April 14, 2014 Sujeev Shakya

Reform or Perish

The elections of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) were fought in a manner no different than a convention of political parties. Mud-slinging in public, buying of votes and endless wining and dining ensured that it had all the ingredients of a real political election. The media followed candidates with rumours and gossip as it is easier to pursue politics rather than in-depth stories on economic issues and the business environment. Results have now been declared and the institution stands polarised between two factions that will find it difficult working together.

This reminds me of the earlier polarisation that led to a split within the business community, resulting in the formation of the Confederation of Nepalese Industries (CNI). It also recalls my July 2001 column in the Nepali Times titled ‘Federation of Nepalese Businessmen in Politics (FNBP)’ and makes me sad to note that nothing much has changed within the private sector in the last 13 years. In Nepal, we are not good at accepting democracy when we are on the losing side. We have seen many organisations split with losers forming another group or organisation. As a West African leader once  remarked, we only like democracy as long as we are the winners; as soon as we lose, we stop liking democracy.

Professional team

The FNCCI under Suraj Vaidya’s leadership tried to make things happen but no leader can lead an organisation that needs a lot of reform. The FNCCI and many of our organisations are top-heavy and we do not invest in building a good team that provides support as well as structure to undertake multiple activities. Just like our businesses that do not have a professional set up, these organisations are led by people who are elected and their holding of the position is a voluntary activity—they do something else for a living. Since these business people themselves do not believe in nor practice building professional teams to run businesses, they bring the same work ethics to the organisations they are associated with.

We need to learn from the best practices. When the India-Nepal Trade and Transit Treaty was negotiated in 1996, it was a joint team of the FNCCI and CNI that led to a breakthrough agreement. It was because, under the leadership of Prabhakar Rana and Subodh Bhargava, a professional team worked to make it happen. Every time, when institutions have relied on a team of professionals to get things done, they have been able to deliver.

The time has, therefore, come to rethink the structure of the FNCCI as well as other private sector bodies and ensure that there are more professional people to do the work and deliver. Leadership then becomes like a board of a company which only provides strategic direction. We can learn from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Confederation of Indian Industry or other such successful institutions where it is a strong team that delivers on the vision of the leader.

Why politics?

The time has also come to look into why such institutions get so embroiled in politics. Politics at the Nepal Chamber of Commerce killed the zeal of an institution that had its own history of successful times. Is it that the leadership of such organisations get too carried away with seeking proximity to political leaders, finding favours for themselves, opportunities to hobnob with diplomats and visiting dignitaries, and the face-time and coverage in the media that it prompts someone to go all out to get to these positions? Is it that the hundreds of committees they get to be part of and the access to institutions and government officials makes them a privileged class, opening doors that would otherwise have never been possible? What else explains the spending of over a $1 million to get a position where you are supposed to be volunteering?

The importance of these positions has also increased as multilaterals, bilaterals and other institutions have found that the easiest way become part of the private sector discourse is by including an office bearer in a discussion or a junket. Private sector development hinges on such discussions and gets limited to the dreams of the leader heading the organisation. The dream of a private sector entrepreneur, therefore, remains climbing the ladder of an organisation rather than excelling in one’s business. It would be important to examine how much taxes the organisations of these leaders pay? Why is it that the top 25 taxpayers are never in these organisations that are supposed to shape the future of the sector? How many of them have really embraced the global work culture, are poised to take on the world and not conduct protective practices? How many of them really work with international partners and have changed the way the industry works?

Need for change

The country has come  a long way since 1990 when democratisation also took place in private sector organisations. Pre-1990, organisations worked in a manner that pleased the palace and its coterie. The restoration of democracy allowed hundreds of organisations to mushroom and further the cause of private sector development. The big question is, have they really worked towards private sector development or their own development?

The time has come to really ponder on  how the private sector behaves or interacts with the economy to bring in reforms that will usher economic growth. If the ways of engagement will not change, the economy will suffer. I definitely don’t want to write on the same things that I have been writing since 2001. I hope there will be stories of change to write about. If the private sector does not reform, it will perish.

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