Sujeev Shakya

Articles & Publications

Political manoeuvres compromise Nepal’s COVID-19 response

The Nepali government did little to combat COVID-19 when its first case was confirmed on 13 January 2020, viewing it at the time as an isolated problem in China rather than a looming global public health crisis. Nepal was prompted into action only after Europe was hit, followed by the United States. Nepal implemented nationwide lockdowns on 24 March, and further measures were taken following neighbouring India’s response. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened political tensions both domestically and with India, compromising the effectiveness of the public health response to help combat the virus in Nepal.

Nepal initially responded by suspending incoming international flights on 22 March. But the porous open border with India enabled people to undertake risky border crossings by bribing border police. The Indian government’s apparent lack of sympathy for migrant workers amid the health crisis caused complete chaos and led to the mass movement of migrant workers. With many trying to return home, it increased the risks of an uncontrolled and untraceable spread of COVID-19. These workers felt that it would be better to return to Nepal rather than stay in a city under lockdown without work where they would never be prioritised for healthcare if they got infected.

Political tensions have risen between India and Nepal over the inauguration of India’s Himalayan link road that traverses disputed territory claimed by both countries. Increased geopolitical tensions amid a pandemic could compromise public health responses and access to required medical supplies and equipment. The humanitarian crisis at the India–Nepal border dominated social media news but the Nepali federal government has kept quiet amid the growing tensions with India.

The pandemic has also infected Nepal’s domestic political stability by exacerbating divisions in the government. Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli was in frail health after a second kidney transplant in March this year that left him largely incapacitated. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Ishwar Pokhrel was instead entrusted to handle the COVID-19 response through a high-level Government Coordination Committee. But the government failed to provide a single point of coordinated effort as each minister acted on their own volition, with the effect being more ceremonial than impactful.

The procurement of testing kits and other medical supplies became highly controversial as the ruling party made sure to procure suppliers who were willing to contribute the party. Graft became pervasive at every step of the procurement process. The government even handed over parts of its civilian functions to the Nepalese Army in procuring supplies — a concerning politicisation of the military.

Despite his frail health, Prime Minister Oli has tried to portray an image of normality as he addresses the nation, but his credibility and popularity is waning. In his quest to ensure his own political survival amid intra-party squabbles, he announced ordinances that would purportedly risk splitting the ruling party and enable control over the appointment of people to the constitutional bodies, such as the anti-corruption body. But President Bidhya Devi Bhandari retracted these ordinances after facing much criticism.

Prime Minister Oli then trained his political guns on stirring nationalism to consolidate his weakening political position as he has often done in the past. He has taken on India over the inauguration of the Himalayan Link road to China through Nepal, alleging that its construction was undertaken without Nepal’s permission. The Chief of the Indian Army provided further ammunition for Oli when he characterised Nepal’s opposition as acting on the behest of external forces, pointing to China.

The media frenzy in India that portrayed Oli as China’s stooge provided him a powerful political veil to push his nationalist agenda. Oli’s nationalist push garnered the political support of the Nepali Congress in seeking to grant constitutional status to an updated map claiming the disputed territory of Kalapani as Nepal’s territory. Oli’s political manoeuvring is distracting the country from taking effective measures to combat the pandemic. It draws attention away from the inadequate testing, the absence of an economic recovery plan and the lack of general preparedness to handle the pandemic.

Having previously faced shutdowns during natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, Nepal can respond well to lockdowns and supply chain disruptions. Police effectively enforced the initial lockdown, but over time political agendas trumped the public health agenda and those with political ties could pay their way through the country during lockdown.

Quarantine and isolation facilities became grossly mismanaged and a few voluntary groups scrambled to provide basic food and water. Private hospitals blamed the government for failing to integrate private healthcare facilities. The Nepali private sector was busy figuring out rent-seeking opportunities in their cartel groups rather than cooperating with the government in overcoming this challenge.

The pandemic has shown that Nepal’s politics and government reflect the state of society. The border crisis became an opportunity to divert Nepal’s attention from the public health crisis towards politics instead. It reflects a blissful ignorance that discussing border maps will keep coronavirus troubles away.

Hope amid political, geopolitical and investment challenges in Nepal

When Nepal’s Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli, finally made it to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019, it seemed that the communist government was considering opening Nepal for foreign investment. The Nepal Investment Summit was held in March 2019 and a buzz arose in the international media as many foreign investors thought Nepal was now ready for investment.

But less than a month later, the government put agriculture on the restricted list for foreign investments. Then the government decided to increase the minimum threshold for foreign investments to US$500,000 at the behest of protectionist business cartels. The government refuses to upset its source of political funding — Nepalese businesspeople. By the end of 2019, the government had made many decisions that did not make economic sense, including the Central Bank restricting access to foreign exchange.

The cabinet reshuffle in November 2019 reaffirmed Oli’s dependence on funding from businesses cartels. He removed a well-regarded labour minister who pushed for reforms that impacted the businesses of employment agency cartels. And a businessperson, who allegedly paid to become a member of parliament, was appointed as a junior minister for industries.

Business folk popped champagne bottles open as libertarians mourned.

The year 2019 also exposed the working style of Oli, who asked his advisors to resign and then appointed a new set that included some of them. His allegedly coterie-driven aggressive leadership style is being discussed more and more openly. His health challenges preoccupy his life and the media extensively.

The former Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal continued to make his claim for a greater role in government. But with the potential for investigations into the killings during the 1996–2006 Maoist insurgency, Dahal’s challenges for power have faced resistance. By December 2019, the rift between Dahal and Oli was obvious and as a local Nepali news source reported, there are now two power centres.

Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, supposedly a symbolic head, has also been unexpectedly intervening in government matters including cabinet reshuffles. She has been criticised for her opulence and desire for entitlements — from the conversion of the open grounds of the Nepal Police Academy into part of the Office of the President, to ordering expensive personal helicopters and throttling traffic during her movements. She reminds people of the days of autocratic kings.

Nepal’s year in terms of foreign relations was marked by the historic visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in October 2019. But keeping him in a hotel from arrival to departure marked how ill-prepared the Nepali side was. Token agreements were signed just to irritate India, rather than utilising the visit to discuss important projects for investment. It was like a visit from a favourite cousin with gifts.

India, a brother Nepal has to live with, continued to pose a challenge in 2019. The re-election of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India and the appointment of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as foreign minister, who was the foreign secretary when India imposed a blockade against Nepal in September 2015, did not improve expectations. The term of the Eminent Persons Group formed between India and Nepal expired and its report is probably sitting in a recycling bin in the Indian Prime Minister’s Office.

In November 2019, India released a new map of its territory after the reorganisation of Kashmir that claimed part of Nepal’s territory as its own, evoking much criticism and public uproar. Indian intelligence and security agencies are still managing the bilateral relationship as the diplomatic missions of both countries are weak, so improvements to this relationship in 2020 look dim.

With the annihilation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) complete and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) not having the necessary steam to move forward beyond conference rooms, there are no regional platforms Nepal can rely upon to manage bilateral issues with India. Nepal’s relationship with the United States has also deteriorated as the current Nepali government continues making remarks on Venezuela and arresting US citizens who are allegedly Free Tibet activists. Nepal’s relationships with its development partners are limited to the theatrics of the Vice President Nanda Bahadur Pun attending embassy events as a mascot of goodwill.

Despite its political, geopolitical and investment policy challenges, Nepal’s resilient society keeps looking forward. The proliferation of power at local levels ensured good work in some municipalities despite many local governments being controlled by businesspeople known for resource extraction. More women entrepreneurs showed increasing will and empowerment. The joy of a big medal haul at the South Asian Games in December 2019 showed that the youth can perform without much support from government or society.

More start-up entrepreneurs emerged and Nepalis are traveling like never before, exploring their own country and beyond. Art, music, literature and other forms of creative voice remain strong. There are more young people returning after studies abroad and they are opening cafes and businesses supported by technology platforms and building a foundation that will help to unleash Nepal’s potential.

Nepal was the prosperous link state in the 16th and 17th century when China and India comprised 70 per cent of global GDP. With India and China again poised to lead the global economy by 2040, new opportunities will emerge for Nepal. In the long run, Nepal has the potential to overcome its short-term mess.

Flourishing ‘cartelpreneurship’

Political uncertainty is what most Nepali businesses love.

In the past couple of months, as political uncertainty moved from fights within parties to the courts, many decisions that government agencies have made have been exposed. These range from the procurement of vaccines to the building of infrastructure projects—to giving a free hand to the exploitation of natural resources. The latest one being the intent to force Nepalis to buy mobile phones in Nepal.

While cars have always been notoriously difficult to import individually, this is perhaps the first time something as ubiquitous as the cellphone has such entry barriers propped up. Many countries push for mobile phones to be manufactured or assembled within their boundaries as a step to make them cheaper to sell. But in Nepal, it is about protecting distributor cartels and giving them super-profits. This is not new in Nepal, as we have seen this sort of decision in the past; so, it is important to understand the linkages. Here are three things to ponder upon

Political uncertainty boosts business

There have been private studies that reveal the close nexus between politicians and business groups. Since the Rana regime, different business entities have benefited from aligning with political groups. These alignments also change. There are very few homegrown businesses that do not have their rise linked with politics, and at many times political uncertainty. In Unleashing Nepal, I dedicated a whole chapter to discussions of the business of ‘Conflictonomics’, where the perpetuation of the conflict benefited some interest groups. Similarly, the years between the 2006 and 2018 elections saw different business entities emerging riding on political uncertainty.

Since Parliament has been dissolved, there have been many interesting ordinances and regulations that have been brought in by the government be it relating to the Securities Board, Insurance Board or other business regulatory authorities. For a country that uses political uncertainty as an excuse to delay legitimate ventures, particularly relating to foreign direct investment, it is surprising to see how certain decisions are taken swiftly. Most bureaucrats will tell you that it came from the top. But why would they do something if there is no motivation of political appointment or financial incentives for them? Homegrown Nepali businesses do very well in working out solutions with bureaucrats during uncertain times.

Cartels thrive on connections

Many business associations are cartels under the veil of registration. Rajib Upadhyaya, a former World Bank official, in his book Cabals and Cartels, provides an account of how the cartels and the political cabals shaped Nepal’s current mess. The powerful cartels are now well represented in the government and the line between the political leader and the business leader are blurring. It is very rare, even in the case of folks leading super-cartels, that anyone is charged with allegations of graft—like in the recent vaccine purchase case or in different projects identified with political groups.

The fact is that the political parties have to depend on businesses to raise money to contest elections, which are getting more expensive to run. The easiest way to raise funds is to patronise groups in certain cartels that will raise money collectively in exchange for favours. It is no more surprising to hear of panels in different business and professional associations that are aligned to the political parties. Given that Nepali businesses mostly do not have to compete with international companies means they find this unique space very beneficial and would do little to change this arrangement.

Consumers bear the brunt

A study conducted by Nepal Economic Forum revealed that the cost of cartels to the GDP is 15 percent, which at current terms means around $4.5 billion a year! These range from people paying more for inefficient services to substandard goods. In Nepal, for instance, consumers are at mercy of suppliers of petroleum products and shortages are common. Transport cartels make transportation costs one of the highest in Asia. It is not only about high costs, but also about poor service. Even in banking, studies have shown collusion when it comes to fixing interest rates and service fees. Similar studies have shown collusive behaviour in private healthcare and education. However, with cartels being omnipresent, we talk about the vicious cycle where one member of another cartel does not mind the collusive behaviour as long as they also engaging in another similar scheme. I have continuously written about how apart from the production and sale of momos, it is hard not to find cartels.

The only hope that remains for Nepal is the young entrepreneurs who are competing globally with businesses find it worthwhile to fight this plague as the size of the Nepali economy increases. Further, when Nepali companies will be open to fighting competition outside their own country, perhaps they will be forced to fight the systemic challenges. Like in politics, we are waiting for the old men to leave the business stage. Perhaps it may be the same as the wait for the pall-bearers of cartels to step up. 

The difference between communism in China and Nepal

Three decades of existence has shown us that Nepali communists have misguided priorities.

Last week, as part of the celebrations of the hundred year anniversary of the Communist Party of China, a high-speed train was inaugurated from Lhasa to Nyingchi, just 17 kilometres from the border of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in India. There will be more such projects announced by China as it would like to take the opportunity to share its economic success story with the world.

During the early days of the pandemic, when the world was grappling with how to deal with the pandemic, China just pushed containment. And now, with vaccination, it proudly claims that it has jabbed a billion doses at home and exported around 400 million. So, it is very strange that Nepal, which has in the past three decades seen different forms of communist government and currently remains the only country ruled by a communist party in South Asia, lags behind so much.

In Unleashing The Vajra, I talk about how the communist parties in Nepal were modelled around the Indian communist parties especially with strong influence of the parties in West Bengal. It was all about rent-seeking on poverty, talking about land rights, disrupting businesses through labour unions, considering wealth to be something bad and the wealthy to be inherently evil.

It was always about hypocrisy, where one talks about the Red Book during the day and drinks Red Label at night. Communists leaders and their children got rich by winning elections talking about poverty. Unlike in China, where the aim was to become a global superpower, communists in Nepal and West Bengal ensured they exploited and extracted, by calling superpowers imperialists and expansionists. If they were to become a superpower then they would have fewer avenues to extract undeserved wealth; therefore, poverty became a great weapon.

No institution building

One of the most admirable systems of the Chinese Communist Party has been the way they groom leaders from the grassroots level and they move up to manage different portfolios and then are promoted like in an efficiently managed corporation or organisation. A leader would have gone through many positions where they would have stood out before getting to the top.

In Nepal, like in India, the organisation did not matter. Therefore, leaders would take up being part of the king’s party or move lock stock and barrel to another party. When so many communist parties in Nepal worked towards federalism and the new constitution, not a single party has till now created a structure where grassroots leaders would then grow in stages to become national leaders like in China.

In the recent power grab perpetuated by Prime Minister KP Oli, it seems ‘horse trading’ (a very popular word used in the Indian democratic system) became the way to manage communist factions rather than to build organisations. Therefore, communist leaders in Nepal do not at all agree with the China model of party building. As one communist leader shared in private, there are too many Xis and no Xi doctrine in this country. The fact that Nepali communist parties have not shown a leadership development processes, means they have very low credibility in front of some of the key thinkers within the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, the Nepali leaders have no access to the key Chinese ones.

Lack of global ambition

Apart from sending children abroad to study or settle down, there has been no global ambitions of Nepali communist leaders, unlike their Chinese counterparts. When was the last one heard of a Nepali communist leader presenting papers on a credible international platform? Where do you see them during their foreign trips apart from being at their some old cadre’s house in some country eating masu-bhaat?

China’s growth has been about setting global ambitions. Today, global companies look at how Chinese companies act and use that inspiration, whether in e-commerce or technology. Nepali communist leaders think globalisation and capitalism are against their political interests and equate anything that they cannot achieve with these. For instance, if we talk about how dirty Kathmandu is or how bad our urban planning is, they quickly refer to cleanliness and good city plans being a capitalist concept and throw it away. They do not want to compete with the world, and competing with the known for them is an easier path to stay in power.

The hundred years of the Communist Party of China will surely bring about more news on the progress of our northern neighbour. At the same time, we will get to hear views on what they have gone wrong with. For the Nepali communist, its just time to think and act like them rather than mimicking the failed Indian communist model they have continuously being modelled around.

Embrace change

The next unicorn may be a company developed in Nepal.

It has now been fifteen months since lives around the world changed, with no parallels to draw from our lifetimes. Many, of course, face difficult times frequently, but the challenges and issues are usually more localised. Not so with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the past fifteen months, I have written many columns around change. My first column, from March 2020, when I was scrambling for the last flight to Kathmandu to bring me home from Bangkok, focused on what we can learn from the pandemic. I spent a lot of time reflecting on how societies react to situations. From lockdown musings to looking at managing death rituals better to reforming religious institutions. There were reflections on the internalising change sessions (close to a thousand people have attended this till now, and I continue to volunteer to host these for interested groups).

We also learnt that change begins at home as the political mess that began in Nepal is now more than a year old. Till societies change, politics will not change. The ‘Enough is Enough’ movement by the youth in June 2020 made a big call for change. But that seems to be years ago which has not really impacted anyone’s life, and politics remains the same. The second wave has further exposed our weak structure of governance and our poor civic discipline. In October 2020, I had written about how the response to the pandemic will further isolate Nepal. Already, international media have clumped Nepal together with India, with the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant causing more fear and distrust.

The pandemic is here to stay. We are looking at recovery for the later part of 2022 or early 2023. The only way to survive is to grow, be it as an individual or an organisation. However, we have also seen some amazing trends that the pandemic has pushed through. I look at three key trends in this column.

The first is digital money. In Rwanda, as I get comfortable with the idea of not needing any cash or card, I also start to wonder whether regulators around the world are going to be keep up with the pace of adoption. With paper trails still being important as part of legal proceedings and especially when issues lands up in a court of law, will digital transactions be accepted?

While the adoption of mobile money has accelerated and central banks are now pushing for the regulation of digital currencies, what will be the global digital currency that countries will adopt? Will the Chinese Yuan in digital form become the new force that will complicate the current global polarisation towards two key economic powers? Or, does Nepal actually have an opportunity to leapfrog with a digital currency and be the clearinghouse for transactions between India and China?

Tourism will also bring changes as we will see more digital nomads travelling and the line between work and leisure blurring. The comfort of work from home can be defined as work from anywhere. There have also been many developments in virtual and augmented reality during this past year and a half. Therefore, when a tourist points his phone at the Patan Durbar Square image, he expects the details to load on this phone. A human guide may be outdated, like hotel booking desks, as people adapt to more convenient services online. The pandemic has also brought a rise in human wellness and mindfulness-related visits. What are folks thinking about this for Nepal or anywhere else?

Lastly, we see learning and education change as examinations become irrelevant. Perhaps you really do not need physical classes to get educational degrees, but you need more ways of consuming content if it is to seek knowledge. From the growth in podcasts to the adoption of Clubhouse to the proliferation of companies doing e-books and audiobooks—even in Nepal—the change is amazing to witness.

Dima Syrotkin, CEO of Panda Training, argues in his latest blog that the next trillion-dollar start-up will be an education company. We have seen how many people reskilled themselves and discovered the sea of trainings and knowledge platforms. In Nepal, it was wonderful to see so many young people take on different platforms to share information and knowledge about wide-ranging topics. Perhaps, with tremendous information technology capabilities and good track record of exporting ICT services, Nepalis have a wonderful opportunity to dive in. Who knows, the next unicorn could be developed in Nepal.

Political uncertainty in Nepal is a phrase that we are used to; its relevance will not disappear. The players may change, but the game of uncertainty will not change until the age and make-up of the leaders across the political, business, societal and cultural spectrum will reflect the demographic of the country. Till then, it’s about embracing small changes that will deliver big results.

Twenty years after the royal massacre

Nepal’s trajectory drastically changed after the events of June 1, 2001.

On the night of June 1, 2001, exactly twenty years ago, an event at the Narayanhiti palace saw an end to an entire family of the then ruling Shah dynasty. Helicopters were hovering and rumour mills were active. In the pre-smartphone days, when mobile phones were still uncommon, the SMSs didn’t stop coming, and home phones rang non-stop. I was then working at the Soaltee Hotel, where the requisition of a large amount of ice from the hospitals triggered lots of questions.

Nepalis had to depend on the BBC and CNN or Indian television channels to tell us the story of our own country, as Nepali television and radio channels played sombre music. Then prince Gyanendra Shah, who went on to become the king, was in Pokhara waiting for board meetings of a company and a conservation trust to happen the next day. Nepal received global attention as it was a piece of news that shook everyone; people still ask me what happened that night. The Gorkha earthquakes, the royal massacre and the current Covid-19 crisis are the only events from Nepal that have caught global attention in the past two decades. That speaks volumes about the country. A lot of introspection, therefore, is needed. Three things come to mind.

Shun isolationism and conservatism

The Shahs ruled as the custodians of a Hindu kingdom and used religion as a tool of keeping power. They had to demonstrate they believed in old age traditions, religious dogmas and relied on interpreters of religion. Therefore, the brother of the king and the next in line to the throne decided to keep the traditions going. In the twentieth century, when the internet had already penetrated our homes, he decided to keep the sombre music going on television channels rather than appearing on television to tell the world what had happened; after all, he had lost many members of his family and his wife was still battling for her life in the hospital.

He was advised to hire some good global public relations companies to put the story straight, but perhaps that would have been seen as risking his image of being a good Hindu monarch. If he had chosen to tell the world what happened, he would not have to live with the rumours and the theories that circulate till now. Perhaps, for centuries to come, the rumours will live along with the facts. Therefore, the big lesson is, shun isolationism and conservatism, embrace contemporary practices of communication. There are many platforms. Engage with your audience—people need to hear from the horse’s mouth.

Leadership is about perceptions

Twenty years after the massacre, people still talk about king Birendra fondly, despite his tenure being a tumultuous one. His reign began with straining relations with India, when he invited the ruler of Sikkim for his coronation. His direct rule ended when India intervened with a blockade in 1989, paving the way for multi-party democracy. I talk about the hotchpotch, inward-looking education policy he brought in the mid-seventies in Unleashing Nepal, the results of which we are seeing in the leadership of all different fields in Nepal.

After the 1990s, he remained somewhat ceremonial, leaving others in the family to intervene. Little was publicly known about challenges in his personal life. However, people had a good feeling about him. He earned the respect of the people, as he was seen as an icon of hope when the country started to see intra-party feuds become Nepal’s definition of multi-party democracy. Leadership is about the way people perceive you—a lot of wrongs can be overlooked if you press the right buttons or just stay disengaged. After all, people have very short memories.

Big events result in big changes

When we study history, we are always told that big events result in big changes. We have witnessed this in our lifetime. The way the then government handled the royal massacre, it was clear that some major events were on the way. When Gyanendra was crowned king, many speculated that he would not be the same as his elder brother but a shrewd ruler—owing to his reputation as a good businessperson. Insiders who knew how he conducted his businesses also started to wonder about the results if he replicated the same model as the head of state.

The prognosis was clear. He intervened in October 2002 by taking over the reins of government; by February 2005 he was directly ruling. The writing was clear, if he continued on that path, the end of the Shah dynasty would be accelerated. But megalomania makes people blind. In Unleashing the Vajra, I talk about how king Gyanendra had the greatest opportunity as a ruler to transform the nation like President Paul Kagame started doing in Rwanda around the same time. A big event had to have big consequences. This one ended a 240-year-old dynasty, with the last king having no one else to blame apart from himself.

The 2015 earthquakes brought about an acceleration of the pace of adopting a new constitution. At the same time, Nepal’s geopolitical relations with its neighbours changed, with China becoming closer. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in major changes in politics around the world and surely we will see one in Nepal. I hope it will be for the better and not for the worse

All events make one reflect and connect. Each year, when June 1 comes, there is rarely a Nepali of my generation who would not pause and think about the changes.

How not to manage a crisis

Society’s handling of the pandemic reflects on the government’s performance.

When I was younger, my cousins with high-income, high-worth parents found it much easier to ask me, who was working, for money rather than talk to their parents. The thought never crossed them that the gold and cash being locked up could actually be used when there was a crisis. We have also witnessed family members with good assets and income reach out to others when there is money needed for a major illness.

This sort of thought process also emerged during the pandemic, wherein Nepalis, myself included, found it easier to sign petitions and make pleas to foreign governments, institutions and friends rather than to pressure our own government to fight the pandemic with our own funds. These introspections bring in interesting facets of society that find it very difficult to manage crises. There are four key learnings.

We trust citizen groups more than the government

We have very little trust in our government; especially at this time when the people leading the government have been engaged in political parleys. We accept a leader not because he is a great manager but because there are no alternatives to support. Therefore, we rely on volunteer groups. With 70 percent of the population being under 35—a constituency hardly represented in political leadership—such groups emerge.

Even after the Gorkha earthquakes, there was little hope from the government; it was the youth volunteer groups that emerged as the people providing relief and reaching places where governments never could reach. Blair Glencorse, the founder of Accountability Lab, and I penned an opinion essay in The New York Times about how the youth groups questioned the status quo and provided much-needed solutions. This time, when the pandemic started consuming people as we have never seen in our lifetime in Nepal, a new set of groups emerged. The politicians see these groups as potentials that can be influenced by the opposition members and benefit, therefore create red tape measures to make volunteering difficult. During the earthquakes, it was about not allowing Nepali organisations to receive money but to channel donations to the PM Relief Fund. This time, it was about creating difficulties the import of oxygen or other necessities. I keep wondering why the government can’t ride on these volunteer efforts.

Philanthropy is complicated

I have written a lot on people who find it easier to engage in donations or philanthropy without accountability rather than work with organisations that want to be transparent and are purely voluntary. People do not mind giving money for a cause, especially religious ones, without knowing where the money will lead to. But, at the same time, they find it difficult to even contribute anonymously to people who are doing good work. Support usually entails the provisioning of photo-ops.

So, philanthropy without PR opportunities in the time of social media and the internet does not make sense for many. The mindset of the Nepali investors and business people have also not changed.As Krishna Acharya posed in Kantipur: How can Nepal have over 550 businesses that make over Rs1 billion a year but find very few organisations willing to help? Nepal has many Rupee billionaires, but then how many do really believe in philanthropy with accountability?

Where are the social organisations with networks?

When the oxygen distribution situation was getting desperate, a friend from the US was suggesting that we use the Nepal Red Cross network. There was one message on the website on Covid-19 on May 12, after the Happy New Year message of April 13. It reminded us of the Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology going into hiding after the earthquake to emerge much later. Similarly, social organisations like Rotary and Lions Club that have a network of influential people across Nepal seem to also not be able to rise up to the occasion.

I received a call from a person in dire need from Butwal, and she asked me where my Rotary club was in this hour of emergency. He questioned me about how these clubs and societies can get elected officials and bureaucrats at their installation programmes and social events, but cannot get them together when we need them the most. There are no answers to these questions; our social organisations are designed to move from one election to the other without much thought put to social and humanitarian causes.

Management is not an inherent skill

Management skills will not just emerge in a crisis. When we cannot even manage well functioning homes and communities, with due consideration to choice and well being, it is too much to expect everything to fit into place automatically. Perhaps, the biggest lesson for me during this pandemic—observing countries and communities that have kept mass transmission and deaths at bay—is that we need to learn how to manage our daily lives better. Only then will we be prepared to tackle the next emergency as a unit that works for the individual as well as the whole.

Deep reflection

Every crisis presents an opportunity to recalibrate social patterns.

Last year, around this time, we were already six weeks into the lockdown. Usually, we spend so much time talking about others and making a judgement on others that we forget to look deep into ourselves. But during that first lockdown, I found time to do some reflecting, using tools learnt at meditation retreats. It is easy to meditate for 30 minutes and be in peace, but the challenge is how to manage the rest of the day when your mind is in pieces.

The key challenge is to keep the positive energy flowing in an environment where every conversation is fueled by the negative news floating around. Therefore, it puts more pressure on people to think deeply—not in those thirty minutes of mediation but as we go by our lives each day. There is that deep sense of anxiety, uncertainty and fear, but the awareness of these feelings an important step to move past them. This is easier said than done, but we are better prepared now to anticipate these challenges. Last year, I started voluntarily sessions on internalising and implementing change that I am restarting for people who are open to ask questions relating to themselves in front of others.

For me, the pandemic brought about the need for a deep sense of understanding about oneself and the necessity for change. This time around, there are two major thoughts that I am reflecting deeply on. First, our connection with past and future lives. Second, the need to be part of social functions.

Birth and rebirth

As someone who was born a Buddhist, past lives and future lives are discussed more than the current life. There are functions and ceremonies for the people who are dead and gone. We spend more time correcting our past lives and wanting a better life rather than focusing on this life. So what is the reasoning one can have when someone who went to perform rituals for one’s ancestors in a shraddha ceremony actually dies contacting Covid-19. Is this person’s current life less important than the lives of that person’s ancestors? Or, was it his karma to die this way? Many people believe that our destiny is written when one is born or even when one died in the previous lives.

Similarly, people would not stop weddings as they believed in the auspicious time (saait) of the weddings are pre-destined. But what about the couple who married on this auspicious time and contacted Covid-19 in that bargain and actually died. What if a guest attending contracted Covid-19 this way? So is it important to adhere to the auspicious time, even if it means that people may actually die? I am looking for answers.

Social pressure

There is that immense pressure to be part of social events be it birth, marriage or death. And there are a host of religious functions. All the people who made so much noise even in Nepal and India last year, accusing the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat movement of spreading Covid-19 in the region, kept quiet when millions took a dip in the river during the Maha Kumbha Mela in India; the scale of infection in the latter event was much higher.

One fails to understand what prompted our septuagenarian former king along with the former queen to decide to visit this religious function. Even after lockdown, social media is filled with pictures of people attending weddings, birthdays, baby showers and other social functions—at a time when one is advised to wear masks even at home.

Many in Nepal claim that one’s sanity is more important than one’s safety; therefore, one cannot avoid social functions. The problem here is that Nepalis are rights oriented rather than responsibility oriented; we think attending or hosting social functions is our right. The issue of ethnicity and culture is then brought into the discourse, when people are asked to refrain from organising big-scale events like a jatra.

Is it that our current lives are less important because we have many lives coming up in future that we do not mind sacrificing our own lives, or the lives of others? Or is it that the sense of martyrdom sets in when someone succumbs to Covid-19 when attending a social or religious function? Perhaps the tendency of seeing such people as unlucky martyrs rather than stupid fools who did not follow protocols tend to make people take these issues lightly.

When one is in lockdown, the mind is the only thing that can travel and traverse the world. While it is easy to let the mind wander outside, it is also equally important to lock down one’s mind and let it explore deep within oneself.

Building institutions

The focus on the individual must be replaced by a culture of organisation-building.

A couple of years ago, an international agency awarded our institution a contract, but they insisted that the contracts and payments will be done to individual consultants and not the institution itself. We did not agree and we decided to forgo that contract. They were perplexed and rather insisted we should change our ways. We responded that if international agencies in Nepal are propagating this, it is no wonder that there are few institutions being built in Nepal.

In Nepal, besides banks and a few international agencies, every sector is run through individuals, not institutions. In the development sector, the practice is even more common where the design is to promote a culture of individual consultants rather than consultant organisations. The procurement processes are designed to promote the hiring of individuals rather than organisations. These are so visible from all the job vacancies posted publicly. Many times, I have been asked to sign off as an individual consultant; that apparently would make procurement processes easier. We also hear about organisations who bill their people individually, ask them to collect the money individually and give it to the promoter of the organisation.

We hear of many great individuals in many fields. But what of the organisations these individuals have built? How have they ensured that the knowledge repository is institutionalised? In a country of 40,000 NGOs, why is it that we cannot even name ten that have been exemplary institutions? Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa decades ago managed to secure endowment money for the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS). That has ensured the institution builds on the endowment and institutionalises it. Currently, Swarnim Wagle is trying to continue to build IIDS.

There are many lessons to learn from global institutions that have built endowments for sustainability and carried on for centuries. Harvard University has existed for four hundred years, and the or University of Heidelberg for more than six hundred. Even in Nepal, at the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara in Patan, the institutional management of the temple has been passed down from generation to generation for more than nine centuries. In contrast, so many Buddhist vihara institutions established by monks in the 20th century have already disintegrated.

Just a year ago, I wrote about the need to reform these religious institutions. The United States has transformed in the past two centuries based on the concept of institutions. So, Apple exists after the death of Steve Jobs and Microsoft survives even after Bill Gates stepped down.

Corporates should show the way

My wife and I both grew up in the corporate culture at the offices of the Soaltee Hotel, where the late Prabhakar Rana was leading the first corporatisation effort in Nepal. We learnt the concept of corporation ownership being different from the management. We learnt how corporation management comprises of many individuals, where no single one is indispensable and succession planning is key. Three decades later, we are grappling to teach others these simple issues.

For clients, we need to continually tell them how it is important to hire a company rather than an individual. Deliverables in a company can be handled by a succeeding employee, but such deliverables come to a halt if an individual contractor is sidelined by an emergency. We insist on having non-poaching clauses in our contracts, since we find that some clients find it easier to poach one of the team members than hire the company. In a country where such basic corporate culture has not seeped in, we jumped to the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to better use available funds when donors have allotted it. Hopefully, we will find some development partners interested in pushing this corporatisation culture in Nepal and perhaps their operations also promote the culture of organisation building rather than the easy way out of working with individuals.

We have seen the weak corporate culture in Nepal making business leaders reluctant to open up the Nepali economy for international firms, as they will have to compete with corporates with deep global institutional knowledge and competencies. Even in large business organisations, it is difficult to name one or two exemplary professionals in their management team. This has been reflected in many private sector institutions in Nepal.

I have pointed out how it is important to build a strong secretariat like the Chambers and Private Sector Federations in many countries and even offered to volunteer to handle such reforms. But anything that is to do with institutionalisation, there continues to be tremendous reluctance. When I was working on reform of the Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NRNA), I had some hope of recalibration, but was proven wrong; building strong secretariats is what people do not want, as the focus moves from the individual to the institution.

The politics in Nepal is a result of the lack of institutional accountability. If the greater politics is to change, the focus will have to shift to building institutions and people leading institutions have to sacrifice their greed of wanting to be the centrepiece at the cost of the organisation. I am always open to working with those that have the drive to strengthen their institutions for the long run.

Digital nomads

Can Nepal compete in attracting this new segment of visitors?

In these times, it is not difficult to spot people working out of cafes in Kathmandu or Kigali who have made it their virtual office for the work they are doing remotely. I have chatted with people who are working out of Kathmandu for jobs in Myanmar—and one operating out of Kigali for a Swiss pharmaceutical company. These people have one thing in common: they love travelling and would like to set up their base in a city and country where they can find people with common interests. There are more Facebook pages that are catering to this segment than ever before, as people search to hear from others who are working remotely.

The office is where you open your device

These are the new breed of digital nomads, who believe in virtual workplaces in a city they love to spend time in. This is not a new phenomenon but has exploded in recent times, as virtual offices become the new normal globally. When high-speed internet connection started in Ubud, Bali, many people started to flock to this city; there are many such cities in different parts of the world that can deliver affordability, great quality of life, and a network with a similar set of people.

With great platforms to connect virtually innovating at a great pace, not only physical offices but the requirement to be in the same city or country of your job or work is becoming less relevant. Having personally been travelling during this pandemic, when the meetings are generally virtual it does not really matter from where you take a call or manage the office. The only key thing to bear in mind is the time zone—one should be ready to join meetings at odd hours. So, if you are willing to take that occasional 3 am or 1 am call without bothering your sleep routine, then you can fit into this new normal. People have been doing personal, social or family calls at hours they never used to communicate earlier. The same mindset just needs an extension towards work calls. The new workplace is the place where you open your computer, tablet or smartphone to connect.

Apart from work, these people connect with people with similar interests and would like to spend time together—be it hiking, cycling, travelling to different countries or just setting up pop-up kitchens to showcase their food and have some fun. The digital nomads do bring back the days of the ‘hippie’ tourists in Nepal, where people from different parts of the world converged in the back alleys of Kathmandu and found their ways to a different part of Nepal. Some of them stayed back to start ventures and some of them continued to visit the country for many more decades.

The competition is strong

Countries like Estonia have had some pioneering e-residency programmes for people in the startup world. Since August 2020, the country has launched a special digital nomad visa that allows people to stay for one year. Croatia has followed suit. In October 2020, Dubai also launched its own virtual working programme where people could get visas to come and work remotely out of the UAE.

Mexico has attracted a lot of digital nomads from the US and Canada. Cities like Tulum on the Caribbean coast is rated as one of the favourite spots by digital nomads. There are specialised companies that are emerging and groups like Selina are putting in more money to build hotel rooms for this segment. In Rwanda, the government is already working on a program that will allow people to get work permits, attracting a new segment of visitors and boosting the economy that has been impacted by the pandemic.

Nepal has all the right ingredients to attract the digital nomad. It has many spots of great scenic beauty. There are many great places where one can just open one’s gadgets, log in and start to work. The internet connection is good, particularly in the last few years. There is enough for people to do in terms of exploring nature. And, of course, there are places for fun, food and music.

Air connectivity through Dubai, Doha and Istanbul airports that have remained open in the last year; this provides easy, one-stop connections to Nepal. And Nepal is located in a spot that makes it possible to deal with timezones across the world—from Japan to the US. The tourism sector that has suffered during the last year may find respite by attracting this new segment. The government only needs to do one thing, and that is to introduce a one-year work visa for such digital nomads and ensure that the security check on people and their tracking is well in place. Every challenge throws in an opportunity. As a digital nomad working for a company based in Kathmandu out of beautiful spots in Rwanda for clients in East Asia and the US, I cannot but vouch for its potential. It is upto the Nepali entrepreneurs and the government to make it happen.