May 27, 2013 Sujeev Shakya

Diaspora and Beyond

When you hear Nepali chattering in the New York subway or the Washington DC metro, you wonder how much the numbers have swelled in the US in the past decade and half. Data from the Institute of International Education reveals that in 1995/96, only 1,219 Nepali students were studying in the US, which has now grown to over 10,000 students in 2012. While many students who decide to stay back and work legitimately make up a good section of the population, there are many who started working and living in the US through the Diversity Visa programme. It is also heartening to note that more Nepali students are getting admitted to Ivy League schools and more Nepalis are working in multilateral organizations like the World Bank Group and other leading consulting, business and IT firms.

There are Nepalis like Shailendra Yadav, who are leading groundbreaking innovations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and many more individuals working on and with innovation. Brand icons like Prabal Gurung have given Nepalis a new identity in the US and the wave that he will bring about in the global fashion industry in future will provide opportunities for young Nepalis, not only to aspire for global dreams but also make their dreams a reality.

However, the key issue the Nepali diaspora in the US is grappling with, perhaps, is similar to that of Nepal. There are people who want to maintain the status quo and there are those who seek change. There are individuals like Pukar Malla and Shailesh Gongal who with Walk for Nepal are raising funds through innovative means. While there are also individuals who stress that any programme related to Nepalis should be conducted in Nepali, there are those using social media and other tools to provide an image of the Global Nepali, who can take on the world like any other citizen of the world, competing purely on the basis of merit. At the same time, there are people who want to bring in the same outdated structure and order of hierarchy that has failed from Nepal to the US. I mentioned at an event that we don’t need to have a constitution in Nepal to start an event on time in the US and ensured that we don’t waste fifteen minutes calling out the names of fifteen different people and their affiliation.

I was informed that there are hundreds of Nepali associations in the US. Out of that, close to 60 are in the Washington, DC area and over 70 in the New York area. The associations apparently cut across different professions, ethnic groups and objectives. Many stories were heard about the politics in those associations, similar to the ones in Nepal. It is still difficult to figure out why a particular designation of a voluntary organization is so sought after? Why is it that Nepalis continue to lust for positions in not-for-profits, where they are in principle supposed to actually contribute rather than benefit? Is it because of the fact that due to our feudal past we like to cling on to the role of rulers to have followers? Is it that designations of such organizations get easy access when you want to connect with institutions in Nepal or the US? Is it true that to really do impactful social work it’s important to hold a powerful post in more than one institution? Is it purely the ego of us humans that leads us to continuously seek an identity? However, the politics of many such organizations has also kept many younger global Nepalis outside the ambit of the diaspora connect which keeps them from making contributions that could make a positive difference.

With numbers swelling so are the lessons. The death of individuals and the impact on their families are making people learn the importance of life insurance. Looking at students competing for talent search in schools are making parents want their children to compete rather than seek favors like in Nepal. The success of entrepreneurs is pushing more people to take risks and start businesses rather than work for others. Philanthropists who outside the ambit of associations are emerging and doing their bit making small contributions to good causes. Nurses like Gita Baral who took pains to understand the complications of getting a license to practice are helping aspiring Nepalis through the processes. A sense of learning is taking on a new meaning as people aspire to exploit the opportunities the US provides to the fullest.

The big question, however, remains, how can the strength of the diaspora help Nepal? The returning diaspora is changing work cultures and practices in Nepal, but finance still remains a key issue. Many of the people are remitting money that is running their households in Nepal, but the needs as well as opportunity for more collective investment are there. There are Nepali groups undertaking real estate projects in the US through collective investments and perhaps it will be these people who will be the first ones to risk their money in Nepal—a country they know very well. Collective fund schemes cannot be the agenda of an association or an umbrella of associations. It has to be the agenda of a financial institution based in Nepal or elsewhere. People excited to do this have to see the economic benefit and not just use it as a tool for association elections. It will not be difficult to find the initial 1,000 Nepalis who can invest USD 10 million for a start. The government needs to bring about a regulation that will allow such funds to be created and managed—including allowing Nepali financial institutions, based on their credibility, to participate. Yes, credibility is going to be important and an international player to hand-hold the process may be a starting point.

In the past two decades, we have seen many countries transform and many of those transformations came through the intervention of the diaspora. We have seen villages transformed by Gorkha soldiers and we look forward to the change that the diaspora based in the US will bring.

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