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<-Back to WTN Archives Tibet and Development
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Monday, March 29, 2004

4. Tibet and Development

A personal view
By Phuntsog Wangyal*

Development of Tibet is a subject much debated among
the Tibetans and often this subject is seen primarily
in its

political context. In the past history of Tibet you
can find references to the development of religion,
Buddhism or a

particular philosophy but hardly any reference to the
development of a country, Tibet or its economy. With

Chinese coming into Tibet, development became an
important subject, often highlighted to draw attention
to the

'backwardness' of Tibet and of its economic system.

Broadly speaking the word 'development' is accepted to
mean an action or activity that causes a situation to

change or progress. It is also believed, in the
consensus of opinion, that fostering economic
development and

prosperity is a 'positive' action, as almost any
leader would take pride when his/her country's economy

performing strongly.

In the Past

Tibet had a highly developed spiritual tradition. Its
civilization, largely spiritual - Buddhist and Bon
(Tibet's native

religion) - was well documented. By the beginning of
the twentieth century Tibet had one of the largest

of literature on Buddhism. All those who read about
Tibet happily acknowledged the uniqueness and richness

its religious and cultural traditions. Yet there was
hardly any substantial writing on social and economic

Many wondered how and why life in Tibet remained
unchanged, unaffected by the new social, economic and

political ideas that transformed life in many other
parts of the world.

Looking back, one could see that Tibetan people always
took great pride in being Tibetan. At the same time

were also seen to be open to new ideas. They had no
difficulty in adopting Buddhist philosophy from India

many other cultural habits and customs from China and
Mongolia. Although the Buddhist religion remained the

driving force in their everyday lives, Tibetans were
still very creative and progressive in their attitude
towards the

social and artistic culture of their neighbour in the
east, China. Most noticeably, the custom of drinking
tea, eating

vegetables (many names of vegetables are still in
Chinese language), wearing silk, and aspects of
astrology, art

and musical traditions are some examples of many
influences happily borrowed from China.

Tibet on the whole remained highly isolated. The high
attitude (averaging over 4,000 metres, or 13,000 feet,

sea level), the low population of just 6 million (in
all ethnic Tibetan areas) and its vast size (almost
that of Western

Europe) contributed much to Tibet's isolation from the
rest of the world. This, in turn, no doubt contributed
to the

Tibetan people's ability to maintain the uniqueness of
their culture and the diversity of many different
dialects and

regional characters.

Economically, Tibet was backward. When the West was
going through successive explosions of development in

science and technology, Tibet was going deeper inwards
which they proudly called 'understanding of the inner

world' of spirituality. It became the dominant
philosophical view that life in this world is far
shorter than the life in

the next world. Pursuing a content life now for the
sake of long-lasting happiness in the future was the
dominant -

and much respected - ideology.

In economic terms, there was hardly any development:
no electricity, no motor vehicles, no telephone and no

modern machinery of any kind. Yet the Tibetans, having
hardly ever seen any other way of life, felt fully

with their life and missed nothing but
'enlightenment'. It was a common practice that many
spent a large part of

their time with religious activities such as chanting
mantras, circumambulating temples, saying prayers,

prayer wheels etc. - activities which the Chinese
called 'economically unproductive'. A quarter of the

population was known to be either monks or nuns.
Perhaps, Tibetan people at that time were one of the

'religious' peoples on earth. Religion was their most
precious possession and they were happy to practise
it. They

were living in a different world where "simple living
- high thinking" dominated their lives.

Since 1951

That situation changed completely in 1951 when Tibet
officially became a part of China, a new reality that

Tibetans had to face with hardships never witnessed by
their forefathers. Old Tibet, just like a dream, was

transformed into a communist state. The process of
this transformation was revolutionary, and in that
process the

Tibetan people found themselves in a position where
they had no - or very little - influence in shaping
the future of

their country. Every important decision was made in
Beijing, not Lhasa. It was no longer religious but
political and

economic considerations that mattered most.

The right or wrong of this historical transformation
is not a subject under discussion in this paper. Today
we would

rather look at the Tibetan people in this changed
situation and whether Tibetans (especially those
living under the

Chinese rule) wished and deserved economic prosperity.

The New Generation

During the fifty-odd years of Chinese rule, a whole
new generation of Tibetans were born. They were
brought up

under a system of government strictly shaped by
communist ideology and mainly administered by the

These Tibetans never had the opportunity to learn
their own philosophy as their forefathers did for
generations. On

the other hand, they were very much exposed to a new
materialistic world with new ideas of science and

technology. A few had some education and training to
be cadres helping run the administration. Many never

any opportunity to study anything, let alone Buddhist

Yet the situation in Tibet went on changing in
accordance with the changes that were taking place in
China. In the

past decade or so, China has been changing even
faster. We began to see a government that, for the
first time,

adopted a somewhat liberal policy towards economic
reforms. Ordinary people began to enjoy,

speaking, some freedom of movement within the country,
ownership of private property, more access to

and less control over their family life. In short a
system primarily based on the market economy is
emerging in


Geographically, China is a huge country with a very
uneven distribution of population and wealth. In all

areas, the density of population is low and the level
of poverty is extremely high; the level of education
is low and

the death rate is comparatively high; and above all,
the basic infrastructure is extremely poor. There is
hardly any

manufacturing industry in Tibet. Local economics are
almost completely based on agriculture and animal

husbandry. The tools and methods used are still very
old fashioned. In short, Tibetan areas today are some
of the

least developed and most backward even from the
Chinese government's point of view.

It is fair to say that governments at every level are
making efforts to improve the situation in Tibet by
investing both

money and human resources from China. They believe
that the key to their success lies on their strategy

develop Tibet's economy. Unfortunately, not many
Tibetans in Tibet are able to get involved in the
process of

development. This is by no means either due to their
inability or their lack of interest. It is primarily
due to a lack of

education and/or required skills amongst the Tibetans.
In sharp contrast, the Tibetans in exile, with better

resources and adequate training and education, could
make a big difference in advancing their standard of

Economic Prosperity

Religious aspiration may still be high on the agenda,
yet the general attitude, rightly or wrongly, seems to

changing. Young Tibetans have strong feelings for
their religion, more in terms of their identity rather
than as their

philosophy. No one could or should ignore the fact
that they too have desires for a better living
standard and

economic prosperity. Living in yak hair tents at
subzero temperatures and burning cow dung as their
fuel may look

romantic, but those who live their lives in such poor
conditions may have a different view. They are not to


The urge for economic prosperity is in fact more
noticeable among those Tibetans who live a
comparatively better

life in India and Nepal. Many young Tibetans,
including many monks and nuns, are leaving or trying
to leave their

homes and monasteries in India for the West and 'a
better life'. The scale of the migration was such that
the senior

Tibetan Kalon, Samdhong Rinpoche has seen this as a
major problem and announced publicly that Tibetans

should refrain from leaving their settlements in
India. The Central Tibetan Administration has since
developed a

number of schemes to improve the economy with the hope
that Tibetans will stay in their settlements where

have a better chance of sustaining their culture.

The Chinese and the Tibetans both agree that the
situation in Tibet needs to improve. But they greatly

about what needs to change first: the political or
economic conditions. The changing political situation
in Tibet

requires more than just goodwill or sympathy. A major
political change in China is necessary. At the moment,

such a political change is most unlikely as the
Chinese leadership is fully engaged and occupied with

strategies to advance the economy of the country, and
safeguard the unity of their 'motherland'.

This shift of policy towards economic development may
not be the favourite option for the Tibetans but this

presents an opportunity for them to develop their
education, healthcare and economy. Although very few

number, some Tibetans are already making great
progress. You might be surprised to see some of them

in large business ventures, even building three-star
hotels, supporting educational and healthcare
facilities and

managing handicraft and business centres for the rural
economy. With the right approach they are now able to

many positive things that they could not have dreamt
of in the past.

Role of NGOs

This new situation provides Tibetans in Tibet with
some opportunities to take control of their lives, if
in very small

ways. It provides those of us in the West with
opportunities to support them in their efforts to
achieve some


In the past, there was no meaningful role for a
voluntary or non-governmental organisation (NGO) in
China. It was

the state that initiated new ideas, managed
organisations and controlled economic processes. We
can see this

slowly changing as more national NGOs are being formed
and more international NGOs are involved in

development works in China. A Chinese scholar stated,
"The role of NGOs in the 21st century will be as

significant as the role of the nation state in the
20th century". Having said this, we must note that the

government, at every level controlled by the communist
party, is still too strong compared to a 'civil
society' that is

yet to mature and to NGOs that are still in their

Another factor worth taking into account is that the
Chinese government is placing a strong emphasis on

'democracy' and the role of 'democracy' in
development, although many may argue about the
substance of their

emphasis and their meaning of the word 'democracy'.
The Chinese government lacks trust in Western

democracies and they are sceptical of donors'

Chinese Strategy

Regarding the Chinese Strategy, the aims of the
Chinese development policies are unmistakably to bring

greater geographical and economic integration of the
country as a whole, including areas such as Tibet. The

motivation may not necessarily be the destruction of
the local economy or local culture as is often

However, the outcome of these development schemes is
bound to have an impact on delicate local issues. If

are inadequately managed, development will cause
irreparable damage to irreplaceable Tibetan assets
such as its

culture and environment.

The government's economic policy is directed to
enhancing development through massive infrastructure

such as communications and school buildings, and
providing incentives to local businesses, job creation

and tourism. We could see some degree of consistency
in their push in this direction. There is no sign of
a major

change in current Chinese policies. It is true that
many in the West would like to see major changes
towards more

democracy and more participation by the general public
in matters affecting their lives. Although this is not

happening fast enough, there is every indication that
China seems to be heading in that direction.

In relative terms, the current liberal policies are
providing new opportunities for those of us trying to
help Tibetans

in their areas in China. We are all very aware of the
fact that many government agencies and national and

international NGOs are already working in many Tibetan
areas. Financial support given by the Tibetans and

supporters in the West is estimated at around 10
million Yuan per year only (approx less than
Ł700,000). Their

contribution goes largely towards rebuilding and
renovating religious sites, and small education and


Working in Tibet is not impossible but still difficult
and sometimes frustrating. Often those who work in
Tibet face

many obstacles and progress is slow and gradual. In
spite of these obstacles, working with whatever
facilities are

available is a better option and is perhaps the best
and most practical approach, which one could take in

current situation. Thus it is sensible to encourage
NGOs' efforts in ensuring that their assistance
reaches the

most needy local Tibetans and empowers them to help


It is equally important to understand the nature of
the obstacles many NGOs face in carrying out their
work. I

would like to present a few factors that may be
contributing to international NGOs a) not receiving
adequate funds

and b) the poorest people and most remote areas of
Tibet not benefiting from potential international aid:

First, although many international NGOs are well aware
of the importance of getting local people involved in

aspects of local projects, the authorities seldom
involve or meaningfully consult local Tibetans in

especially big projects, which have the potential to
greatly impact their lives. This is not necessarily by
the design

of the Chinese authorities, though it is often alleged
to be so. Primarily it is due to a lack of adequate

and expertise on the part of the local people. In most
cases decisions are taken by authorities who are
likely to be

Chinese, especially at higher levels, who have no
special concern for, nor understanding of, the local
culture or


Second, donors, especially government and corporate
funding bodies, often require projects which return

demonstrable results in a short timeframe. The
deep-rooted needs of Tibet, coupled with the low

density, short summer months, and low levels of
physical, social and intellectual infrastructure, make

tangible results in the timeframe sought by these
donors extremely difficult. In some cases,
particularly those

where long-term or small-scale projects are
appropriate, providing evidence of these results can
be more

demanding than actually achieving the results
themselves. This makes centralised large-scale
projects appear

more successful in getting funds than smaller or more
highly devolved projects, and in some instances larger

scale intervention becomes the only eligible recipient
of support.

Third, governmental and large multinational agencies
generally prefer to deal directly with central or

governments in China. At this level, ethnic Tibetans
are unlikely to be the decision-makers. The more you
are able

to work with local people in Tibet, the closer you
will get to understanding what they actually need. The

the scale of your work in a smaller area, the more
benefit you are likely to deliver to the people.

Fourth, although the works of international NGOs are
becoming increasingly more acceptable in China, the

authorities still see them as foreign agencies trying
to import "western values" - generally believed to be

anti-communist, and thus anti-China. President Bush's
efforts to establish "the principle of pre-emptive

intervention to protect American interest" and the
criticism of Chinese Western Development Programme as

deliberate design to destroy Tibetan culture" have not
been entirely conducive to fostering the trust which
is so

desperately lacking.

Thus, the challenge that Tibetans face is enormous.
The world in which they live is no longer isolated.
The society

in which they work is more multi-racial and highly
competitive. There is a great demand on limited
resources, and

competition with an incoming population, often better
educated and better informed, is an almost impossible

challenge to the Tibetans.

Investment for Development

Tibet needs development: a development of its economy
to enable Tibetans to survive in a fast-growing

world. Development needs investment: an investment in
promoting education, improving healthcare facilities

raising living standards. Tibet needs support that is
sustainable and that helps Tibetans to be
self-reliant. Many

Tibetans show concern about the suitability of
large-scale national projects where there is little or
no input from the

local people. This must not be confused with regional
projects close to local people and local areas.
Projects with

investment in local areas and with input from local
people are proving to be more sustainable and a real
help to the


Investment in small projects is not an attractive
venture to private investors as there is no real
financial incentive

nor does it bring immediate results for NGOs who may
need to satisfy their donors. But such investment in

projects close to the local community will be an
invaluable benefit to the Tibetan people in the long
run. This is a

time when the Tibetans have to be innovative,
creative, progressive and open to ideas. And this is
the time that

their supporters must realise that the Tibetans are
real people and that they have to live not in
isolation but in a

most competitive and challenging world.

A Tibetan saying goes, "getting simple things done now
is far better than thinking of doing many great things

the future". This couldn't be truer today. It is my
belief that Tibetans are doing what they can in their
own small

ways under a very difficult situation in Tibet. They
are proud of their integrity: of being honest, ethical


The need for support from all available sources is
real. The success of such support to the Tibetans
depends on a

broad understanding of their needs in Tibet, the
driving force behind economic development and what
matters most

to the Tibetans in their daily lives in their unique
situation. Politicising all issues related to Tibet
may not

necessarily produce right or expected results. The
government's trust in NGOs' commitment and the NGOs'

reassurance of the non-political nature of their
activities are crucial, and their importance must not


This leads me to say that there is a greater need of
strong partnership between local communities that

investment, NGOs that provide funds, and governments
that supervise their management. To achieve such a

partnership may not be easy, but it is an effort worth
making. Supporting small projects close to the

may not be most attractive, but such projects are the
most valuable to the people in Tibet.

*Above is the summary of a talk given in London (on
30th October 2003) by Phuntsog Wangyal. Phuntsog is a

member of the Board of Trustees of Tibet Foundation.
He was a former London representative of His Holiness

Dalai Lama at the Office of Tibet, member of the
Tibetan Assembly and director of Tibet Foundation.

Source: Tibet Foundation Newsletter No. 42

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Letters to the Editor (TS)
  2. Canucks rally to holy man; peace message strikes chord (OS)
  3. Strong aftershocks hits Tibet (AFP)
  4. Tibet and Development

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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