THIS IS A story about a poor boy in Kathmandu. It is also about his friend and mine, a man so differently placed from that boy that comprehension is difficult. It is a history, too, of a long, collaborative association and friendship founded in higher education policy, that began in violent antipathy back in 1988. It is a story about student financing and about a kid in Nepal who wanted more than anything else to get to university.
It was April 2002. Bruce was in Nepal for a World Bank seminar on higher education. On a free afternoon he ventured out of the Yak & Yeti, Kathmandu's premier hostelry where the Bank's country office was also located. He could have spent the entire week within its grounds: the place was essentially self-contained.
Wandering in the Durbar Marg, the main drag outside the Yak & Yeti, the street that stops dead a couple of hundred meters up the hill where the King's palace stands, Bruce encountered a small boy. Small and slight, he looked about eight but, as Bruce was to learn, he was ten. He was dressed in faded, patched trousers, a thin jacket and worn white sneakers. His name was Suraj, but Bruce didn't know that yet. 'Excuse me, sir,' he began. 'Where are you from?'
'Australia,' replied Bruce.
'Ah, yes, Australia,' the boy said. 'The capital of Australia is Canberra.' His English was that precise, classic sub-continent version, unusual in a street urchin. 'I know the capitals of every country in the world, sir, except the new ones because my book is old. Please ask me a country.'
'Okay,' said Bruce. 'What about France?'
'Paris,' said the boy promptly.
'Not bad,' said Bruce. He was impressed: he upped the ante.
'How about South Africa?'
'Ah,' said the boy. Do you mean the administrative capital, Johannesburg – known to its residents as Jo'burg – or the political capital, which is Pretoria?'
'How the hell do I know?' exclaimed Bruce, and laughed. They formally introduced themselves. The Australian economist and the Nepalese schoolboy, Suraj, struck up a fleeting friendship. Bruce was only in Nepal for a week. Suraj asked Bruce if he would tutor his cousin in English.
'Why don't you teach him yourself?' asked Bruce. 'Your English is very good.'
'I tell him that,' answered Suraj. 'But he doesn't believe me.'
They arranged to meet outside the Yak & Yeti the following day. 'How will you get here?' Bruce asked.
'We will walk, sir! We are used to it.' He lived about an hour's walk out of the city.
Sure enough Suraj and a slightly older boy were waiting for Bruce the next day. Suraj introduced his cousin.
'Pleased to meet you,' said Bruce.
'Yes, hullo, no, welcome,' said the cousin. Bruce saw the dimensions of the challenge. He took the boys walking around the streets near the hotel. Indicating a man sweeping the step of his shop, he asked the cousin, 'what's that man doing?'
'Man shop broom, yes, hullo,' said the boy.
Oh dear, thought Bruce. There was a long way to go.
A stallholder accosted Bruce. He tried to sell him an Afghan rug. 'Merchant carpet welcome hullo selling yes,' said the cousin.
They turned a corner where they found two dogs copulating. 'These dogs are fucking, sir!' said the cousin.
'Where did he learn that?' the startled Bruce asked.
'From an American tourist,' Suraj answered.
I WAS POLICY adviser at the time to a Labor shadow minister in the Federal Parliament. A month before Bruce found himself in Kathmandu, my colleagues and I had convened a group of academic luminaries from the Australian National University, the country's premier research institution, to sound them out on policy issues in our portfolio. The brief for the luminaries was university research funding. The first meeting was held in the council chamber: red carpet and sleek native hardwood.
Sitting in the chairs that rightfully belonged to the council members, we waited for everyone to arrive. We were all in dark-coloured suits and the atmosphere was grave. The collective IQ on the side of the boffins was astronomical. Bruce, who had been invited, walked in. He crossed the room casually and stopped beside me. 'I think we have another country,' he said in a low voice.
'What country?' I asked.
'Nepal. They have asked me to go there next month. That will be ten we've got, I think.'
'Yes, something like that.'
The pro vice-chancellor arrived: the meeting was about to begin. 'I'll tell you more later.'
BRUCE AND I were collecting countries. We were proselytising. We were engaging ourselves on a quest to spread to the world at large a basic concept in tertiary education financing. This idea had essentially been thought up by Bruce about fifteen years before. It was a mechanism designed to avoid the whammy of upfront tuition fees in university and college, the kind of thing that would stop students from poor and underprivileged backgrounds continuing their education beyond secondary school. The Australian system of deferred, income-related payment known by its acronym – HECS – made this possible.
For several years after the scheme's introduction, I had vigorously opposed it, torn it to shreds, denounced it. I believed that the deferred-payment scheme – essentially a subsidised student loan – would deter women, poor people and those from social minorities from enrolling at university. Bruce, the scheme's architect, argued that, on the contrary, the system would not turn students away: he and I fought it out in the public arena. We were famous for disagreeing. As it turned out, he was right and I was wrong. After all the matter was an empirical one, open to testing and proof, and the facts were all on his side. I conceded.
But the truth was that we had fought like cat and dog for eight years, right until 1996. 'What happened then?' Bruce asked me, several years later.
'What happened was Papua New Guinea,' I answered.
In 1996 I had two developing countries under my belt: first the vast, chaotic Indonesia and then the African desert nation of Namibia. Bruce's practical experience was limited to the tame landscape of affluent, Western, law-abiding Australia, where the tax system reached into everyone's pocket and pay-packet, enabling student loan repayments through HECS to be collected routinely and automatically.
The phone rang. I was at work in Melbourne. It was the receptionist. 'It's Bruce Chapman,' she said. 'He reckons he's in Port Moresby.'
'God no!' I responded. 'He'll be hating it.' He had arrived on Sunday evening. Now it was Tuesday morning. Obviously Monday had been traumatic.
'Jane! It's me, Bruce. I'm in PNG!'
'Don't tell me your problems, you idiot. I advised you not to go. I knew you wouldn't like it.'
'Like it? I can't stand it. And they don't have a proper tax system!' He and I had both been approached to go to Port Moresby to advise the government on a new system of student financing, ideally resembling the Australian model. I had flatly refused to go, despite the pleadings of the relevant international agency, which had observed that I had apparently achieved the impossible in a couple of other Third World countries. Besides, the agency was attracted by my cheap daily rate; Bruce, was more expensive. But eventually, in desperation, in the face of my vehement refusal to go to a country where a white woman could not walk safely alone in the street even in daylight – my basic requirement – they managed to persuade Bruce to take on the assignment. He would go there solo. 'One week, and not a minute more!' said Bruce firmly.
On the phone now he sounded distressed.
'I warned you about the tax system,' I said.
'So what will I do?'
'Stay calm, Bruce. Don't panic. Look around for something else. Like the social security system I discovered in Namibia.'
'And how did you find that, pray tell?'
'Oh, I just stumbled across it after a couple of days.'
Sounds of anguish from Moresby. 'I hate it here. And I feel like a white-collar criminal.'
'Well, I'm in relatively luxurious surroundings, but there are bars on the windows and I can't go out!'
I laughed. 'I warned you about that, too. That's why I refused to go, don't you remember?'
'I am going mad. It would be better if you were here too. I'm lonely, there's no one to hang out with! I'm bored, bored out of my brain. And I'm hot. And I'm disenfranchised. Help!'
'Disenfranchised? You want the vote after being there a day and a half. Isn't that a bit unreasonable?'
'You know very well what I mean!'
THAT PHONE EXCHANGE cemented our friendship. Over the following years we collected quite a few countries from Rwanda to the Philippines. The World Bank was our principal sponsor, though other agencies also paid. The basic design of our deferred-payment model was spreading across the globe. The challenge was to adapt it to local conditions and cultures. Over time our missionary zeal was tempered by pragmatism; we learned to accept that ideal solutions were rare and that, wherever we found ourselves, flexibility and creativity were essential to our task. Our skills are different and complementary; Bruce's strength is the theoretical side and an ability to communicate complex ideas with clarity and enthusiasm. My talents lie in application and detailed policy design.
Now I was in Kathmandu myself – the second country to which Bruce had preceded me, and that sequence worked well. He convinces the boffins to do it: I work with them on how. It was almost the end of my stay, and the tension and disruption caused by the royal coup of February 2, 2005 was easing a little. As Bruce had done almost three years earlier, I took a break from my laptop and wandered in Durbar Marg. It was a Sunday. A shabby, thin boy approached. He looked perhaps eleven or twelve.
'Excuse me,' he said. 'What country are you from?'
'Australia,' I said.
'The capital of Australia is Canberra,' said the boy. 'But Canberra is only a small city. Sydney and Melbourne are much larger. There is also Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.'
I remembered Bruce's story about his young friend. Perhaps there were many kids in Kathmandu who could perform this party trick – reciting the world's capital cities. The game would act as an ice-breaker with wealthy tourists: it would draw them in. 'Do you know the capitals of other countries too?' I asked.
'Yes,' he said. 'In fact I know the capital cities of every country in the world.'
I tried him out. He named correctly the capitals of France, Germany, Canada, China, Vietnam, even Venezuela. He was very good. Now for the litmus test. 'What is the capital of South Africa?'
'Ah,' said the boy. 'That depends whether you are asking for the administrative capital, Johannesburg, or the political capital, Pretoria.'
The coincidence was too unbelievable.
'I think you might have met a friend of mine,' I said. 'Another Australian. He was here in Kathmandu a few years ago. His name is Bruce.'
'That will be Bruce Chapman,' he said, without missing a beat. 'He is a very kind man. He bought me some shoes. He is a professor of economics and he works at the Australian National University in Canberra. See? I have his business card.' He pulled a battered ANU card out of his otherwise empty wallet.
It was Suraj.
Another, slightly older, boy materialised beside us. 'This is my cousin,' said Suraj. 'He has a baby sister, but his family cannot afford to buy milk for her. Can you help?'
They insisted on taking me all the way to the market, about two kilometres down the hill, to a specific grocery stall. I was suspicious, but not overly concerned. As we walked, Suraj and I discussed the pros and cons of World Bank policies as they were applied to Nepal. He referred to a controversial Indian dam project, financed by a World Bank loan, that had led to the eviction of about a million poor tribal farmers. His knowledge and insight were remarkably sophisticated. This was an exceptional boy. He went to a private school, he said, 'but only a cheap one.' I asked him where he learned about economic policy. 'I read all the time,' he said. 'Just the newspaper, and also books from the school library.'
We duly bought the infant formula – two large cans. Abruptly the boys said goodbye. I guessed that they were planning to return the milk to the stall, where the stall-holder would take a cut of the proceeds of their scam. I played my part and left them to it, wandering off, up the hill through the old, crooked, cobbled streets.
ON MY RETURN to Australia I phoned Bruce. 'How was it in Kathmandu?' he asked. 'Fine. I managed to save their student financing scheme. And I met a little friend of yours.' I told him about Suraj. He was incredulous. 'You're making it up.'
'No, I'm not. I have photos to prove it. He said that you took his picture, too. He said that you had not brought a camera with you to Nepal, and so you went into a shop and bought what he called "a small camera" – a disposable, I assume – especially to photograph him.'
'I did, too.' That convinced Bruce. He knew he had not told me that himself. 'Did you meet his cousin? Did they subject you to a bullshit story about a can of baby formula?'
'They did,' I said.
'Did you fall for it?'
'No, not quite, but I went along with it.'
'Me as well.'
I passed on Suraj's hotmail address. Since then, the Australian economist and the dirt-poor schoolboy from Nepal have corresponded regularly. Suraj is an exceptionally gifted and enterprising boy, Bruce and I agree on that, as we agree on so much these days. Suraj deserves a chance. So do all the other kids like him, from Addis Ababa to Ulan Bator.
Bruce and I have now notched up fifteen countries. We go to the capitals of the world's poorest nations and do what we can to design schemes of financial support for poor kids, so that at least some of them will make it to university, hone their talents and contribute to their country's future. Maybe if things turn out as Suraj hopes and good luck comes his way, possibly through a student financing program aimed at the poorest of Nepal, he will be one of them. Bruce and I are paid a modest fee, but we do it because we enjoy the adventure and challenge. In the end, though, we do it for Suraj.
POSTSCRIPT: Since then there has been a suitable denouement; a salutary reproach for our self-satisfied, do-gooder sentiments. Bruce and Suraj have had a falling out.
Bruce was determined to send Suraj a present, something that he could use but was too poor to buy for himself. A Nepalese doctoral student at ANU was going home for the summer break; it seemed the perfect opportunity. 'I got him a nice warm jacket,' Bruce told me. 'You know, one of those polar fleece things.' Arrangements were made by email for the conscripted post-grad to meet Suraj.
The rendezvous was successful, the student reported a couple of months later. But Bruce still had not heard from Suraj. He was anxious to learn that his gift had been appropriate. Eventually Bruce emailed. The forwarded reply from Suraj was, for me, not unexpected:
Hi, i am fine and i got the jacket you had send. it was nice but it
would have been better if it was something that is found there or i mean
not in nepal. these jackets you can get anywhere in nepal with a very
cheap price. hope to hear from you soon.
Suraj's enthusiasm about a gift from his wealthy Australian friend was actually the possibility of selling it. He hoped for a gold watch, maybe, or at least a mobile phone. The jacket was a disappointment.
Poor Bruce. I think he was a little disillusioned. Generally speaking, when it comes to friendships across the great global economic divide, it's prudent to have no illusions. While I had learnt this painful lesson years ago, it was Bruce's first time. Yes, we get paid a little for our smug idealism, but we also pay our own price. A small one in the scheme of things, I'm sure you'll agree.