Nepalese Diaspora: Possibilities and Opportunities

Published in: Saugat Vol.4 (paper) August 23, 2008

As I reflect on our identity and aspirations, I see us as people of a common heritage whose origin can be traced to Nepal and carry multiple identities derived from Nepal and Canada. Having arrived in Canada in recent years, we have family ties in Nepal and we continue to carry nostalgia about our cultural and national roots. All of us are poor, rich, illiterate, learned, Canadian, Nepalese, identity-less, and distinct in our own ways. And there is a skilled worker, student, middleman, investor, business owner, trader, market developer, technologist, tourist, philanthropist, political thinker, academician, researcher, innovator, philosopher and more among us. Our thoughts pull us in different directions rendering us as people of suspended aspirations! We are unsure about our future, our actual wants, and our elixir of happiness. Amidst all this confusions, we are, most of all, people of knowledge, influence, and capacity. We are Nepalese Canadians! In this context, exploring the possibilities and opportunities offered by Canada and Nepal to the Nepalese diaspora has been of our common interest. This article is meant to generate debates and discussions on how we could become constructive contributors to Canada and Nepal.

A look back into history

When we overlook the lessons left by history, our decisions stem from our perception of the present. When wisdom from the past and vision for the future are absent, our pursuits turn blind and, we never know where they might lead us. Our personal belief and perception of truth overshadow evidence and reality. Consequently, our fate becomes placed in the hand of chance. Therefore, there is much wisdom to draw from the times of trade, fusion, and prosperity experienced in Nepal at the times of Shakyas, Ashoka, Licchavis, and Mallas.

The history of successive periods of progress in Nepal tells that the fountain of innovation and progress is always in its people. People are by far the greatest resources of any kind and the drivers of foreign trade, investment, entrepreneurialism, culture, religion, politics and philosophy, and, consequently, of societal progress. We can collectively shut-off or open the fountain of innovation based on how we want to govern ourselves as a society.

The key to flourishing innovative culture, progress and prosperity in any society is in education, organization and discipline amongst its people as depicted in the accompanying diagram. These principles are applicable not only to the ordinary citizens but also to the ruling elites and all. Once human creativity is unlocked, society is organized, and a rule of law is instilled, no government has to manufacture progress from the one fixed center.

The developments of recent years have amply demonstrated that a sufficient dose of tolerance and goodwill exists in Nepal. The country is as capable of educating, organizing, and inculcating rule of law amongst its people as any country in the world. This is because we hardly ever need high-cost infrastructure to deliver good quality education and to mobilize people. High-cost infrastructure for research can then follow to compliment, formalize, and accelerate innovation that comes from various actors such as teachers, entrepreneurs, farmers, traders, and more. Domains of both research and innovation get healthy boost in the presence of the three essences – education, organization, and discipline.

Education Organization and Descipline

The social and economic policies and programs taken by a government have direct influence in the quality and pace of progress. Those policies alter consumer confidence, social equality, political stability, investment, economy, and innovation, and, in turn, influence societal progress and satisfaction. For example, some economists say that the government’s dependence on heavy borrowing leads to high interest rates in the country that dampens economic growth and accelerates the divide between the rich and the poor. The inability of the government and public institutions to deliver quality public services not only widens citizen satisfaction gap, but also diminishes the potential flow of investment and knowledge from other societies.

Today the scars of wrong policies, priorities, and execution are amply evident in Nepal. While the stated motives of successive governments have been social equality, scientific evidences suggest that inequality is growing at an alarming rate in Nepal. Whereas a rosy picture of economic progress and resilience is incessant, an Asian Development Bank study discovered that Nepal’s poor are being left behind in a worrisome manner since the 1990s, and now the increase in the gap between the rich and poor even eclipses countries such as China as shown in the following chart. (The Gini coefficient shown in the chart is a measure of inequality of income distribution in population, where 0 means perfect equality and 1 means total inequality.)

The alarming rise in inequality can be attributed to some key factors, the main being the productivity gap between rural and urban people, agriculture and industry, skilled and unskilled workers. And at the root of this gap is the gap in education. Considering the emergence of private schools where the education of five year old children is bought and sold in the market like a non-essential commodity and the steady erosion of public schools, this degeneration is not hard to imagine.

Education Organization and Descipline
Source: Asian Development Bank (Adopted here from The Economist [1])

Nevertheless, public education was, is, and will always be a key to employment, individual success, innovation, and social equality. If only quality education was available to all the rural poor, they would have agricultural productivity at home or at least a better payment from the foreign employment.

While the education system was left to degenerate, infrastructure development and the environment have been utterly neglected in Nepal. As soon as a visitor lands in Kathmandu, the shortfall in infrastructure (i.e. water, electricity, telecommunication, and roads) and its management are apparent. The unreliable electricity supply alone is causing a staggering productivity loss and is an impediment towards import, export, trade, and investment. Individuals and companies line up for too long to obtain electricity and telephone lines and to carry out daily transactions. Corruption and inefficiency are limiting the trade and investment climate. Urban centers are full of chaos and pollution that you wonder what utility there is of a government that is so inept at doing anything meaningful.

While Nepal’s northern and southern neighbors are awash with direct foreign investment, outsourcing, technology transfer, knowledge transfer, inflow of human capital, and massive economic growth, Nepal is plagued with outflow of human capital, no direct foreign investment, and utilization of the remittance money to increase the GDP of neighboring countries instead of using it for internal productivity gain. Therefore, improved governance remains in the forefront of Nepal’s needs.

Governance, however, is one of those areas where Diaspora contribution remains limited. Although we expend much of our intellectual energy in sofa-talks and in futile attempts to bring the chosen party into government, it is wasted energy in most part. The energy could have been more useful if it were directed towards augmenting the utility of remittance and investment, and in influencing the government through policy inputs.

Conversely, it can never hurt a country to incorporate members of diaspora in policy making bodies, even if they have become the citizens of their adopted countries. Even having small number of diaspora representatives in legislative bodies like parliament can have a positive effect in bringing entrepreneurial and collaborative ideas without any loss of sovereignty for Nepal. This may encourage even those who never return to their homeland – to contribute positively to create innovative endeavors that can benefit both Nepal and the adopted lands. However, decisions like this would not and should not be in our hands. We are, therefore, better off focusing on what are our strengths and how can we maximize the utility of those strengths in the scenario that unfolds in front of us.

What are our strengths?

As humans, our core strength is represented by our amazing capacity to learn and adapt. Because of this strength, we are able to develop our vision, expand our frontiers, and enrich our lives. It takes courage to leave our parents’ foot steps and move to a new country. For the fact that we chose to explore new frontiers as immigrants, we have unknowingly supplanted creative and innovative spirit within ourselves.

We are people who are able to create a network among ourselves and with other individuals and organizations. We are human capital useful to any society that can offer maximum utility to and return from our knowledge, skills, experience, and money. Just as Taiwan thrived on the human-capital available in its diaspora, as China thrives on dollar-capital and trade-machinery available amongst its diaspora, and as India thrives on investments, technology-transfer, and out-sourcing through its diaspora, Nepal, too, has something tangible to discover among us, and so does Canada.

As Canada and the United States thrived on immigrating people from Europe in the first half of the 20th century, the wave of 21st century immigration seems to come from Asia. As the Canadian and world economies are discovering opportunities in the growing economies of China and India, it is only a matter of time that unique opportunities in areas ranging from eco-tourism, medical tourism, trade, and living laboratory for research and development in environment, climate-change, biodiversity conservation, and biological world would be found in Nepal. In this sense, we are the ropes and planks of a bridge under construction that connects Canada and Nepal.

We also have a derived strength born unintentionally while helping our family members. We contribute to Nepal’s remittance pie and convert our family members into faithful consumers. Consequently, we become beneficial to businesses in consumption and to government in reducing poverty in Nepal. In lack of domestic products, remittance accounts for more than 20% of Nepal’s GDP. Imagine if Nepal had enough domestic products to be consumed by that money! However, I have to convey a message of caution for I believe that remittance derived strength for any country is a temporary one. Remittance is analogous to hunting and gathering rather than farming. You never know when the supply runs out! Remittance, in fact, leads to complacency and reduced productivity amongst the recipients.

Although successive governments in Nepal appeared to have envisioned remittance driven progress, the history of India and Philippines has taught us that remittance represents a temporary harvest of unsustainable cheer. In Nepal also, most savings are eaten away by buying the same land that was there since time immemorial and by buying unproductive assets such as clothes, jewelry and gold. There are no institutions to pool small amounts of monies and turn them into effective investment – even though communities are starved by not having funding for infrastructure, agriculture, and other forms of developments. Diaspora contributions in such areas can have long term positive influence socially, economically and politically. However, the most valuable commodities possessed by diaspora are their knowledge, skills, and experiences – the thus far forgotten commodities in Nepal.

What is in our number?

Statistics Canada notes that there were 4000 Nepalese Canadians in 2006. If the people in transition were also accounted for and if the population was large enough to dampen the effect of sampling error, we would likely have seen a much bigger number. Population has further increased since then and continues to grow. Regardless of the specific number, we are several thousand strong and this is not an insignificant number.

I came across a psychology book where the author compelled the readers to guess a quantity by asking, “Imagine folding a sheet of paper on itself 100 times. Roughly how thick would it then be?” My instinctive guess was absurdly far off from the actual mathematics, which tells that it will be 100 trillion times the distance between the earth and sun if the paper is initially 0.1 mm thick. This showed that proper and evidential thinking can reveal the truth better than the instinct of a conditioned thinking can. Additionally, the example revealed that the power of exponential growth or multiplication is great, be it in ideas, knowledge, money, or optimism!

Therefore, we should not worry that we have too few people within our community who are exceptionally successful or who have abundant wealth! The truth is that such people are rare in almost any society in the world. Only through pooling and multiplying what we have, can we start growing materially and spiritually. However limited the supply of investment dollars or knowledge may be in quantitative terms, what matters in the end is whether we are able to save and grow exponentially. Even in the absence of super rich investors, the desired multiplication can be materialized from the pooled resources of networked people.

Why is Nepal important to us?

We are suspended between two loyalties – one which is motivated by the professional achievement, physical comfort, opportunities, safety, and security offered by Canada; the other stems from our heritage, family bonds, cultural ties, economic baggage, and nostalgia for Nepal. We are concerned with economic dependence, vulnerabilities, and the poverty in Nepal. We are anxious to see our people living in plenty and be increasingly productive in agriculture, industry and services. We want them to be nourished with a better quality of food and education and be healthy in body and mind in order to utilize their intellectual potential to the fullest. We long to see Nepal earn its dignity and honor in the world so we could be proud as a consequence.

We see comparative advantages for ourselves in opportunities that involve Nepal. As the globally connected economy of 21st century is opening up new possibilities for multinational collaborations that can call upon our knowledge, skills and experience, we are more and more curious about Nepal. We are keen on optimizing the opportunities where our identity as diaspora brings us a comparative advantage. And this is not something to be ignored.

Just as we have a natural advantage in Canada to open a “Kathmandu Restaurant”, “Himalayan Tours”, and “Didi Bahini” craft store, the same natural advantage presents itself to us if we open a “Toronto Restaurant”, “Inuvik Institute of Crafts”, and “Canada Travel and Tours” in Nepal. Canadian and international missionaries helped build Amar Jyoti High School and Jesuit spiritual center; Nepalese missionaries could open up Yoga, Reiki and Vedic spiritual and healing centers in Canada. Canadians could open scientific and technological collaboration centers and production centers in Nepal.

Our fascination with Nepal is understandable given that the information age has not only opened up new opportunities for collaboration between Canada and Nepal, but has also enhanced our ability to tap into Nepal’s significant potential for trade of physical and metaphysical “goods” with India, China and the region. A globally-minded explorer of any realm can see enormous potential in Nepal. Since no one has yet tapped this great potential, the competition is wide open.

Is there Hope?

Having painted a bleak picture of Nepal, it is also necessary to emphasize that Nepal’s future is not without promise. Taking a short pain of building key foundational elements of future progress, namely education, discipline, and organization, Nepal can harness many fruits from that foundational investment. The impact of this emphasis would be swiftly apparent in improved productivity, health, infrastructure, and service-efficiencies. It will be only a matter time that justice, prosperity, system, and innovation flourish in Nepal and it becomes a new hub for north-south trade and a country to emulate. However, Nepal must recognize that “Nurture works on what nature endows”.

Many experts in agriculture confer that Nepal is endowed with superb conditions for enhancing its agricultural productivity by improving the traditional mixed organic farming practices. This very endeavor alone can generate employment in the rural hinterlands and pull Nepal out of poverty. This is especially notable in a context where the global supply and demand of energy is pushing us to the limits and the dreams of mega-corporate farming and eating Canadian wheat in Nepal are becoming increasingly unaffordable. We are being forced to curtail our energy consumption pattern for the survival of the planet. Furthermore, the market potential for internal agricultural trade cannot be considered too small in a country of 30 million. If there was excess production, the two billion people in the North and South would certainly have a taste for it. Imagine the potential appetite for seeds and organic produce like coffee, tea, spices, fruit, wine, and pharmaceutical plant products that may exist in the region! Think of the possible market for crafts and agricultural products and byproducts!

Nepal has tremendous potential for trade, industry, and research in many arenas outside agriculture. Imagine micro-transportation, bio technology, medical technology, financial institutions, research centers, hydro-electricity, telecommunication, education, knowledge and more. There is an opportunity much bigger than a single mind can imagine. There is a vast space for entrepreneurial thinkers to find, salivate, and ultimately feed on sweet fodder.

A sustainable use of the respectable dose of resources endowed by the nature and its people is going to make Nepal a prosperous place in a near future. Nepal has a strategic advantage of not having very many polluting industries in the past and in being relatively clean despite a high population density. As there are big polluters on the north and south, Nepal may be able to take advantage of its environmental quality to improve tourism and develop health industries delivering services to India, China, and the world. With a little care, Nepal has an opportunity to avoid over-dependence on and depletion of its natural resources and not become the Easter Island of tomorrow. (Civilization first grew rapidly and then fell more spectacularly due to accelerated depletion of natural resources in Ester Island, which is a small land mass in the Pacific Ocean.)

There is reason to be hopeful if recent developments are any indicators. The largest political party to emerge from the recent Constituent Assembly election did win the election on a platform of fundamental shift from unproductive tradition to the development of science and technology. It declared that “it is impossible to bring about progress without developing science and technology.” A subsequent article that appeared in the June 13, 2008 issue of Science magazine noted that Nepal is to have a twelve-fold increase in its science and technology budget. This is welcome news as science is what teaches us curiosity, skepticism and humility – thus enabling us to separate sense from nonsense. Because science develops theories based on evidence and not on perceived truth, there lies a window to a thinking society. Imagine if scientific evidence was required to prove theory! Iraq would not have weapons of mass destruction, we would not have had the Iraq war, and we would have already spared the lives of a million Iraqis and thousands of Americans. Science can take us closer to the truth than intelligence alone!

Furthermore, the opportunities are abundant on Nepal for utilizing the thus far ignored but rich set of indigenous knowledge. This knowledge bears a great productive and innovative potential harvestable with basic science, education and techniques. Therefore, Nepal’s immediate term needs can be met through adoption of existing technology and broad based innovation. This will give a basis for investment in cutting-edge science and technology for meeting strategic long-term goals of nation building. While internally existing knowledge plays a vital role in the short term, the engagement of diaspora networks can positively influence Nepal in the medium and long term.

How can we be constructive?

If Nepal is to put emphasis on science and technology, it is imperative that Nepal will be in search of catalytic knowledge amongst its diaspora. The same outflow of skilled population at an alarming rate has to, in turn, prove beneficial. As and when the diaspora responds to the call for collaboration in scientific and technological front, the birth to New Ireland may very well become possible in Nepal! In doing so, there will be substantial increase in the collaborative works in education, knowledge, technology, processes, and innovation between the world and Nepal. Such collaborations will accelerate the development of ever higher orders of institution, investment and trade.

Considering that the greatest strength of human is its capacity to learn and adapt, the education, knowledge, skills, and experiences accumulated by diaspora will positively influence the development of unique science, technology, and philosophy in Nepal. This very endeavor will open up Nepal to the connected and collaborative world of the 21st century. It is only a matter of time that Nepal will be able to export its unique productions and will be able to buy tools and technologies for further development. In this whole process, our visions will be sharpened, frontiers will be expanding, and our existence as individuals and as social animals will be enriched.

Innovation and innovation policies are major ways to unlock Nepal’s potential, and this is where the diaspora can make profound contributions. Having had the chances to roam around the world, they have encountered exposure to the many facades of human development. From the know-how of preventing food contamination to gene therapy, all knowledge, skills, and experience bear direct transferable utility. The same knowledge can make positive contributions in policy making in the respective areas of expertise.

The diaspora can also have tremendous impact in employment generation, direct investment, market development, and trade.

Let us not discount Nepal!

The most plausible foreign location to make investment for any person would be where he or she has trusted connections. Those trusted people for the Nepalese diaspora are, naturally, in Nepal. Moreover, Nepalese Canadians would naturally be the conduit for potential investors from Canada thereby being useful to both Canada and Nepal. Picture Nepal, being situated between China and India, and draw an imaginary high speed railway and an information super highway (fiber-optic telecommunication link carrying high volume of digital information) between Lhasa and Lucknow. Imagine all the tourists, food, goods, information, students, merchants, scientists, and philosophers that could come to Nepal! We have the opportunity to be the greatest traders in the world by tapping into this opportunity! Any forward-looking entrepreneur can appreciate all that Nepal has to offer and how their best conduit would be through the Nepalese diaspora in Canada!

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Life is lived forward, but understood backward.” This is quite true as we never know who might have the solution to problems that we are yet to encounter. Likewise, we never know which country is going to be the greatest, and that does not preclude Nepal or Canada. However, my friends, we do not need too many people to have the vision for the future as long as there is a sufficient number of them.

Even a singular mind can create thoughts so profound that the entire world can remain forever in awe. Look what happened when a single person named Siddhartha spent years under a tree to gain wisdom! He was able to reveal a body of knowledge, which we now draw upon and call Buddhism. What he said two and a half millennia ago still captivates us, as if he knew us even then. Who would have thought that a man so irrational to leave a life of honor and be a hermit could see what millions combined could not see? And, let us note that there was a period where new thoughts were allowed to challenge the old ones and to subsequently thrive in society.

Likewise, let us not discount Nepal for it does not appear to be “normal”. From all the contradictions that rule Nepal, there may emerge knowledge for which the whole world could be hungry! Let us be proud for the fact that Nepal provokes us and inspires us to think. The very same thinking has been shaping us to be the best citizens of the world!

Let us water each other’s plants rather than taking satisfaction in seeing someone else’s plant wilt. This world is our oyster!

References:

[1] Inequality in Asia, Key Indicators 2007 Special Chapter Highlights, Asian Development Bank, http://www.adb.org/Documents/Books/Key_Indicators/2007/pdf/Inequality-in-Asia-Highlights.pdf

Note: First presented in Non-Resident Nepalis Association of Canada (NRN-Canada) convention in 2008 August 23, in Toronto, Canada and published in Saugat, Volume 4, August 2008 a NCCS and NRN-Canada Publication.

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