Bottom-up Assistance and Aid: Odd Hoftun’s work in Nepal



Paper given by Peter Svalheim 

on the Norway-Nepal-Association 25th anniversary / launching  of the biography on Odd Hoftun

Voksenåsen Hotell 14. november 2009 



Odd and Tullis Hoftun arrived Nepal by new year 1958, seven years after the country opened up for the influences from the abroad world. And he is still playing an active role as a senior adviser for the companies which he created in Nepal. This means that Odd Hoftun’s work corresponds to a large extent with Nepal’s modern history. It also covers the time span during which Norway climbed to the top of the world, economically – and as a so-called “humanistic superpower”, where our contributions to aid and development work adds very much to our understanding of ourselves as Norwegians.


The expression “Bottom-up” describes very well Odd Hoftun’s approach during this 50 years of service.


In this paper I would like to focus at the basic values, philosophies and features which form the foundation for Odd’s work and approach. I find that these values and philosophies in the same time adds to the understanding of his work as a “Bottom-up” service. They might also as well be tumblestones for average development work, and even more: for international, commercial trade.


The first significant feature I will mention is connected with Odd Hoftun’s dedication to serve. When he and Tullis went to Nepal, he had been struggling systematically since his early youth with this question: What is my determination as a human? What is Gods calling for my life? Through this sensitivity, he reached the conciousness that his calling was to serve people in another country, with his skills and his mind. To put it simply: Odd is a missionary.


He became a co-worker of Tibetmisjonen and United Mission to Nepal. This was very fortunate, as both these organisations proved to be flexible enough to appreciate Odds untraditional ideas, rather than to restrict them, as many other organisations surely would have done.


The bottom-up-perspective becomes very distinct in UMN’s expression of its task: “We shall minister to the needs of the people of Nepal in the Name and Spirit of Christ”.

Odd himself describes his service like this: “What it requires, is people who believe that this is important! People who are willing to go out there and start the process - and have the patience to see it through to the end!  Because it is people that matter!” (From a speech at African Ministerial Conference on Hydropower and Sustainable Development 2006).


This quotation also describes Odd Hoftun’s work in a nutshell.


The other feature which I will point out, is the genuine humbleness which he impose to his work. This is not necessarily because he is a humble person, but because he recognizes intellectually that his task requires humbleness, so to say, as a method of work. He consciously chooses to discipline himself and puts aside his natural desire for success as a professional. Instead, he can be quoted in sayings like this:


  • “It is not important what you yourself achieve as a development worker. What matters is what your national coworkers achieves”


  • “A development project which cannot be copied by the use of local resources and efforts might very well be a failure, even though it seems to be all perfect by itself.”


  • “It doesn’t matter if you do mistakes, when only the mistake are in a properly small scale and that you are able to admit your failures towards your national coworkers.”



Yet another feature which underlines the bottom-up-persepective in Odds work, is closely connected with his background and identity as a norwegian.


At this point, I will refer to a french Dominican pater and sociologist, Bernhard Delplanque. He wrote a 90 page essay in the mid-1960-es: “Norge og utviklingslandene. Fra teknisk assistanse til politisk-sosial hjelp”, “Norway an the developing countries - from technical assistance to political and social support” Odd got this private published book from Haakon Lie in 1969/70, as a response from Lie on Odds work in Nepal.


In this essay, Bernhard Delplanque stresses that the developing countries not only needs technical and economical assistance, but also patterns on the matter of values and human resources.


However well intended, it would not make any decisive effect if a foreign donor pops in and delivers advanced technology or ready-made social structures from patterns abroad. The developing country itself have to experience the conflict between the new and the old time. And this conflict needs to be experienced on the bottom level, in each family and village. This, Delplanque expresses, is the only and inevitable way to transform tradition and history in a nation so that it forms a natural fundament for a modern society.


And here, Delplanque stresses, the nation of Norway is very relevant as a source for inspiration and experience. This French scholar describes a certain Norwegian phenomenon: That the structure of our society has developed from the bottom level. The Norwegian, social model is not based on a structure or ideology, introduced by an elite in the society.


“The Norwegian model,” he describes, came to being through thousands of conflicts and initiatives in hundreds of local communities. In the same time, these local communities have been aware that they are a part of a bigger society. And thus, these local communities have made connections with each other, building an ever bigger structure, up to the national and also multi-national level.

This kind of process of building the society from the bottom, is exactly what each and every developing country needs to go through, Bernard Delplanque stresses. And he suggests that the Norwegian model might serve as an inspiration.


Delplanque also points out the main sources for this Norwegian phenomenon: the rural movement of cooperatives, the grundtvigianism, and of course, 210 years back: Hans Nielsen Hauge – the lay preacher and establisher of industry and cooperatives. Hauge was a reformer of the society to a much larger extent than what is remembered and recognized today.


In that way, certain values and patterns of thinking and acting, at least to some degree, became a natural, integrated instinct in the average local culture - also in the small mountain society Ål in Hallingdal, where the son of the local power house director, his name is Odd Hoftun, grew up and later spent all his abilities, national and mental heritage, effort, skills and experiences in his service for Nepal.



Still I have not described more than the starting point: The values and basic orientation of Odd Hoftun when he meets the society in Nepal in 1958. It takes only a few weeks before he notes down his first observations and considerations which would form his main task during the next 50 years. “It is good in itself to run a hospital and do charity-work. But it simply doesn’t meet the strategic needs of the people!” he writes to a friend, summer 1958. Instead, he outlines a totally new strategy for a Christian mission: He wants to give technical training to individuals in Nepal. He also wants to influence the individuals with certain values such as reliability and appreciation of physical work in itself. To put it short: He wants to create a fundament for industry and market-economy in Nepal, so that the individual might be able to help himself through his own efforts.


In the same time, he reaches an attitude towards fundings which is in a very distinct contrast to the common, commercial perspective: “Money should be treated as poison”, he declares. Putting too much money into a development project would have a devastating impact. The local people would turn passive, and find a position as receivers instead of actively taking part in the project. Instead, the development project should be in short of money. The shortage shapes a creativity among the co-workers who would try to find the solutions out of their own initiatives and skills.

Too much money would also strip the example value from the development project for the indigenous people. How could they afford a costly project? On the contrary: A development project which can be implied with less money and resources, functions as a demonstration for poor people on how to help yourself.


Odd’s own description of his life work goes like this, in a paper focusing on HumanCapacityBuilding:


“What developed in our case was not a result of a pre-planned effort. Human capacity building does not work by directive from above. Nor does it fit well under crisis management, where the time perspective is too short. - It is more like having the faith and courage to go and plant a seed. Then adding water and some fertilizer, but otherwise standing aside, letting the process take its time - and simply watch it grow. - Both people and institutions are living organisms that must be allowed to find their own way and shape.”


I can’t help feeling that the expression “simply watch it grow” is somewhat misplaced in the case of Odd Hoftun. From the huge bunches of files which I was dealing with during my work on his biography, I also know that the planning efforts was far more detailed and foreseeing than this quotation seems to admit. Nevertheless, this quotation describes very well the organic nature of his work.


As the years passed by, it so happened that the hydropower resources of Nepal got the main focus. The perspective shifted naturally from the level of individuals, to projects, from projects to institutions, from institutions to the society of Nepal as a whole. Geographically there was a similar development: From the local community, to the region, to the country.


This organic, natural growth in the same time contradicts a misunderstanding: That the “bottom-up”-perspective in development work is linked with the size of the development project. The “Bottom-up”-perspective is not describing a size, but an attitude and certain principles which is implied in the project.


This point is becoming visible when Odd Hoftun’s work reaches the level of cooperation with international, commercial companies.


Now we are in the 90-ies, and we are talking about Khimti: The plans for a 60 Mw Power plant east of Kathmandu. In Odd’s plans, this represented the next, natural step both for teaching his family of companies their skills, and for meeting the countries need for energy to the grid.


This family of companies had all grown out of the same, tiny seed. Now they should learn to deal with the international, commercial world. And then it so happens that the Norwegian waterpower expertise has a similar need: The Norwegian Statkraft wants to go abroad to find new markets and expand their activity. And in Nepal, they find it all prepared and built up from the bottom, by a fellow Norwegian, engineer and missionary. It couldn’t be easier.


The water power companies of Nepal and of Norway meets, with Odd Hoftun as the natural link and “midwife”. The cooperation seemed to be a perfect match. And indeed it was, in practical sense. The Khimti power plant was built in time and is delivering energy to the grid.


But in the same time, this project represented a crisis. This was a crisis which revealed the uniqueness of Odd Hoftun’s work. It also revealed that the basic attitudes in Norwegian companies had shifted. Odd’s concept and method of bottom-up-assistance was challenged and contrasted by a totally opposite attitude.


Statkraft insisted to bring in the big, international investment banks, Asia Development Bank and even the World Bank. These big and mighty organisations applies a system which keeps the small, developing countries to forever under foreign dominance. It forms an evil circle: All commercial contracts shall be exposed for international bids. Local manufacturers and suppliers do not win contracts in competition with foreign suppliers - because they lack relevant experience.  And they cannot gain such experience because they never get jobs where they can learn. This is a system of patronizing the poor and favorizing the rich, in the name of “the holy” market-economy.


As far as I know, Nepal is the only developing country which has overcome this evil circle. Nepal has now got it’s own competence on how to utilize its vaste water resources. This is very much thanks to a 50 years long effort for building up the competence in the country, from the bottom and up, through individuals, and then through ta family of companies, which all derived from the same seed.


But still the over all rule in the international, finance and commercial circles is the same: They maintain a system which is the total opposite to bottom-up-aid. This makes the example from Nepal even more important, as an exception and a source for inspiration. Here the contrasts and choices in development work reveals themselves.


Now in 2009, the Norwegian government expresses that: ”The government wishes to stimulate norwegian companies to get more involved in commercial trade in the developing countries.” (Stortingsmelding 13 2009: Klima konflikt og kapital. Norsk utenrikspolitikk i et endret handlingsrom.)


Luckily, the companies, the Norwegian government and also the rest of the world, have got a splendid example through Odd Hoftun’s work, on how commercial trade can be implied in development work in a manner that serves the needs of the development country, as well as the commercial company. That is in short, to apply the “bottom-up”-perspective.