Posts Tagged ‘Nepal’

Engaging with the elephant in the room – Nepal’s exodus

June 6, 2011

Youth migration, remittances and skill development in Nepal.

Read my latest post here!


Facilitating two approaches to cattle feed in Nepal

May 22, 2011

Another Practical Action comms. blog from me available here. Please read critically 😛

Roots, perfume, herbal tea and cheese: Ground-up market development in Nepal

March 12, 2010

The debate continues across development studies about the centrality of economic growth as a driver for development understood in wider terms. But from inside Nepal, a country burdened by critical human underdevelopment, stunted by economic stagnation, and hindered by political deadlock, the view is clear enough: economic growth is the engine of development. And although optimal performance requires more than just a big engine, as the BBC’s Top Gear team will tell you, without it a country doesn’t even get moving.

Our understanding of the drivers of growth is still limited, and the application of what wisdom we do have to inform policy decisions is often difficult. After all, designing country-specific policy conducive to sustainable, and ideally inclusive, growth is no simple matter, nor should it be. ‘On the ground’ even benign decision-makers lack the information to foresee how best to manage the economy to achieve sustained growth. The advisors they turn to, while better informed by research, often lack a perspective contextualised enough to withstand the idiosyncrasies of country specificity. Furthermore, this analysis doesn’t even take into account the inevitability of politics in decision-making, and the technical constraints to research.

Notwithstanding the epistemological constraints, law, policy and intervention are being designed across the world to support and enhance economic growth in developing countries. The tools deployed are diverse: macro-economic policies encourage domestic and foreign investment and balance the cost of importing intermediate goods required as inputs in the economy with the relative prices of export-oriented producers; domestic laws and regulations are instituted that help enterprises and business get off the ground and prosper; government funds are directed to help industries overcome expensive hurdles to growth, from start-up costs and difficulties in coordinating within and across industries, to information-gathering activities.

All of these tools are controversial, for more reasons than can be enumerated here. For a few examples though, pro-growth macro-economic policies have in the past been accompanied with strong pressures to minimise the role of the state, leading to vast cuts in health and educational spending. Pro-business law and regulation make concessions in labour protection. And government intervention in industrial development, known as industrial policy, involves supporting some industries over others, and thus can lead to countries ‘betting on the wrong horse’. This results in a misallocation of resources, stunting rather than enabling growth. Industrial policy can also lead to corruption, where government officials support industries they have a political or private  interest in.

Nonetheless, all of these approaches are deployed in some form wherever economic growth is a priority (probably everywhere), with varying success.

Market-chain development is a practical, ground-up approach to industrial policy, often implemented by INGOs and NGOs in partnership with government ministries. In principle underdeveloped markets are encouraged to blossom by enabling a conducive policy, legal and regulatory environment  and by intervening to ensure that the services that support enterprise development are in place and properly functioning.

Effective market-chain development must balance industrial upgrading potential with market viability. Intervention planning must carefully choose potential markets for development that will self-sustain after the project cycle support is removed. In Nepal this means targeting agricultural markets, such as dairy products, forestry related markets, non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) in particular, and the tourism sector. Not only are these the markets that are likely to survive once subsidy support is pulled, but they are the ones that will alleviate poverty directly. In a country where over 80% of the population is rural, and where poverty is strongly correlated to natural resource dependence in particular, market development support in these areas offers opportunities to provide new, sustainable income-generating activities for the poorest in Nepal.

This goes against the growing consensus that the markets that should be targeted are those where there is a potential over time to move into products that have a higher value, and therefore bring greater benefits to the economy. Traditionally these are deemed to be in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. Given Nepal’s infrastructure and international trade relations, this alternative is not currently viable however.

At the time of writing, Kathmandu faces 10 hours of electricity load-shedding a day. This is likely to rise until significant rains replenish the mountain lakes that drive Nepal’s hydro-electricity reliant power grid. This failure in the supply of a good that is used as an essential, and non-substitutable, input for so much of the economy creates a crippling bottleneck for manufacturing, industrial and service sector development. Poor transport infrastructure further compounds domestic and export difficulties – Nepal, being landlocked, has no ports, only one international runway, and few, poorly maintained roads.

Nepal’s free trade accord with SAARC countries floods it with cheap Indian goods, limiting domestic market development. Furthermore, low-value industry and manufacturing struggle to compete internationally without special support which competitors in Africa benefit from through the US African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA). At the beginning of 2005 the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Textile and Clothing (ATC) came to an end, and the poorest countries, who had been exempt from the quota system and thus had preferential market access to the USA and other industrialised countries, were made to compete with less poor countries such as China. AGOA cushioned Africa’s situation but doubled the blow to poor Asian countries such as Nepal. Nepal’s readymade garment (RMG) exports to the USA, its biggest market, collapsed to one-tenth of its pre-2005 level in 5 years. Its RMG exports to India died similarly.

In contrast, markets in tea, coffee, essential oils, plant products used in fragrances and dairy products are underdeveloped domestically in Nepal, and have the potential to be competitive internationally. Furthermore, many of these products tap niche markets where demand is dependable and growing, and are thus somewhat protected from international price fluctuations.

When Education Outpaces Opportunity – Help Me Doctor

February 4, 2010

“I have a PhD in agriculture, an MBA in Finance, 12 years work experience as finance officer for a host of INGOs, 3 of those years were abroad, a 5 page publication list, 2 of those pages are articles in international journals. I am desperate for work, willing to consult on short-term contracts, anywhere in Asia. Please leave me on your consultancy list.”

Or words to that effect.

It is incredible how many people in Nepal have PhDs, MBAs and Master’s degrees. And it is even more staggering that many of them are struggling to make a secure living.

This reality is further evidence of the dangers of an over-expansion in education without a complementary expansion of opportunities for the educated. I relate this to the African post-independence experience:

From 1957 onwards, newly independent African states embarked on ambitious fast-track development agendas. Central to these plans was the rapid education of its citizens. Enormous educational expansion brought steep rises in school enrolment, attendance, and graduation. Literacy and numeracy rates rose sharply, and knock-on impacts were felt everywhere where better education plays a role in outcomes, leading for example to declines in fertility rates and the prevalence of hygiene-related illnesses.

But as more people went to school, expectations of work opportunities grew, nearly always faster than the supply of opportunities for the educated. In part to avoid having a large disgruntled educated tranche of the population, many countries guaranteed university graduates employment in the government and in state-owned companies. Many commentators agree that this was a large contributor to the over-sized, wasteful and inefficient governments and state-owned enterprises in Africa that emerged between the 60s and 80s.

Back to Nepal, and what I see is another impact of education levels outpacing work opportunity. The bar keeps being raised: If for every decent graduate-level job that is made available in Nepal, there are ten suitably qualified Nepalis, then recruiters will obviously look for ways of differentiating applicants. So those with higher degrees will more likely secure the jobs, leaving others, less but still adequately qualified, behind. Over time, having a bachelor’s degree becomes the standard and a master’s is required differentiate oneself.

What is staggering is that increasingly in Nepal, the process has gone a step further. At the moment I work for a development consultancy firm, connecting well qualified and experienced individuals in South Asia to technical development contract work. And the simple truth is, if you don’t have a PhD, you’re not likely to get a call from us.

The impact of this momentum can be devastating. In Nepal parents commit large amounts of their assets, or become heavily indebted to send their children to what they deem are the best private schools and further education colleges. Education in Nepal has become big business, exploiting the hopes and aspirations of students and parents who believe that a further qualification will make them more employable and offer a path out of poverty. But when this path involves two years of ‘sixth form’, four years of bachelor’s, at least two further years of master’s, may keep winding after that, and still does not always offer the promised prize at the end, the whole institution of further education reveals itself to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Kathmandu’s Day Off

December 8, 2009

The 6th December will have been one of the clearest days in Kathmandu all year. The 6,500 metre Himalayan backdrop is usually almost never visible, hidden behind a smog layer trapped in the valley.


But today there are no cars, no trucks or buses, no bikes, mopeds or tempos emptying their kerosene-heavy exhausts into the winter sky. The towering white peaks loom over the city. And without the vehicles, the usual soundtrack of the city, an incessant cacophony of horns, is absent. The quiet is somehow at once soothing and unnerving. Sunday is a work day in Nepal but without public transport, no-one is able to go to work. No shop or cafe is open either.

Yet it feels like the whole of Kathmandu is out on the street. People are enjoying the novelty of hearing the crows in the trees above and walking in the middle of the main distribution roads. The kids are certainly making the most of it, zigzagging on their bikes across the whole of what are usually gridlocked streets, their only danger arising from the armed police’s turreted pickups that unnecessarily speed by.


On every street corner a couple dozen heavily armed police troopers lean against their shields, batons and rifles. But the mood here in Kathmandu is one of unexpected holiday. As New York sees its first snow of the winter, Kathmandu is having its version of a snow day.

Around a month ago the Maoists led a land grab in the buffer-zone between Bardiya National Park and Shuklaphant Wildlife Reserve in western Nepal, settling landless poor and setting up co-operative farms. Yesterday the armed police came in to remove the squatters. A fire fight ensued resulting in five deaths, including the brutal lynching of a police officer, and more than 50 injuries. Last night scenes of violent protest broke out across Nepal and a country-wide bandh – shutdown – was called by the Maoists for today.*

Nepal’s young democracy is going through crippling growing pains; the eight month long political deadlock periodically spills onto the streets, sometimes with inspiring scenes of mass protest, sometimes with ugly scenes of violence. Yesterday was a particularly grizzly example of the latter, but today was something still different: a day off.

But in a country where over 50% of the population live under the national poverty line one wonders for how many ‘a day off’ was really welcomed. For the struggling shop owner, tempo driver, store assistant, factory worker and rural farmer who really need that daily income and access to basic services to secure their fundamental needs, having to take part in the bandh out of solidarity or fear of reprisal is unlikely to feel like a holiday. The Maoists in their protests are likely hurting those they purport to speak and work for the most.

*Read more on Saturday 5th December’s events.

Climate Change Information Mismanagement

December 6, 2009

Momentum is building in the development and environmental management sectors to integrate climate change considerations into programme design and implementation. In Nepal, the focus is firmly on building adaptation capacity, across sectors and at all administrative levels.

The Nepal government, in consultation with the United Nations and other stakeholders, is working on their National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA), which promises to be a much more capacity-building exercise than the process in other Less Developed Countries. International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) with their local partners are also mainstreaming climate change adaptation into their high-profile programmes, and some are considering new adaptation-specific interventions. These INGOs include WWF, Practical Action, Oxfam, Concern International and Care International, and local partners include Resource Identification and Management Society Nepal (RIMS-Nepal) and Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD).

Knowledge generation in the form of information gathering and management is playing a central role in these early days of climate change action in Nepal. Most of the current INGO projects are impact assessments. The NAPA process is similarly oriented, although also puts a strong emphasis on building institutional capacity for future intervention.

Most impact assessments take a participatory approach, stressing the importance of identifying socio-economic vulnerability to possible climate change impacts. Little time or effort is expended on considering the physical hazard context. There are many valid, practical reasons for this. In the case of localised scientific studies, such as regional hydrological and atmospheric simulation experiments and local ecological field assessments, these require technical expertise and financial resources often not available in Nepal.

However, there is substantial scope and feasibility for synthesis research of available information. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an obvious starting point for information on past climatic trends and future projects, and can be complemented by the wealth of disaster risk reduction and natural resource management knowledge available. Some such synthesis research is being carried out, by the NAPA team in particular, but it is not widespread enough. Synthesis of climate change-specific information such as that which is available from the IPCC is especially lacking, as the evidence of currently available impact assessments, and published presentations from important stakeholders, reveals. Reports often only begin with a short section on climate change in the context of Nepal, making unsupported statements about present and future hazard context changes, with only general reference to the IPCC, if any citation is included at all.

This exposes serious methodological weaknesses. Firstly, the onset of climate change is generally assumed as a starting point of impact assessments rather than confirmed as part of the assessment. This leads assessment teams to begin their participatory socio-economic assessments without a firm grasp of data-confirmable historical trends. The result is that trends in physical hazard context are assessed using inappropriate approaches such as participatory tools.

Secondly, consideration of downscaled simulation models is omitted, their assumed limitations at the local level used as a convenient excuse to avoid exploring what value they might have despite weaknesses. This is no doubt driven by a lack of confidence on the part of assessment teams to invest into understanding the complex and diverse uncertainties of numerical modelling.

Lastly, because of the two issues above, reports find themselves with precious little to report in the introductory sections that are meant to provide a concrete basis for their assessments. The IPCC is broadly referenced as a stop-gap, leading to the mystification of the Panel, and only adding to the confusion that shapes the climate change debate in the public and political spheres.

Forest Management and Child Labour

November 5, 2009

The tracks out of the forest near Nepalgunj in south western Nepal are very busy today with people carrying large bunches of firewood. The vast majority are women and children. It’s Friday, the only day of the week communities are allowed to forage dead wood, as designated by the local Community Forestry Coordination Committee.

I saw a girl who couldn’t have been more than eight years old carrying a bunch of wood that probably weighed over ten kilograms. Later, I asked another girl who was resting from carrying a bunch that wouldn’t have passed long-haul flight baggage restrictions her age: 10. (Nearby I saw a large group of teenage boys and men playing cards. When I passed again an hour later, they were still playing.)

Rishi Bastakoti, of Resource Identification and Management Society (RIMS) – Nepal, explains that the one-day-a-week regime is intended to make communities use fire wood more economically. When locals could collect wood every day they tended to stock pile the resource and over time increase their consumption of it due of perceptions of abundance. The one-day-a-week system allows households to collect enough wood for the week but not stockpile, curbing the consumption increase trend.

Mr. Bastakoti also says that the regime has led to a shift to the use of other fuels for cooking and heating, such as kerosene, further protecting the sustainability of the forest. It must be said however that in three weeks of field work in rural Dang and Banke districts, I not once saw the use of alternative fuel.

In addition to the effectiveness at managing the tension between livelihood needs and ecosystem sustainability, the success of a natural resource regime must also be measured on its wider social impacts, such as child manual labour.

The one-day-a-week system creates a labour-time management bottleneck. Households must fit all their wood-collecting labour hours into a single day. If the labour hour demands exceed those providable by able-bodied adults, children will be mobilised. In contrast, if households could spread the wood-collecting hours across the whole week, the hours could in principle be allocated entirely to adults without needing to resort to child labour.

Child labour is often determined as much by labour-time management constraints as economic pressure. This is well documented in long term farming cycles. Child labour is often mobilised during harvest when labour shortage is common. At these times, school attendance drops sharply, and often school holidays are scheduled to coincide with harvest time to address this problem. The example of community forestry practice suggests that time management and labour hour shortages can have the same effect in much shorter cycles too.

Holistic ‘community-based’ or ‘co-management’ approaches to forestry popular with international non-governmental organisations promise to strike a balance between protecting ecosystem sustainability and safeguarding livelihoods. But if the cost of these systems is taking steps backward in social development it is arguable that priorities should be rethought. Certainly the sight of an eight year old missing school because her parents need all the hands they can get fetching firewood on Fridays invites considerable disillusionment in the new grass-roots empowering, integrated sustainable development paradigm.

Adam Smith Avoids Extortionate Bus Fare

October 5, 2009

‘Adam Smith’s’ eyes glimmer with triumph as the frustrated bus conductor climbs down from the roof of the bus as it swerves down the pot-holled mountain road towards Pokhara Bazaar, in Nepal. The great economist has just dodged his fare.

“Good economics?” I facetiously ask the tenth grade economics student who introduced himself as the 18th century father of modern economics. He and his friends grin, their faces lit up by the mid-day September sun. Because it’s Dashain, Nepal’s biggest and most important festival, the local bus companies have raised their fares by over 100% to benefit from the increased, inelastic demand for transport, the young Smith explains.

In response, he and his friends have started using a variety of methods to avoid the extortionate rates: arguing with the conductors until they give up, producing student I.D. cards and claiming tenuous special rates, or as I saw Smith do, simply ignoring the conductor until he leaves.

There is evidence that price hikes are not limited to transport. It is traditional for families to sacrifice goats and other livestock during the festival. The market value of live goats during Dashain this year has fallen significantly due to high imported supply and decreased demand due to early departure of migrant workers (which make up half of Kathmandu’s sometime population). Cash shortages amongst consumers have also contributed. In the capital this has often left intermediary livestock dealers struggling to shift at profit, their stock bought at high import prices before the start of the festival, in expectation of higher consumer prices.

But outside the capital, stronger monopolistic power of the marketing Nepal Food Corporation (NFP) and greater inelasticity of demand – possibly due to more rigid cultural and religious norms – have led many rural families to pay NFP set prices, above market value. Many of these rural families pay for such celebratory purchases with funds informally borrowed at interests rates sometimes as high as 10% per month.

The comment sections of some of the papers call for national and local government regulations to prevent temporary, festival-time price hikes, and that’s what the 15 year-old Adam Smith said should happen. It is unclear what the 18th century Scot would think.

Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children

September 30, 2009

Pema Chodon and Sangmo Sherpa apologise for the non-existent mess in their flat – they are preparing for a celebration tonight. What’s the occasion, I ask. I’m told that there is no need for one.

Pema and Sangmo are seniors at Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children, located in the Buddhist suburb of Kathmandu. The 17 and 16 year olds are on a ‘gap year’, working as special assistants to the director of the school, having finished tenth grade the previous year. Next year, they may join the few but growing number of teenagers from the school securing scholarships to complete high school abroad. But as Sangmo explains, with so many complications, not least ethnic discrimination on the part of the Nepali government against Himalayan youths, she will not get her hopes up until the plane takes off from Kathmandu International.

Shree Mangal Dvip School was founded in 1987 by eminent Tibetan lama Thrangu Rinpoche as a place for northern highland Nepali children to get the opportunities that the national government fails to provide in their home region. Culturally and linguistically Tibetan, and Buddhist, Nepali highlanders are one of the most marginalised groups in Nepali society. Villages in the mountains have no roads, electricity, telephones, sanitation, hospitals or schools. Even relative to the rest of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, highlanders’ lives are exceptional precarious.

By any standard, Shree Mangal Dvip School is outstanding. Taking in the poorest Himalayan boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 22 the school teaches them maths, science, English, Nepali, social studies, IT, and Tibetan to international standard (IB in some subjects). Class sizes are between 15 and 30. Boarding rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable. The school also provides health and dental care for all in the school community.

The school also has a strong emphasis on Buddhist teaching, with the children taking part in prayer and meditation every day. Transferrable life skills are also instructed along the way through innovative programmes such as the senior ‘gap year’ whereby older students work as teaching, health care and administrative staff in the school.

Notice boards of the various student clubs and societies skirt the basketball court. At the time of our visit, the young monks of the nearby monastery who come here for lay teaching, donning dusty old Brazil and Chelsea shirts, were scrapping around across the football pitch.

Canadian Shirley Blair, director of the school, explains to us that things are going well at the moment, with strong support from international private donors, many of them Buddhists influenced by the teachings of Thrangu Pinpoche.

But she remembers a time when the school experienced black-outs for 18 hours every day, broken windows were left unmended due to lack of funds, and basic schooling equipment was in serious shortage. Necessarily hard-headed and thick skinned, Shirley also several times faced off against maoist would-be extortionists wielding metal bars. The school’s walls are now cemented with nails and broken glass for protection. Shocked by one occasion where Shirley stood up against the thugs on her own the students mobilised themselves to set up a website, and promised that they would protect their school from intimidation themselves in future. “The thugs would not beat kids, it would be all over the international news”, they explained.

The school has big plans to build a new ecological campus away from the bustle of Kathmandu, but this depends crucially on the support of Thrangu Rinpoche, his followers, and other donors.

During my visit I was struck by the quality of the school and the opportunities given to the 650 odd under-privileged children, despite significant adversity. Clearly the religious charity model works well in this case to provide substantial working capital for the school. More distressing is the size of the waiting list for entry at the school, which runs into two packed ring binders, and the reality that a dysfunctional state system makes this type of charity school, whose long-term sustainability is always uncertain, the best chance for Himalayan children.