Sujeev Shakya

Articles & Publications

The cartel of accountants

How a profession that led the reforms in 1990 is becoming an impediment to change now.

Last week, I was inundated with text messages and emails from people who were contesting the elections of the Association of Chartered Accountants of Nepal (ACAN). During election time, the organisation is abuzz with activity, unlike the rest of the time when the members are pretty dormant. The candidates actually pay the fees that are due, host parties and spend a lot of money. Like with many other voluntary organisations, candidates spend a lot on campaigning—but no one can explain why. Winning candidates must have found a way to dip their fingers into the gravy train. The foundations of corruption begin here. Chartered accountants have started to be associated with graft and politics in Nepal.

An elite club

When I qualified as a chartered accountant in 1992, I was the 75th in Nepal to do so. In those days, it was very prestigious to become a CA. I completed this programme not to become an accountant or do audits, but because it was a great way to move up the social ladder, gain recognition and build a network. It was an elite club to join. Chartered accountants then got direct entry to senior positions in government and other organisations. It wasn’t very easy to get through the exams; only 2 percent of the people who sat for the examinations qualified. Most Nepalis would pursue Indian certification, and it was known to be one of the difficult ones around the world. It was also the time when Nepal opened up to the world with reforms.

Chartered accountants like Robin Sharma led the government’s privatisation programmes. Chartered accountants helped to write new pieces of legislation, and international companies were impressed with the quality of accountants available as Nepal opened up to foreign direct investment. There was intense competition to perform better. Chartered accountants like Prithvi Bahadur Pande went on to lead a revolution in banking in the country. Later, others like Ratna Raj Bajracharya followed suit. At the Soaltee Hotel, where I used to work then, chartered accountants held vital positions. The current chairman of the hotel, Dinesh Bista, is a chartered accountant.

The profession brought about professionalism and adherence to global standards; it was about taking Nepal to the world and competing in other markets. Chartered accountants like Shashi Satyal and Madan Sharma and their firms started extending their service abroad. It was a great fraternity to be associated with. However, now, with the politics involved, I do not even mention that I am a CA anymore—such has been the profession’s fall of grace.

A slide in quality

The Association of Chartered Accountants of Nepal in the 1990s brought about the push for Nepal to have its own institute, and there began the fall in quality. With the political transitions occurring, political party members started to lead the institutes. And with such persons sitting on many key regulatory bodies like the Securities Board, the problems began. Companies that raised money from the public went bust; there were disciplinary cases filed against erring firms and individuals. There were cases of negligence filed, but no one was ever convicted. All over the world, this profession is regulated by bodies comprising of members. But like everything else in Nepal, the association turned into a cartel. It wasn’t long before everyone involved began rent-seeking activities.

The elections to this association—and to similar associations covering skilled professions—have become very important. For instance, the vote here paves the way for people to then get on to the governing regulatory body—the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nepal. Many elected members have been accused of malpractice and graft. It is also apparent which politicians and political parties are backing particular members.

Today, the quality of chartered accountants churned out of by Nepal is such that they are not job-ready. The higher economic activity and the increased demand means that many are getting jobs. But this new crop has been demanding more money while becoming less productive. Their soft and basic skills are a challenge: some of them are not able to write a single grammatically correct sentence in English (a necessary language for the field).

Those frustrated by the profession leave Nepal for greener pastures. The irony is that Nepalis are performing very well as accountants in Australia, the UK, the US and other countries. In foreign countries, Nepalis work for international accounting firms. This shows that it is not that Nepalis do not have the required talent; the problem is that incompetent individuals are changing the rules of the game and keeping the competent folks out. Nepali nationalism is being used to hide inefficiencies, and the unqualified professionals have now become the biggest impediment to foreign direct investment. They have attempted to block international firms from setting up shop in Nepal.

What can be done

If the association has outlived its utility, it should be just be shut down. This applies to similar associations in other professions. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nepal needs to become a stronger regulatory body—one that works on a world-class curriculum and continuing education programmes. It needs to push for self-regulation and set a higher benchmark for the conduct of its members. The state of affairs in Nepali corporations, like the national flag carrier Nepal Airlines, is such a mess that it needs an international institute, contracted through a transparent bidding process, to fix the mess and then prepare a good group of Nepalis to take over in five years. International accounting firms should be allowed to operate in Nepal. They will demand (and attract) better resources, train them well, and prepare a cadre of professional chartered accountants that will be there able to aid in unleashing Nepal’s economic potential.

The Kathmandu Post: https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2020/02/25/the-cartel-of-accountants

Nepal can benefit greatly by embracing connectivity

The recently concluded Kantipur Conclave had many lessons to give, especially for the ones willing to learn.

The two-day-long second iteration of Kantipur Conclave ended on Saturday, February 8. The greatest positive feedback the organising team got from conference veterans is that the event was world-class. In Nepal, where we love to complain about the things that do not work, this was a lesson that undertakings can be achieved in a way that meets global standards. The conclave had many lessons to give to the people who were willing to embrace it.

Along with the positive response, we were also alerted that in case Nepal wants to position itself as an international conference-hosting country, the airport management and infrastructure has to improve dramatically. There were a few interesting conversations at the speakers’ lounge on this subject. One of the speakers put it in an interesting way: high profile speakers and participants may know that there are great things ahead once they reach the hotel, but many will not be willing to endure the wait at the airport—with the old-school security checks and chaotic baggage claim—to get there. Global travellers who zip in and out of locations every week do not want to deal with the stress.

What was also interesting were how people responded to the new way of collecting questions for the panellists. At the conclave, all audience questions were collected through a mobile app. This was the only way the organisers could manage 10 sessions in a day and make it engaging for everyone watching. I had phoned a gentleman who I thought would be able to contribute meaty questions. But when he realised that he would not be able to stand up in the limelight while posing the queries, he decided not to show up to the conference altogether.

In Nepal, when it comes to events, people are very individual-focused. We see that many people do not come if they are not to speak. But what’s intriguing is that a few of the expatriates based here have also begun to absorb this trait. Listening is a difficult art and the patience to listen and internalise is something that South Asians have to learn.

It was also surprising to see the hall become crowded for the session with Nepal Communist Party Co-Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal. This, while the other discussions were not nearly as jam-packed. Why is it that even when one can attend for free—as the majority who had invitations did—most only choose to attend speeches by politicians? It still amazes me to see the level of fondness Nepalis have for politics. The same people who deride politicians and accuse them of creating Nepal’s challenging state also show up to such talks and clap their hands to the statements being made. Perhaps this can be the subject of a book.

Reimagining connectivity

For the first time in Nepal, we were exposed to a multi-faceted discourse around connectivity. Bruno Maçães brought with him the Eurasian view of looking at the region, and his views were striking. Maçães comes from Portugal (and is a former minister), where the population stands at just around 10 million. Yet, the Portuguese never think they are a small country. He said that Nepal, by comparison, would be the fifth-largest country in the EU by population, and sixth by area. But we are made to think that we are small, sandwiched as we are between two large neighbours.

C Raja Mohan articulated the future of South Asia, and this conclave, perhaps, will be remembered for recalibrating the discourse around what South Asia means. Andy Mok gave us a first-hand account of how China thinks and acts; Nepal needs to be proactive and not reactive with a country that plans for decades. But the biggest message that emerged out of the keynote session was that like the hotel business, a country’s prospects centre around its location. And it is not important only to have the right location—countries need to learn to leverage it, too.

The discussions were diverse and fascinating. The sessions even managed to analyse the globalisation of health challenges, like the current novel coronavirus outbreak. We had a chance to listen to amazing individuals like Sagar Tamang, a man who only came to Kathmandu from his hometown in the nineties and worked as he went to college, and who has since worked his way to lead a multinational team in a global market research company based out of Singapore. Such individuals will hopefully inspire many to rebrand themselves and hold themselves in higher regard.

Mohna Ansari questioned: ‘Why are we not proud about our country?’ Perhaps when we learn to be proud of ourselves, we will be proud of our country. The world of art and culture continues to be the biggest tools to help bridge and expand connectivity. As Namita Gokhale explained, the book trade is one of the most primitive ways to exchange knowledge; the way it has been taxed in Nepal is appalling.

The biggest takeaway from the conference has been that connectivity requires an open mindset. Many have dubbed me the walking LinkedIn. Yes, perhaps we can only reap from connectivity if we ourselves are open to connecting with people. People can connect cultures, societies, businesses and organisations. Countries that have people willing to further connectivity in various forms always benefit from it—history has proved as much.

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2020/02/11/nepal-can-benefit-greatly-by-embracing-connectivity

The Jaipur Literature Festival still provides hope for an open society

It would be great to see future editions having conversations on regional issues that are led by the youth.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is the world’s biggest literary event. Discord, colour and conversations have become the hallmark of this gathering which is rightly called a festival. Given that it has earned its place on the global literary map, it is lovely to be a part of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2020, especially when launching one’s own book.

The way the festival is managed probably merits a management case study. Teamwork, under the leadership of Sanjoy K Roy, has been able to mobilise thousands of people to make the event seem like a seamless, day-to-day affair. The recently ended edition was probably the last to be hosted at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, a small hotel venue that now sees hundreds of thousands of people in the five days spanning the event. It is interesting to see that the Jaipur Literature Festival is expanding to more geographies, and hopefully, we will see an edition in Nepal soon.

The India I view through the lens of this event has been changing dramatically since the festival began some 13 years ago. The political debate in Indian television has become more polarised. This is also evident with what people are sharing on social media, too. The fact that people enjoy watching debates on channels like Republic TV speaks volumes about the society that is increasingly becoming prejudiced; where messengers of information spend much time debating without an objective. The challenge is to see how democratic and pluralistic societies will survive when a good part of the population is becoming jingoistic—nurturing a deep sense of cultural and religious nationalism. Regrettably, liberal voices are getting drowned in the majoritarian voices.

It is also interesting to see Sinophobia in India. The country is aware of how China is stepping into its neighbourhood and is attempting to control connectivity between Asia and Europe. Although India is envious of China’s pursuit, it is not sure how the former attempts to recalibrate itself to deal with this situation. But on the contrary, China is a country that focuses on long term vision followed by laser-focused action.

India loves to talk, and the television debates playing precedence to action is costing the country dear. Our southern neighbour has a massive population that works hard and dreams of getting the children a good education. Indians also have to compete fiercely due to the sheer size of the population. But perhaps the leadership in society and politics do not provide direction for the common Indian to fulfil their dreams.

Usually, in India, one is often bombarded with unsolicited advice on what Nepal should do and not do, I did indulge fully on advising India what to do and what not to do. At times, equality in a relationship is also about being able to provide advice to each other as we do in South Asia. Among the 200 sessions in the Literature Festival, I had the opportunity to moderate a session called Belt, Road and Beyond. The panel consisted of foreign policy veterans Shyam Saran and Manoj Joshi along with Bruno Maçães, who is regarded as one of the leading thinkers looking at China from Europe.

As Maçães says, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is not just an investment, it is a new order. This has forced countries to contemplate how they can grapple with an order that has been built on the foundations of state control, limited freedom of speech, controlled media and the techno-nationalist shaping of digital platforms that are continuously policed. Given that, the way India perceives China’s role in the world, its knee jerk reaction to political rhetoric around trying to intrude in India’s neighbourhood will be something that even Nepal will have to keep an eye on.

The biggest joy for me was that there is interest in Nepal, I saw this at the jam-packed hall at Brookings India in Delhi, where there was a panel discussion, along with the massive turnout at the book launch. Many were interested in learning more about Nepal and Nepali politics. While some were talking about how Nepal is changing in a positive frame, many also questioned whether the appointment of a murder suspect as speaker of the House would disrupt the progress.

The Jaipur Literary Festival provides a chance to people-watch and it always encourages one to ruminate. With more than 80 percent of the attendees being under 29 years old, it will continue to be a platform that attracts the young. The future of the Nepal-India relationship will be based on how these young people articulate this for themselves while looking at the future. Perhaps next year will find a panel of young people discussing bilateral issues specific to the Nepal-India relationship. We all can ideate to make this happen.

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2020/01/28/the-jaipur-literature-festival-still-provides-hope-for-an-open-society

There is a new Nepal. India hasn’t kept up

Nepalis have moved beyond India in their engagement with the world. It’s time to recalibrate the relationship

A new geopolitical dynamic is taking shape in South Asia, and Nepal is at the centre of it. China, with its aggressive Belt and Road Initiative, is expanding its engagement in the region, as seen in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. Nepal is no exception. The visit of President Xi Jinping to Kathmandu in October was symbolic of the new recalibration of relationship. With a new trade and treaty signed with China, Nepal does not remain India-locked anymore.

But China isn’t the only player in town. The engagement of the United States (US) began in Nepal through aid in the 1950s. A Millennium Challenge Corporation grant of $500 million agreed upon a few years ago is now in subject of political controversy, as a segment of Nepali political opinion is seeing it in tandem with the Indo-Pacific strategy.

India, of course, remains a key partner. While the uniqueness of the relationship stemming from historical, cultural and religious factors remains intact, a key trend, which has gone relatively unnoticed in Delhi, is that Nepalis have moved beyond India in their engagement with the world.

Nepalis who have worked in the British Army now get British citizenship. There are thousands who get US citizenship through the diversity visa programme. Permanent migration to the US, Canada and Australia has increased. Nepali migration for short-term work in West Asia and Southeast Asia, along with medium-term work in different parts of the world, has grown dramatically. India was earlier the single-point of external contact, but now more and more Nepalis do not need to come to India for education, work, medical treatment or marital relationships like they did a couple of decades ago. This change in social dynamics is coupled with a transformation in the State apparatus, with a new federal structure creating seven provinces and 763 local government units with 35,000 elected officials.

But India, immersed in its own story, has not been able to keep up with these developments in Nepal. Older links are breaking down. Today, younger Indians who would have a generation or two ago seen Nepal as an obvious tourist destination, decide to lap up other possibilities in the region and beyond. Nepal remains a pilgrimage destination, but overwhelmingly for older people. This is reflected in politics too, where younger politicians on both sides lack the organic links that marked the past.

The state of domain knowledge on Nepal in India remains dismal, with only a few — now rather archaic — experts dominating the narrative. To be sure, the state of in-depth knowledge on India and its ongoing transformation is limited in Nepal too. There, a negligible percentage of men, above the age of 65, dominate the discourse whereas the demographic data suggests 50% of Nepalis are under 25 and 70% under 35. In the usual seminars and events on India and Nepal, there is a dearth of younger voices with fresh perspectives, as it mostly remains dominated by retired officials.

The change in Nepal’s economy has gone unnoticed too. It has been one of the fastest growing economies in the past couple of years with a real GDP of $34 billion and a GDP under the Purchasing power parity method at $80 billion. With the highest tax to GDP ratio in South Asia, the Nepal government budget is over $8 billion a year, with a good part funded by government revenues.

The dependence on aid has plummeted. Ironically, Nepalis spend more on education in countries where aid originates. For instance, Nepalis last year spent $1.3 billion in Australia on education while Australian aid to Nepal is around $ 22.5 million. With a population of 30 million, Nepal is also consuming more as land prices are increasing rapidly and remittances soaring. All of this makes it important for India to view Nepal with new lenses. It needs to engage in a manner in which it sees how Nepal can fit in its Act East policy in new frameworks such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

We need to recall that India-Nepal relationship flourished when Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the capital 100 years ago. For people in the bordering areas of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Sikkim, Nepal has a special place for work, business, trade and different forms of social engagements. It will be important to take this regional — and sub regional — view and see how some of the provinces of Nepal can have a deeper and closer relationship with neighbouring states of India.

Finally, we need to revive more people-to-people relationship among the young through more visits and programmes, be it educational tour exchanges or short term fellowship exchange programs.

It is the youth of these two countries who will define the future of the bilateral relationship. An open moment exists for recalibrating the relationship between the two countries where so many things we have on both sides taken for granted. If people-to-people relationships prosper, societal and regional relationship will prosper and make better engagement at national levels between politicians and bureaucrats of both sides possible.

https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/there-is-a-new-nepal-india-hasn-t-kept-up/story-2Iyuyo6XWT4KyLjgJFzcZN.html

Nepal’s future lies in leveraging its geographic location

‘Unleashing the Vajra’ attempts to view Nepal’s future through a different lens—one of wealth creation and not poverty alleviation.

When my first book, Unleashing Nepal, was released in 2009, very few books had been written on Nepalis by Nepalis writers, especially by those who had spent their time in the corporate world. I had just started my entrepreneurial journey with beed, a management consulting and financial advisory company, after spending two decades with Soaltee Group. At the time, my work was very much about how to make investments and management core to Nepal’s transformation, because there were plenty of opportunities in the country. Heavily influenced by lessons in management from Prabhakar Rana, who owned Soaltee, I started advising private and development organisations, particularly focusing on the need for transparency and professionalism.

I was fortunate to be writing with guidance from Manjushree Thapa, a successful author, with influence from Gurcharan Das, whose book India Unbound had started to shape the discourse on liberalism in India. Das also wrote the foreword to the book. A decade later, I have made an attempt to look at issues facing the country through some new lenses.

Megatrends

In my new book, Unleashing the Vajra, I have tried to explore Nepal while keeping five ideas on the forefront.

First, I wanted to continue the idea of unleashing its potential. As India and China are set to be the two big global powerhouses in 2040, Nepal has the same opportunities it did in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it prospered by being a link for the two countries. Second, in the past ten years, Nepalis have become more affluent and more educated, but problems like garbage, corruption and the lack of professionalism have become worse. There first has to be societal change if we are to see an economic transformation in the truest sense.

Third, I did not want to talk about government and politicians. Instead, the focus was on two sectors, private and development, to understand the context of the problems we face in Nepal. Fourth, borrowing John Naisbitt’s term—megatrends—I look at the issues relating to migration and remittances that have shaped the Nepali economy in the last decade. And finally, I deal with action points that have been talked about for so long; but a sense of urgency is necessary to convert vision into action.

Lessons from Nepalis

This decade has seen many books, written by Nepalis, emerge that talk about Nepal. This ensures there are enough local materials that form a part of the understanding, rather than being dependent on foreign writers and the narratives they provide. Digital platforms have given us more access to news and information. And being able to read and type in Nepali has changed how content is created and consumed. This has also helped shape stories, narratives, and lessons.

Nepal, with its population reaching 30 million, has a vast number of opinions to share. Further, migration has created an enormous diaspora population that consumes and produces content in Nepali. I saw an excellent opportunity to sieve through the discourses in Nepali and put together a lesson for the audience that read in English.

Travelling across many countries and interacting with Nepalis has given me a different perspective: how the people in various regions think about issues and how they also keep their interests in Nepal.

What’s in a name

Many people tell me that whenever they hear the word ‘unleashing’, they think of me. Perhaps this is my contribution to the narrative on Nepal—an alternative to the existing discourse. Therefore, I have kept the issues going by using another view to everything happening around us.

Take tourism, for example. I have attempted to view tourism from the lens of wealth creation rather than seeing it as a tool for poverty alleviation. High-end resorts bringing quality tourists will help create wealth for locals. In contrast, the current focus on homestays will just bring in a marginal increase in income at the cost of overcapacity, noise and environmental degradation. So, ‘unleashing’ continues to remain the keyword used to explain another perspective—to leapfrog exponentially rather than be a part of the status quo.

I chose the word ‘vajra’ as a symbol of indestructibility. Something that represents the Nepali power of resilience. While ‘vajra’ can have different meanings for people of different faiths and beliefs, for me, it is a symbol that denotes potential. It represents the dreams of the many Nepalis in the country and abroad to whom I dedicate the book. I want the phrase Unleashing The Vajra to become a metaphor for the unleashing of Nepal’s potential between India and China—by hitching our wagons into the two fast-moving trains to the north and south. 

Welcoming 2020

Hope has to be followed by individual transformation—simply blaming the state won’t do.

Something quite rare happened in 2019. Only for the second time in the entire decade, a person who was prime minister on January 1 continued to hold the post on December 31. As the majority government entered its third year the perception of political stability continues. However, if you would ask the prime minister what the three big things he achieved in 2019 are, he would be hard-pressed to answer. While there was the Investment Summit, the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and loads of words spent on rail, ships, roads and social security, on the ground nothing much could be seen occurring. Visit Nepal Year 2020 became a feel-good hashtag, as even the CEO of Nepal Tourism Board did not get his term extended. Like many other concessions, people from the private sector who manage the gravy train continue to milk it; the campaign has received legitimacy from diplomats and international agencies, after all.

However, Nepalis, as always, showed great resilience and kept the hope alive—they started travelling more within the country as bandas and the fear of travelling were eliminated. The medal-winning Nepali sportspersons gave the country a lot to cheer about. Young Nepalis are also being recognised in many parts of the world for their contribution to diverse issues. More startups are coming up than ever before. With load shedding becoming sporadic, electricity is changing lives—and how shopfronts, eateries and streets look. Nepalis continued to travel out of Nepal for tourism and education like never before, despite Nepal Rastra Bank’s draconian foreign exchange policies. Yes, it has benefited the black market for foreign currency, which saw a great revival after nearly two decades; politicians probably get their cut from such underhanded deals.

The year will mark its end with the political parties gearing up for the 2022 elections. The senior citizen club of opposition Nepali Congress does not look like it will get its act together; leadership is unlikely to pass on to the next generation. The few new parties, that act and lead like the erstwhile royal-supporting parties, will have to reinvent themselves to really attract the young people who matter. The ruling party does have new leaders emerging at the local level—mayors, ward chiefs and provincial ministers who deliver. They will be driving the future agenda. By the end of 2022, we should be seeing some new faces coming up who will drive the new campaign in the ruling party.

The way private-sector cartels are fighting for their existence, we expect 2020 to be a year where some tectonic shifts will occur. The relevance of the cartels will be questioned, and law-making processes will receive more input directly from people involved in the sector. This will also be facilitated by the shift in the agenda of the development partners, from aid to engagement with the private sector. The development sector that provided legitimacy to the cartels and supercartels by partnering with them in the past have realised that they have been the biggest impediment to Nepal’s economic development. We have seen, in access to finance programmes, projects like Sakchyam that are directly working with banks rather than the cartel of bankers. This will proliferate. With 37 percent of Nepali exports now coming from the service sector, information technology and communication technology firms that have been the silent crusaders will lead. These are not part of any cartels and they work with international firms following international standards—something the cartels despise.

In the last decade, women have been coming to the forefront across all sectors. While there is a push towards women-led patriarchy as promoted by the president, real change, led by women that will change the future of Nepal, has also been occurring. Men are scrambling to learn how to make presentations to women who are making decisions, manage travel with women colleagues and work under women bosses. In rural Nepal, women that started to manage affairs—more from compulsion after men started to leave for jobs abroad—are now consolidating their leadership positions in society. We saw women journalists breaking many stories in 2019, and we will see more of them in 2020.

If Nepal is to really make 2020 a year heralding its decade of transformation towards 2030, it needs to revisit its priorities and think of these five things: First, Nepal needs to take diplomacy and foreign affairs seriously. As Hindu fanaticism is gripping India and new maps of India are emerging, Kalapani will start looking like a teaser. There will be more geopolitical play in the region; we have to be proactive, not reactive. Second, investments are a priority. But this has been paid lip service for too long without concrete action. Investment is about planning—let planning get priority.

Third, succession planning is something we need to take seriously, be it in small businesses or in the country’s executive branch. The speaker of the federal parliament was charged for a heinous crime. Still, no one has been appointed in this speaker’s place—this has impacted legislation seriously. Fourth, freedom of movement and freedom of speech have been the foundations on which Nepal’s transformation has been possible. This cannot be scuttled. Finally, we need to just change ourselves a bit to bring about a bigger transformation. This is true for basic actions such as respecting cleanliness, openness, transparency, accountability and responsibility. It is no use talking about how things are going wrong when you personally cannot correct small things at your end. Credibility begins at home. Let’s greet 2020 with some individual agenda of transformation.

Unshackling sports and athletics

Nepal succeeded in hosting the South Asian Games, but it could have achieved much more with dedication and planning.

The South Asian Games have ended, and Nepal has shown a lot of promise this time. But to truly improve, we have to make continuous efforts to ensure sports is used as a tool for youth empowerment. Yet, it seems that Nepal only attempts to make short term gains before reverting to old practices. We are doomed to repeat history, it seems. As I was contemplating this issue, I stumbled upon my own column from September 2013, titled Leveraging Sports, in which I talk about taking a commercial view on sports, the building of infrastructure and questioning the utility of sports associations. It provides an interesting comparison point to see whether sports and athletics in Nepal have gone through any substantial changes.

Nepal is a country where problems are aplenty; so much so that conversations everywhere, from the lowly tea shops to glittering cocktail receptions, all focus on these problems that everyone feels. So, it was an utter joy to see people forget all problems, ethnic divides and political divisions and come together to follow Nepal’s athletics journey. The South Asian Games provided a platform for all Nepalis to feel proud of belonging to this country. Yet, it would be remiss not to mention the problems that are so glaring.

When watching the opening and closing ceremony on television, I was reminded of my student days in India—of watching the Asian Games in 1982, when India had finally managed to introduce television broadcast in colour. The quality of the entire broadcast was poor. This was in stark contrast to the visuals being uploaded on social media from inside the stadium. When looking at the production and broadcast quality of reality shows, such as Nepal Idol and Voice of Nepal, it is clear that the country can produce content that rivals any in the world. Then why were the broadcast rights given to the channels that couldn’t be bothered to up their game?

Another major issue cropped up with the equipment available for athletes. While there has been a lot of news covering the increased investment in infrastructure, equipment and participants this time, it is also obvious that many things were overlooked. It was heart-wrenching to see Nepali shooters having to borrow pistols and bullets from competitors because Nepal itself did not provide the right equipment on time. The necessary equipment should have been procured at least several months beforehand, giving athletes enough time to familiarise themselves with the new apparatus.

Nepalis can pull off anything in a short period of time, but shabbiness has been our hallmark. The introduction of online ticketing services meant that we saw families enjoying the games live without any encumbrance. But, at the same time, also present were the people who do not pay for such events but wiggle tickets out of political associations. They were the ones making lots of noise of not being able to get to the stadium. But these were the same people who also arrived late to the venue, to begin with. Large venues necessitate seating times before the event begins, and politically connected people need to understand that these are not like the functions they like to hold up with delays.

It was also interesting to see that the diversity presented by the athletes’ cultural and ethnic make-up wasn’t reflected in the sports associations. There is a stark contrast between the people who actually play and the people in control. The people who play rarely make it to these sports bodies and some of the rent-seeking officials do not even understand the rules of the game.

I recently had a conversation with Biplav Gautam, a Nepali based in Singapore who is Sports Partnerships Director at Sportradar. For someone who has been engaged in the world of sports across multiple countries, I asked him what it all meant for Nepal’s future. He says that the usual way of promising financial rewards to medal winners is not the best way forward. Rather, support for sportspersons should come before the events, not afterwards. The current scenario is like agreeing to send your kids to school once they ace subject exams. What is necessary is an investment in athletes so that they may achieve strong results.

Given his observations in many countries around the world, he argues that, often, host nations are euphoric after the completion of multi-sports extravaganzas, only for the momentum to be quickly lost. This is regularly seen post Asian Games, Southeast Asian Games or Commonwealth Games, where countries boldly announce sports development initiatives and their aspirations to host World Championships or the Olympics, but then return to business as usual. Therefore, for Nepal, the key challenge will be to keep the momentum going.

Here are the three things to do, borrowing from my previous columns on the subject. First, there has to be a structure that aids commerce and investment—like the cricket leagues that have gained in popularity. Professional bodies that can procure investments and garner corporate sponsorships have to replace sports associations. We should not forget that we are a $34 billion economy and just the commercial banks put together are worth more than $15 billion.

Second, we need to have a global outlook and link sports with tourism. Rwanda signed a four year $32 million contract with Arsenal, for instance. Some experts say that this will tremendously help market the country all over the world. We also need our sportspersons to get into international teams and acquire international sponsorship and attention. Look at what one Sandeep Lamichhane can do.

Third, we need to plan; a difficult thing for Nepalis, as culturally we are not wired to do so. We need to engage international firms that can bring the necessary revenues and visibility as soon as any sports meets are planned. No one will be interested if you ask them four months before the opening ceremony. Nepotism must also be done away with.

Finally, I stick to my decade-old push for making the Mahendranagar airport an international class sports complex before the politician-business nexus will plot it and distribute it. Built to push the royal sport of hunting, it has the potential of becoming a multipurpose centre with academies, professionally managed stadiums and a sports tourism attraction.

The government’s year-old social security scheme is a mess

Arbitrary actions, confusing policies and opaque management will throttle investments and economic growth.

Last year, the KP Oli-led government undertook a multi-million rupee media blitz throughout the country to launch its contribution-based social security scheme. The scheme and its accompanying Social Security Fund were launched with the slogan ‘Naya Yug Ko Suruwat’, which translates to ‘the beginning of a new era’. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) lauded the move on its website, considering the scheme ‘one of the milestones of the ILO’s on-going interventions in Nepal’. A year has passed and on November 30, the deadline for organisations to register with Social Security Fund ended. Till the cut-off date, 10,477 enterprises and 115,606 individuals had registered, a dismal number compared to the number of enterprises and people working in Nepal. Investors, foreign and domestic alike, are waiting to see how the scheme moves forward, given the weak reception. Consultants have been bombarded with questions; there is uncertainty on policy directives moving. Real estate prices are taking a hit and the stock market will not recover any time soon due to the confusing policies. As it is, the Indian economic slowdown has been impacting business and tourism in Nepal already.

Nepal has a history of making a mockery of every good intent. The opacity of the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund showed how the management, systems and processes of government funds lack transparency. When the Bonus Act led to banks paying out large bonuses, the government mandated that the excess amount must be deposited to a National Level Welfare Fund whose scope of activity is unknown. Therefore, the government does not have the credibility to be able to win the confidence of employers and employees that it will not siphon off money from the Social Security Fund.

Twentieth-century mindset

The basic idea of the social security scheme is that an employee will put in 11 percent of their gross salary into this fund, and their employer will contribute an additional 20 percent. This savings is locked-in until the person turns 60, after which they will be eligible for pensions. The government has already made it impossible for organisations to legally hire interns and fellows. They have also done away with probation periods, which means that an employee is eligible for all benefits from day one and there are no linkages between wages and productivity. In an age where people are known to hold partake in multiple income-generating activities simultaneously, the shift from a focus on careers and jobs to income is clear.

Any social security scheme should be able to explain how healthcare expenses will be defrayed through such a large contribution to a fund and how the pension scheme will work. In Japan, there is a strong push for doing away with the concept of retirement. In Nepal, there is no clear understanding of what the government is trying to do. The employees and employers have for years been contributing to the Employee Provident Fund (EPF) and Citizen Investment Trust (CIT)—both are government bodies mandated by acts of Parliament. Now, it is unclear what will happen to these funds. There are rumours swirling about how the government is planning to dissolve the EPF and the CIT and transfer the accounts to the new Social Security Fund. Many people, therefore, are attempting to withdraw their money from the two old funds owing to the uncertainty that jeopardises their savings.

In Nepal, the employer-employee discourse has been monopolised by the cartels and political unions, who negotiate with the government on acts, laws, regulations and policies. Those who speak against them are either silenced through smear campaigns in media or verbal/physical threats. The contribution-based social security scheme was a result of the negotiation reached between employee unions (that this government has to keep happy) and the employer council of cartels, facilitated by experts from concerned international organisations. I remember how, during my days working at Soaltee Hotel, heavyweight pseudo-militant union leaders from different parties would come to negotiate on behalf of the employees, who were working diligently. The irony here is that some members of the business houses making up these cartels have been boasting openly about how they hire Indian workers in their factories to circumvent labour laws and social security schemes aimed at Nepali workers.

Nepal may regress

Business ventures are fluid, they will always find a way to work as long as the product or service has enough demand. But recently, through better access to finance and easier way to pay taxes, businesses had started to move away from the informal sector to formal ones. The recent confusion threatens this progress; businesses will be tempted to embrace the informal sector again. This is detrimental to Nepal’s growth. In Unleashing Nepal, I advocated for Nepal being a capitalist welfare state, where free enterprises will be responsible for welfare payments along with the state. The private sector has to see it as something that they are encouraged to do for it to work.

Nepal’s growth prospects are dependent on attracting investments—both domestic and foreign. The government needs to reach out beyond their political base, of cartels that fund them and the unions that give them muscle and electoral power, to examine how to make social security a reality for Nepalis in a manner that is credible, gradual and acceptable.

Nepal hasn’t been able to adapt to a changing world

Think tanks can play a significant role in helping countries like Nepal deal with the changes.

Last week, more than a hundred think tanks came together in Bangkok to discuss how they can help manage the transition amidst trade wars and the shrinking of space for open dialogues and discourses. The Asia Pacific Think Tank Summit was organised by the United Nations ESCAP and the University of Pennsylvania. While the world has progressed and is discussing pertinent issues, back home in Nepal, we continue to be preoccupied with mundane issues like the health of the prime minister, parties and lawyers busy protecting criminals and, of course, politicians making sure they do not lose control of universities. No one, whether in government or heading institutions, has a vision as to how the country or their respective organisation will look like in 2030. It seems that the only way of thinking prevalent at the individual level is the drive for personal gain—more wealth, more parcels of land, and probably more gold. Given that, it is always enlightening to hear discourses on the future.

Managing a China-led future

For a world accustomed to the West’s domination of thought, innovation and economic matters, one of the most uncomfortable issues is the emergence of China. A study carried out by the McKinsey Institute points out how, over the decade from 2007 to 2017, China almost tripled its production of labour-intensive goods from $3.1 trillion to $8.8 trillion. At the same time, its share of exports has dramatically decreased, from 15.5 percent to 8.3 percent, which means that the country is consuming more. It is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that there are two different yet important economic systems in the world now. The people who envisioned the Washington Consensus never imagined China’s rise. We need to engage with China—a country that is making its own rules—in the way it operates rather than wishing or pushing it to change. China’s size and scale need to be recognised. Think tanks need to learn from both these systems, rather than judge and take sides.

The assumption that there is a line dividing government and business is not valid anymore. The way China is moving ahead has changed the way other countries think. Vietnam, for instance, is more than happy to ape China over the West. By 2040, Asia will claim a 50 percent share of the global GDP and a 40 percent share of consumption, with more than half of the world’s population residing in this region.

The West, especially the United States, is retaliating in different ways; rule-based trade is coming to an end. National security issues are being used as an excuse to change rules and uncertainty on trade is impacting investments. This is also visible in the way the Japan-South Korea trade dispute is taking a toll on tourism and investments in the two countries. With populism on the rise and the world adjusting to a new global order, think tanks, too, need to recalibrate their way of operating.

Keeping up with change

Discourse is changing rapidly. Publications and research have been coming at a much faster pace. There are more challenges and opportunities emerging each day. Communication technology has shrunk the world on the one hand, and has polarised it on the other. Social media has provided users with an overwhelming amount of content—sometimes similar and sometimes contradictory. It is much harder to keep track of what is factual. Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence is helping create new breakthroughs in healthcare but at the same time is making people vulnerable to cybercrime.

However, at the think tank summit, there was a consensus regarding the biggest challenge: How will countries create policies, and legal and operational frameworks, to manage a society that is ageing. A presentation from Japan argued on how the concept of retirement age should be scrapped. This means the concept of social security will no longer be relevant and people can be paid based on productivity. If this happens, the concept of work, income, and saving—all will change. Japan’s argument could be valid for Nepal, where 50 percent of the population is below 25 years of age; many in the 21st century are unlikely to opt for a 30-year career in a single sector.

For Nepal, where politics and the bureaucracy hardly attract the most analytical and educated, it is challenging to hope for a deeper dialogue. Our challenge is to manage a society where communication technology has penetrated at a faster pace than information technology. There are hundreds of online news portals but barely a handful of research agencies that collect data, mine them and convert it into useful information. We have banks boasting of apps for quick transactions but using obsolete software for information management.

Nepal has an opportunity to engage in these discourses more closely, as many other countries face similar situations. Nepal Economic Forum has offered to host the summit in 2021 and by then we hope to sensitise people on the need to reimagine the roles think tanks play.

Aiming for a better future, by prioritising the young

Nepal has no idea how to prepare its children for the future. But it needs to learn before it is too late.

With the arrival of UNICEF executive director Henrietta H Fore in Nepal, people in government and others who have lived out of donor largesse are scrambling to talk about children. With a renewed global focus on Nepal, as many international visitors have been visiting, the country is trying to figure out what to say. Unfortunately, with this crowd, the authorities concerned cannot rely on a transient patchwork as they did for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit. The discussions have to be substantial. It has been three decades since the government committed to children’s rights but has little to show for it. It was perhaps because of this that the government representatives, speaking at one of the functions I attended, we’re unable to clearly espouse the official view, or the official future plan of action, on the subject. Nepal has no idea as to how it will implement UNICEF’s new Generation Unlimited initiative, which is ‘a global partnership working to prepare young people to become productive and engaged citizens’. The initiative apparently connects ‘secondary-age education and training to employment and entrepreneurship, empowering every young person to thrive in the world of work’. It is important to examine children-related issues from a few perspectives.

Is education preparing children for the future?

A government report that has detailed statistics till 2017 says there are 7.4 million children in school in grades 1 to 12 with a slightly higher percentage of boys compared to girls. They are in 35,601 schools all over the country. Formal education has never been a priority in Nepal; it only gained some recognition from the Rana regime a hundred years ago. The Shah kings further messed up matters by creating a concoction of systems that crippled education. And, since the 1990s, it has been more about the politics of teachers, unions and private school cartels. There is an unattributed saying that goes: The collapse of education spells the collapse of a country. Perhaps Nepalis have followed this too well.

With technology being adopted rapidly, and machine learning and artificial intelligence entering our lives at an even faster pace, the response has to be even faster. The top 10 jobs of today are ones most had not even heard of just 10 years back. In the US, a recent study revealed how more than 15 percent of the people hired by the top 10 tech firms did not go to college. The discourse has moved to income generation rather than job creation as people want income, not jobs, and definitely do not want to be in the same job for thirty years like our social security programmes assume. The big question, therefore, will be how we will recalibrate our education system to get our children to adjust to the new world.

New technology brings new problems

The former executive director of UNICEF—and only Nepali to have reached the highest coveted position in the United Nation—Kul Chandra Gautam recently shared that the big challenge at present has been induced by technology. Social media and the internet have created massive problems by generating new forms of child abuse—be it in the forms of sexual or financial exploitation. He also talked about the new types of addiction towards gadgets that are becoming a major social challenge.

I remember seeing children less than three years of age, at a children’s ward in a hospital, who had to wear neck support as their parents and grandparents were letting them overindulge in using mobile digital screens. Children’s addiction to electronic devices and their anti-social behaviour is much talked about. But little is done to stop such behaviour. People also seem to be happier to complain about this trend, rather than protecting their own children. There is also no way to restrict people of all ages from using new media platforms, be it Tik Tok or content on WhatsApp.

What can be done?

But where should the responsibility lie? In a country where it is common to see parents bringing children to A-rated movies or forcing their kid’s classmates to drink at birthday parties, the issue of proper parenting needs to be discussed. Let us not forget that many parents who pay for their children’s college education abroad spend money not for a good degree, but for a visa. This mindset has to change.

Schools also have a significant role to play. Schools and colleges are found to advertise themselves as a transit point on the way to obtaining citizenship and employment abroad. This has to change in a really big way. We have to prepare for the children to leave Nepal, but to surely come back after amassing knowledge and skills.

Finally, instead of pointing fingers, we have to think about the steps that can be taken individually to improve the situation. Today, the Nepal Economic Forum is hosting an event to kickstart the discourse. We need to secure the future of half of Nepal’s population. Let’s join hands.