged’, and ‘advantaged’. With major funding from DfID’s Enabling State Program, this was the first ever comprehensive attempt to classify this sector of Nepal’s population for the purposes of affirmative action planning. The scheme was quickly adopted by the international donor community, and largely through their influence, by Nepali state agencies as well. Since then, bilateral and multilateral organizations have launched several major projects to provide targeted development assistance to Nepal’s so-called endangered and highly marginalized communities.

Through an ethnographic case study of one such project, I argue that the NEFIN classification scheme and its associated programs have had several unintended consequences, which may undercut their otherwise positive role in transforming Nepal’s highly inequitable social structure into a progressive, socially inclusive federal state. First of all, the promise of development dollars for groups at the bottom end of the scale places a premium on maintaining marginality, rather than moving away from it, and encourages boundary building between groups. Secondly, the projects emerging in relation to the NEFIN classification system tend to conflate the cultural, economic, and political aspects of marginality by proposing largely cultural cures for economic and political problems. In particular, they prescribe ‘cultural preservation’ and ‘identity strengthening’ for individual groups as antidotes to the complex socio-economic vectors of exclusion which in fact affect all groups, thereby circumscribing the potential for collaborative advocacy. Finally, the development agenda of such projects promotes a flat view of ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ as political and economic resources in a manner often at odds with existing indigenous understandings of these concepts, leading to intra-group tensions over, and transformations of, cultural practice.

In an effort to both highlight the historical particularities of the Nepali situation, and situate it within a broader global context, I discuss all of these issues with comparative reference to India’s experience with reservations. Ultimately, I suggest that the recent expansion of the international development remit in Nepal to include ethnic classification and cultural preservation as domains of intervention is contributing not only to political restructuring at the level of state policy, but to cultural restructuring at the level of grassroots practice.

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