Sujeev Shakya

Articles & Publications

We need a culture of dialogues in Nepal

A remnant of the feudal past, people are always willing to dole out speeches but never willing to listen.

Last week, a national consultative meeting was held for the planned Sagarmatha Sambaad. The Sambaad is a multi-stakeholder forum that the Nepal government has initiated and plans to host in April next year. It was heartening to see the foreign minister and the minister for forests and environment sit there and listen through the session. Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali explained very well how dialogues differ from workshops, conferences and seminars. This prompted me to really look at the issue of why Nepalis do not have a culture of dialogues. It is due to a lack of this culture that arrangements, from business deals to political settlements to family issues, do not come to a logical conclusion.

The culture of speeches

I was tweeting a lot when I was attending that event—frustrated listening to people blabber and speak endlessly. It seems that people compete on the length of their speeches rather than their content. It is very easy to spot the usual suspects: People who will speak in a condescending way expressing their superiority in the subject. Perhaps, our speech-making habit comes from the way there is no room for critical thinking or the culture of challenging assertions. Much like the religious leaders, they seem to be influenced by, Nepalis like to push through one-way communications. Sermons are more revered than interactions. If one can quote verses in Sanskrit, then one is revered even more. It is due to this that self-declared intellectuals embark on the journey of teaching others. Since our culture shuns the practice of putting viewpoints across, the individuals fed up with this are ostracised. Like in politics—where the able become the silent majority—the mediocre rule in all aspects of Nepali society.

Keeping the youth and women out

The irony of Nepal is that 70 percent of the population is under 35 years of age, but male senior citizens (65-and-above), constituting perhaps 2 percent, dominate all discourses. In a culture where age and seniority are revered, this is the biggest impediment towards bringing about change in the way we think or do things. The youth and women are generally ignored across all sectors. Lisa Honan, Head of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) for Nepal, shared at an event how she was the only female speaker out of the 90 speakers in the recently concluded Infrastructure Summit.

Usually, at such events, panels of nine or 10 people ramble on; the rest of us are left wondering what these speeches by men in the panels lead to. As it is, these sessions are supposed to be dialogues. Even global firms like KPMG, which was the knowledge partner in this event, had to succumb to the Nepali culture of alpha male domination. When I chatted with the organisers, they shared their helplessness on how, in Nepal, things can really go out of control. The Nepali culture also extends to wherever Nepalis are. I had tweeted about a diaspora event in Europe, where the panel consisted of 13 men of Nepali origin—all over 40 years of age. There was not a single woman panellist. Perhaps this trend reflects the way we treat women and the young at work, in our homes, and in society at large. Until we begin to include these marginalised groups, there will be no dialogues—there will only be boring people making boring speeches covered by boring media outlets.

Tokenism and photo-ops

It is important to analyse where this trend of one-way communication began. People need to understand that they were designed under a feudal system, where monarchs and those close to palace graced what they deemed to be important occasions. When television stations were established, a protocol developed where state-owned broadcasters would only cover events that ministers attended. Therefore, the culture of competing to invite ministers began. The private media houses continued this trend. In the 1990s, the competing development partners popularised this as they had more direct access to the ministers than general Nepalis, and ministers never said no to an invitation from foreign agencies.

Things have not changed much since. We still observe ministers gracing programmes of all kinds; the youth keep asking what this is all about. With agencies and institutions having social media pages, the tokenism has now shifted to social media. Nepal used to be known as having one of the highest numbers of reports published per capita. We now have moved on to having the highest number of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs). Social media platforms are flooded with pictures of signing events. This craze for instant fame has affected the younger generation a lot. Entrepreneur-mentors such as Ashutosh Tiwari and Suman Joshi have been venting their frustration on how young people get caught up in fame. These young entrepreneurs subsequently ignore the businesses they had planned to build.

With Nepal Economic Forum conducting over fifteen dialogue-based events in the past six months, the key lessons have been that those who are seriously interested come to chat and listen. They are not there for photo-ops. When people ask us why some government officials or other key individuals do not come, we share our experience of people who demand preferential seating (preferably plush sofas) or the opportunity to make speeches and how such people do not attend. There are plenty of lessons on what works and what does not. The learning will continue.

Bangladesh is transforming, and Nepal needs to learn from it

Perhaps we can see more movement of people between the two countries, followed by investments.

Last week, a news report made the rounds in India and the world about Bangladesh topping the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate in the past 10 years. The Indian media, online and offline, did express surprise about this development and did not know how to react to projections by the Standard Chartered Bank that Bangladesh’s per capita in 2030 would be higher than that of India. The Bangladeshi growth story is something that is being discussed, and there are lessons to be learnt from it.

Bangladesh’s GDP has crossed the $300 billion mark (10 times that of Nepal) putting it among the top 40 economies of the world. By 2030, it is estimated that it will make it to the top 25 economies of the world. A lot of these numbers have come about with increases in exports and a stable exchange rate. Bangladeshi exports will cross $50 billion this year, and its trade with India is increasing. Readymade garments, which make up a big portion of the exports to India, are expected to cross $1 billion this year. These export-oriented manufacturing industries have created jobs that are important to fuel growth.

The other big thing that one can notice is that the Bangladesh taka has remained strong. The taka and the Nepali rupee used to be on par around 2012, with the exchange rate of both being around 1.6 to the Indian rupee. Now, the taka has remained strong at 82 to the US dollar and around 1.2 to the Indian rupee while the Nepali rupee has depreciated. I have continued to question economists who talk about exchange rate devaluation being a necessary tool for boosting exports and continue to talk about how the Nepali rupee is overvalued. However, Bangladesh has increased its exports, especially to India, despite its currency rising in value. What I have understood, and what Bangladesh’s rise has proven, is that a stable exchange rate that is strong reduces import bills and increases real income. That helps the economy.

Balancing geopolitics

The current government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been in power for 10 years, and analysts in Dhaka told me she functions more like a Southeast Asian leader than a South Asian one, with an emphasis on pushing projects, especially infrastructure development, and accepting the challenges that it brings around governance and dissident voices. The infrastructure projects are visible, and the common person on the street is happy about the jobs and earnings that they bring.

This government has been able to keep the China and India balance in a way that Nepal has never been able to understand. While more Indian companies are investing, and imports to India are rising, the Chinese presence is becoming more visible, especially on construction projects. With the Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh has been reaching out to China to manage Myanmar. The current government has the backing of India, and bilateral relationships are at their best with more agreements in transit. My driver in Dhaka told me he would be visiting Darjeeling soon with his family because now it is effortless to get visas to India. Similarly, projects in the Indian state of Tripura are being built by transporting goods across Bangladesh from Kolkata. The way bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India are moving, the entire Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) platform needs to be revisited to create a futuristic multi-modal platform.

At Dhaka airport, when we landed, 200 Chinese visitors were crowding at the Visa on Arrival counter as we waited an hour for queue-agnostic folks to clear up. I was chatting with the officials, and they did share that this had become a common sight and more Chinese restaurants and hotels catering to them were opening up. The readymade garment industry relies on China for raw materials and machinery. The geopolitics narrative has transformed where key policymakers, business people and especially young people think Bangladesh is at the centre of the growth triangle of China, India and Southeast Asia.

Social re-engineering

One of the biggest transformations one notices on the streets of Dhaka, apart from the new buildings, restaurants, coffee shops and shopping centres, is the fact that there are more women on the streets than ever before. They are working, and they are leading the societal transformation. Because of ride-hailing apps like Pathao, a woman sitting on the pillion seat of a stranger’s motorcycle has become acceptable, and people do not comment on how girls are dressing up or what they are eating and drinking. Many new hubs have emerged, and I enjoyed being at Jatra, a melting pot of art, culture and culinary delights. My young driver in Dhaka was very confident that Islamic fundamentalism had been silenced by the women working in the garment industry and others who have now found their identity as workers, and have the money to buy sarees with their own money. They will not allow any religious fundamentalism to come in the way of progress. He talked about tolerance towards other religions, and how Saraswati Puja and Durga Puja were celebrated in his village with much vigour and masti, because people would get bogged down meeting relatives during the Eid festivals. Many people I interacted with echoed similar feelings.

For Nepal—that is lost in its myopia of repeating the history of rudderless authoritarianism, stifling liberal values and practices, and closing down investments and markets for the outside world with increases in privileges and perks for people in power—there is a lot to learn from Bangladesh. There are similarities in our journey, and there are interests in both countries. Perhaps we can see more movement of people between the two countries, followed by investments.

Forecast: Economic gloom

Nepal needs to be prepared for a potential slowdown in the global and regional economies.


Within corporate circles in New Delhi, there has been an increased amount of stress among the high-level executives. The economy has slowed down. Jobs had to be cut, units had to be shut down and costs had to be slashed. The older markets of Delhi have come back to life, as footfalls and sales in malls reduce. Older roadside eateries are seeing more visitors, even as newer restaurants have been pushing through offers. Online discount platforms are being shunned by outlets as margins continue to fall. Hotels are seeing room rates and occupancy numbers drop. However, these are different times under a different political system where speaking out can be a challenge; therefore, many of the issues are discussed inside closed rooms. It took a while for the Indian government’s policy body, Niti Aayog, to come up with some bold statements acknowledging the reality. Finally, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced some operating procedures to push the sluggish economic growth.

When India sneezes, Nepal catches a cold. Therefore, it is very important to understand what is happening in India. There are other emerging global challenges that have to be considered as well. The unprecedented trade war between China and the United States has been intensifying. The United Kingdom is pre-occupied with Brexit—a monster they created—and Europe is experiencing an economic slowdown. In Asia, Thailand has seen one of the worst years, economically speaking, in this decade and the spiralling effect is impacting other Southeast Asian countries. All is not well in the East Asian front either, with Japan and South Korea squabbling with each other.

Spillover effects

While the global economic crisis will not have a direct or immediate bearing on Nepal, apart from slowing down tourism, what is happening in India will impact us directly. There are four key potential impacts. First, with our currency pegged to the Indian currency, a weak Indian rupee is not good for Nepal. It will push our import bill and spur inflation. Those who argue that depreciation of the Nepali rupee will make Nepali exports competitive need to realise that increased import costs will negate all minor benefits. Second, at a time when an oversupply of rooms is already troubling bankers who financed hotel projects, an economic slowdown in India would affect tourist arrivals from the southern neighbour.

Third, there has been an increase in the number of Indian workers crossing into Nepal in search of jobs. Currently, the remittance sent from Nepal to India by Indian workers has crossed $3 billion. An increase in this will mean a fall in Nepal’s net remittances. Moreover, an increase in the labour supply would decrease wages. This can bring about a situation where there could be dissent from Nepali workers who are yet to understand the concept of productivity-based wages and have been pampered by the protection provided political forces (in the garb of unions).

Finally, the escalating crime in India due to increased unemployment could spillover into Nepal. Memories of Nepali night buses travelling in long convoys to ward off attacks from criminals from across the border are still fresh in the minds of. Bollywood has institutionalised Nepal as a getaway destination for criminals while political forces have encouraged the same. With surveillance and record-keeping of movement at the open border being poor, Nepal has to really think about how it leverages technology to track the movement of people across the frontier.

A new approach

Nepal, much like North Korea, has kept itself out of fully integrating with the global economy. This has nothing to do with strategy and more to do with dumb-founded nationalism. As such, the country needs to prepare itself for the effects of the economic slowdown elsewhere and to start examining areas that will be impacted.

Nepal’s economy, contrary to what figures the gross domestic product and per capita income state, is based on asset price increases. With corruption rampant and its replication into 753 local units after federalism, there may be close to $1 billion in corruption money entering the markets that will keep the real estate prices afloat. The fact that more clubs and watering holes are opening in every nook and corner of Nepal and expensive alcohol is available at dingy highway joints is an indication that there is no end to the flow of free money.

One of the biggest problems with economics is that the causes and effects of downturns can only be analysed after such events occur. However, those in the sector can spot certain markers. It is time for those involved in academia, business and think tanks to start thinking about preventative measures. It is also hoped that Nepali leaders across politics, governance and business will find time from their busy schedule—full of inaugurations and speeches—to think about what could be coming ahead.

Dismantling cartels and ‘cartelpreuners’

Signs are emerging that will make cartels in Nepal lose their clout.

In Nepal, among the people who do business, there are only a few who are actual entrepreneurs. The bulk is what I call ‘cartelpreuners’—entrepreneurs and businesspersons who attempt to add to their share of wealth without adding value, by forming cartels. These cartels make sure that there is little regulation from the government side, zero self-regulation, and get away by selling substandard goods and services at a very high cost. I have written ad nauseam that there are cartels in every sphere of our life. A nexus between business and politics exists; politicians (many of whom are business people also) protect the cartels, as they are a major source of funding for political parties and are especially important during elections. Even the Maoists during the decade-long civil conflict did not go against the cartels, as these cartels helped streamline the extortion that was a key funding source for the insurgency. However, there are signs that, perhaps, the days of the cartels are numbered.

Banking on the youth

Recently, I had some interactions with the customer service department of Standard Chartered Bank and it was a refreshing experience in terms of how they handled my issue. The entire banking sector in Nepal, until a short while ago, had been relegated to being a business where the objective was to keep promoters and shareholders happy rather than focus on the needs of the consumer. Bankers have been able to influence the central bank to ensure they become glorified money lenders. Apart from a few banks, the others in the cartels continue to fight tooth and nail when it comes to banking reforms. They have been successful in pushing Nepal Rastra Bank to ensure that corporations, even joint venture companies, cannot borrow from their parent companies or investors outside Nepal. They have kept international payment companies at bay and have successfully checked the adoption of regulations that would penalise banks whose ATMs do not work or their online banking system is full of problems.

However, the Nepali youth have shown a willingness to switch over to products and services that they deem better alternatives. The popularity of ride-sharing apps like Tootle or Pathao, payment platforms like e-Sewa, world-class entertainment facilities like LOD or the proliferation of Himalayan Java Coffee shops show that the youth want innovative products and services that actually work. As more young people begin to travel within Nepal, we will also see the dismantling of eatery cartels in the highways, with disruptive players bringing in world-class eateries. This push will ensure that the world of cartels will start to reduce in number and perhaps come to an end in the long run, much like the guilds of Europe.

Recalibrating strategy

In the past, when a foreign dignitary visited Nepal, interactions with the business community generally meant that the heads of different cartels were called in to represent the entire private sector. These cartel heads would use pictures of themselves meeting with such dignitaries to increase their brand power. This trend is reducing, with development partners and missions realising that they also had a role in nurturing the cartels. They came to understand that supporting the cartels could backfire on their own interests. The international community in Nepal was appalled to learn that, after a successful investment summit, the cartels could push the government to increase the threshold for foreign direct investments from Rs.5 million to Rs.50 million. Perhaps this was one of the precipitating events that made the international community realise that the cartels they were supporting at times with grants, junkets and photo-ops were the ones that actually pushed the government to come with such draconian provisions.

The sign of change is not only driven by the international perspective on development moving away from aid and toward investments (with technical support) but also because the people who are driving this globally have also changed. There are more private sector players who are being asked to lead bilateral efforts and work closely with multilateral agencies. In Nepal, the old guard in the development sector is giving way to younger people and people who want to make an impact. The practice of people finding and keeping jobs based on cronyism, instead of merit, is becoming history. While some multilateral agencies have slipped in this matter, most of the leadership have taken a bold decision to say goodbye to the people who had outlived their utility in the organisation.

We will see more recalibration of policies in international agencies in Nepal as the geopolitics continues to change and investments take priority over aid. The cartels and super-cartels are rightfully being seen as the biggest impediment in Nepal’s economic growth, above the challenges of governance and bureaucracy.

The youth demanding change from the bottom-up and the top-down push from international agencies wanting Nepal to perform will make the cartels irrelevant. The process has begun.

Mentorship is crucial to unleash youth potential

While the new foreign direct investment laws are seen as a barrier, the lack of mentorship still remains a major problem.

In the span of a fortnight, I had the opportunity to speak to two diverse groups of people. At the Venture Talk, there were aspiring entrepreneurs and people with inspiring ideas who did not mind paying a registration fee to listen to the session. The other session comprised of folks from a premier, well-known fellowship programme. It is always fun to interact with the people who are to take responsibility for the future of Nepal.

At the Venture Talk, what drove me was interacting with young people who are hungry for change. Yes, the youth are frustrated with the government policies, the behaviour of cartels, and the attitude of omnipresent donors and grantpreneurs that have devalued the meaning of entrepreneurship. At the same time, they are keen to change the industry they are in and thereby bring change to Nepal. The motivated youth want to see Nepal on the global map. They want the products they are developing to have a global market and their services to be sold globally. With more women entering the world of entrepreneurship in Nepal, they are fighting societal norms and for their own rights within their own families, as they have to get the previous generation to change their outlook. It is heartening to know that this phenomenon is not only limited to the Kathmandu Valley, as we see more people from far-flung parts of the country engaging in the discourse of change. After meeting such people, one tends to think that they made the right choice of shunning opportunities outside Nepal to build businesses here.

Whenever my office gains new team members, they are generally given the task to attend such talks and report back on the three things they liked and disliked. In a country where giving feedback is not a natural phenomenon, having people tell me of areas that I can improve becomes tricky, but I have learnt and improved based on the feedback that I have received. In the other talk, the feedback was that a large part of the audience was arrogant. In a society where feudalism still prevails and people are always seeking entitlement, it is quite natural that when you belong to a cohort that is associated with a strong brand, arrogance starts to trickle in. Youth is about energy, but that energy can be also diverted towards a wrong purpose. It is important when attending such talks to be focused on learning. If it is perceived that the crowd is hell-bent on being judgemental, instead of being open to learning from the talk, the speaker can tend to switch off. This is especially true when the speaker is attending the event free of charge. The incentive for the speaker is to gain some knowledge back from the crowd, and this does not happen with disruptive attitudes present. This also creates an imbalance, as those who are really interested to learn and interact find it useless to raise their voice. This sense of arrogance prevails in people who think that they are a part of premier institutions, companies or organisations.

The Nepal Economic Forum recently conducted a study on the start-up ecosystem. One of the startling revelations was that while financing instruments and the new laws raising the minimum foreign direct investment to Rs.50 million seemed to be a major barrier to conducting business, the biggest constraint was cited as the lack of mentors. It seems that many people with an academic bent—who have not had their hands dirty—are the ones who are mentoring people. In smaller towns and villages, people who have risk-averse fixed jobs with INGOs/NGOs are teaching people how to take risks. Further, there are few role models that are available to look up to and data on performance is practically not available. Being able to pose for photographs with ministers and government folks and sharing them on social media are seen as the ultimate parameters of success.

Similarly, in organisations, when they poach people they forget that a person is only good when it comes with the right mentorship and team support. In many institutions, they hire a person and get frustrated when a person who was performing well in the previous organisation cannot perform as well in the new one. Since leaders across organisations are scared that acting as mentors may expose their weaknesses, they do not tend to believe in the fact that mentorship is of utmost importance.

Nepal needs more work around mentorship and in helping youth to find the right path. Leadership development is a continuous journey and only ends when one dies. We have to ensure that the people who have the energy do not get frustrated and leave Nepal. We have to also ensure that we develop a habit of perpetually listening to feedback and moving ahead. There is no room for blaming the government on this; lots can be done outside the sphere of government control.

Nepal’s place in a changing world order

It is important to look at how Nepal will plan its engagement with the world.

More than 350 speakers from over 40 countries had gathered in the beautiful city of Aix En Provence in Southeast France to share their views at the Les Recontres Economiques, a meeting of economists organised by the Circle of Economists (Le Cercle des économistes). Started in 2001 by a 30-member think tank of France’s leading economists, this 19th edition—with its theme being Renewing Trust—had more than 5,000 people attend events spread over seven venues in a university. It was a great opportunity to participate in a panel and listen to thought leaders from France and beyond looking at building trust—something that is in short supply given the growing pessimism. The topics of discussion ranged from the ensuing trust deficit in world politics to why the economists had failed to foresee the financial crisis of 2008. Some of them even indulged in predicting when a similar crisis would occur again. From migration to technology to questioning multilateralism, the discussions were free and honest. In times when global events have become more formal and people more careful about what they speak (owing to the fear of not getting visas or being persecuted by their own government) this platform dubbed as ‘mini-Davos’ provided a breath of fresh air. However, for me at a personal level, I continue to ponder upon what these discussions mean for Nepal. Here are three clear takeaways.

Shun complacency

In a country where one cannot buy a data pack for beyond 28 days and the bank deposit rates are lower for long-term instruments than short-term instruments, it is very difficult to have visionary thinking. But that does not mean we have to remain complacent. By 2040, China and India will be the two largest economies in the world and Nepal is land-linked to these two countries. Just as when this geographical proximity helped in making Nepal prosperous, back when our neighbours were wealthy until the 17th century, we can design our thoughts now on better managing these linkages. What happens between these two countries will also chart Nepal’s destiny. And going by what is happening with the recent changes in geopolitics, the likelihood of more cooperation between China and India is the natural and the obvious route. Many people I interacted with who understand the world of developing economies had a single message for Nepal: if you cannot ride the tide of the growth of your neighbours, you will never be able to graduate to an equitable and prosperous position.

They say that history repeats itself, and those who have a deep understanding of Europe compare the current desire for identity and politics shaped around nation-states. This is perhaps different than a hundred years ago. Collective leadership exists only if it has the support of the people. But at the same time, when collective leadership and democracy existed, dictators existed, too. This is because there were some people who believed in supreme authority; for them, political idealism did not really matter. Closer to home, and in recent times, in India, the defection of legislators in the states of Karnataka and Goa from the opposition to the ruling party offers pointers to the fact that ideology has always remained secondary; leaders come first.

A closed-off world

A hundred years ago, when it came to checking another country’s desire and hunger for economic power, there were no mechanisms in place except for adopting a protectionist policy in trade. And it seems as if we are reverting back to those times. The ongoing trade tension between China and the United States serves as an example. Regrettably, we are back to square one where winning trust has become more vital than using multilateral tools such as opting to use the World Trade Organisation as a gateway to dispute settlements. The question also emerges as to what will happen to the Brenton Wood institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—the key funding agencies for these institutions. Questions remain as to whether the new US Development Finance Corporation, that combines the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and USAID, will work in silo—cut off from other systems—or whether it will complement the existing institutions. China has already indicated its intention of using the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a tool to further its own Belt and Road Initiative. Similarly, what will be the role and functioning of the United Nations and its agencies, as more money will be channelled by countries on a bilateral basis rather than through such multilateral institutions?

What the next decade is going to look like will more or less be determined once the elections in most of Europe and America take place by 2020. Nepal cannot shape the global agenda as of now, so it will have to see how its own strategies dovetail into the changing world order. There have been more instances of challenges to speaking up against human rights abuses, with rampant corruption, with the erosion of governance practices, and with the attacks on freedom of speech. The new laws and policies proposed that curtail media freedom, promote the policing of social media and the resultant polarisation between sycophants and activists provide no comfort to an ordinary citizen. For Nepal, it will be important to keep the discourse going as we get more engaged in protectionism. It will be imperative for Nepal to engage bilaterally with countries that matter. Therefore, what the Foreign Minister proposed—of having Kathmandu Dialogues—becomes even more important, as it is not about who is right or who is wrong. This time, we need to rise above petty politics and try to be on the right side of history.

Reimagining the future

In the beautiful city of Tangier, Morocco more than 150 people from 65 countries gathered to discuss the future of technology, innovation and society. A brainchild of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, this is a medium extended to Africa to catalyse discussions around the great pace of innovation, and, at the same time, the necessity to regulate and manage these transformations that are impacting society.

Technology driving change

A decade ago, the vision of personal gadgets using artificial intelligence (AI)–playing one of the latest songs or picking a cosy place for dinner across a country–would have been far fetched. The idea that a person could approve large transactions by flipping a switch or tapping a button too would have been unimaginable ten years ago when people had to wait in line at a bank to do so. Moreover, the way we can watch movies at our own pace and time, at a place of our choosing, would have seemed like a fairy-tale. These visions were utopian some time ago; but today, technological progress has advanced technical capabilities and gifted us a lifestyle affluent in opportunity and quality. Technology has been a driver to provide an enormous set of information and tools that facilitate the utilisation of economic resources. There has been a significant increase in the consumption of goods and services, which has changed every facet of life. Undeniably, the way people consume has, thus, changed drastically and visibly.

One of the biggest issues that came up during discussions is that between Africa, China and India–with a combined population of 4 billion, or more than half of the world–a new class of people have arisen. If the 20th century was about money billionaires, the 21st century is about data billionaires. Data can change the way people eat, live, move and even vote. The innovation around how people buy goods or make payments is changing the definition of stores, banks and what really comprises a telecom company. Data plays a key role in determining everything. From designing hotels to innovating on wellness products to delivering entertainment, the mammoth chunks of data are providing the foundation for all major decision-making. I kept wondering about the amount of data that is generated out of Nepal that is not captured within the country, as the people here still attempt to keep the country isolated.

Regulation challenges

In India, there are more than 400 million people who use WhatsApp; this was a key tool that determined the outcome of the last elections held there in April-May. However, the government of India has no control over this medium. It is only recently that there are real humans that can be contacted in India relating to this platform. The same applies to many other countries, where the content does not reside in the country itself and there may be no one representing the platforms within the state. The proliferation of many online platforms in Nepal without any sense of accountability and their dishing out fake news has prompted the government to think of draconian media laws. This is not a solution. Governments also need to continuously reinvent their strategy on managing what comes online. For instance, in the case of online content viewed through over-the-top (OTT) platforms like Netflix, it will be important to work on strategy with these platforms to determine what content is harmful and what is not. We cannot expect the Nepal government to employ people to start censoring Korean language content that is so popular in Nepal. This requires a complete shift in the mindset–by working with the industry rather than outside the industry.

Blurring the lines

The big question is: where do online end and offline begin (and vice versa)? For instance, food delivery is yet another aspect of life where technology has changed for the better. The number of restaurants to choose from and the amount of food options available over the internet is massive, which has expanded the horizon of consuming food beyond what could have been imagined before. But it is important to remember that no matter how ‘online’ food delivery systems are, the delivery is still offline and done by humans who are subject to making mistakes. It is the same for the online ride-sharing apps. At the end of the day, no matter how fast the online system, the service delivery is only as good as the human component of the service chain. So, we have to realise that the human dimension is still critical.

There are multiple fronts of ideation and discussion. There is no way humans will have to scramble for jobs, but there is no doubt that the number of new jobs created will be fewer than in the last decade. The discussions over 5G will take centre stage as part of a geopolitical war between technologies. There will be civilian movements on climate change, open spaces and ethical practices as the younger generation will take on the social media and platforms to start new forms of the ‘Arab Spring’. For Nepali leadership across the government, the bureaucracy, the development community and the private sector who are used to the status quo, it will be a challenge to really wake up to the reality that change is inevitable. Time for a lot of reimagining.

उच्च व्यावसायिक नेतृत्व

नम्र स्वभावका, जहिले पनि चिटिक्क देखिने, सबैलाई आदर गर्ने उद्योगपति थिए– प्रभावकर शमशेर राणा । उनीसंँग मेरो करिब ३० वर्षको यात्रा विविध संस्मरण र सम्झनाले भरिएका छन् । ग्लोबल नेपाली : मेरो उनीसँगको प्रथम भेट म सोल्टी होटलमा तालिम लिन जाँदा भएको थियो । उनीसँगको मेरो गहकिलो भेटचाहिँ चार्टर्ड एकाउन्टेन्ट बनेर बधाई लिँदाको थियो ।

उनले प्रोत्साहनसाथै नेपालमा केही गर्न आह्वान पनि गरेका थिए । त्यसबेलासम्म नेपालमा काम गर्ने कि अन्य देशबाट प्राप्त अवसर अँगाल्ने भन्ने दोधारमा थिएँ म । उनीसित जति नजिकिंँदै गएँ, त्यति ग्लोबल नेपालीका रूपमा यहीं बसेर गर्न सक्छु भन्ने विश्वास बलियो हुँदै गयो ।

सायद उनको समयमा नेपालमा धेरै कम व्यक्ति थिए, जसले दिल्ली, लन्डन र वासिङगटन डिसीमा काठमाडौंमा झैं आफ्नो नेटवर्क बनाएर बसे । बेस्मेन्टमा रहेका अफिसका कोठाहरूलाई उनले विश्वको महत्त्वपूर्ण कोठा बनाइसकेका थिए । जहाँ संसारका बिभिन्न ठाउँबाट नाम चलेका व्यक्तिहरू आउँथे र भलाकुसरी गरिन्थ्यो । सत्ता दाउपेचका कुरासम्म हुन्थे । नेपालमै बसेर ग्लोबल हुन सकिन्छ भनी प्रभाकरले सिकाए ।

व्यापारिक शैली ः उनी व्यापारी बनेर जन्मेका पनि होइनन्, तर व्यापारसँंग जोडिँदै गएपछि लगानीकर्ता बनेका हुन् । उनी आफ्नो ‘करिअर’ परराष्ट्र मन्त्रालयबाट सुरु गरेको सुनाउँथे । तर त्यसलाई छाडेर पछि सोल्टी होटलमा म्यानेजर भए । जागिरे भएको २० वर्षपछि लगानीको अवसर आउन थाल्यो र उनी त्यसैका लगानीकर्ता बने । व्यस्थापनमा रहँदा उनले व्यवस्थापकको भूमिका निर्वाह गरे भने लगानीकर्ता बनेपछि लगानीकर्ताको रूपमा बोर्डको भूमिकामा आफूलाई सीमित राखे ।

व्यवसाय प्रोफेसनलहरूलाई चलाउन दिए । व्यवस्थापनमा अब्बल सहयात्रीहरू चाहिने कुरामा जोड दिए । होटल व्यवसायमा उनले ओबराय र पछि इन्टरकन्टिनेन्टलसँंग साँठगाँठ गरे । जलविद्युतमा अमेरिकी कम्पनीसंँग साझेदारी गरे । स्वमित्व र व्यवस्थापनलाई छुट्टै रूपमा हेरे । व्यवस्थापकहरूलाई उनी निकै छुट दिन्थे ।

सायद नेपालमा व्यापारी घरानाहरूले प्रोफेसनल व्यवस्थापकहरूलाई जिम्मा दिएर उद्योग, व्यापार चलाउने देखासिखी भएको भए सिन्डिकेटको आडमा विदेशी लगानीको विरोधमा उत्रेर व्यवसाय गर्नुपर्ने अवस्था आउने थिएन । उनी मसँग सोधिरहन्थे, ‘हाम्रो कर्पोरेट कल्चर देखासिखी गरेर होटल, हाइड्रो, गाडी डिलर गर्नेहरू किन अघि नबढेका होलान् ?’ त्यो प्रश्नको जवाफम खोजिरहेछु ।

नेतृत्व र मार्गदर्शक : नेतृत्वको कुरा गर्दा हामीले गुरु–चेलाको रूपमा हेर्ने गरेका छौं न कि मेन्टर र मेन्टी । सायद यो अवधारणामा विश्वास नगर्ने भएर होला, हामीले यसको नेपाली शब्दहरू पनि बनाएनौं ।

मेरा निम्ति प्रभाकर राणा जागिर दिने व्यक्तिमात्र थिएनन्, मार्गदर्शक थिए । सोल्टीमा पदका भर्‍याङ चढ्दै जाँदा जीवनका अनेक खुड्किलामा उनले प्रभाव पारे । समयको महत्त्व बुझाए । भेटघाट ठिक समयमा सुरु हुने प्रथा बसाले । ९ बजेको बैठक हो भने ८ः५७ सम्ममा बसिसक्नुपर्ने सिकाए । डायरीमा ६ महिना, ९ महिनापछिका कार्यक्रमको समय नोट गर्न सिकेँ । यात्रा गर्दा लबीमा ठ्याक्क समयमा भेटेर बैठकमा जान सिकेँ । आफूले गरेका कामको प्रतिक्रियामा उनी विश्वास राख्थे ।

त्याग्न सक्ने क्षमता : भनिन्छ, मानिसलाई त्याग्न सक्ने क्षमता आउन धेरै गाह्रो पर्छ । तर उनीबाट सबैले सिक्नपर्ने भनेकै त्याग्ने कसरी भन्ने हो । धेरै व्यापारिक घराना, राजनीतिक र अन्य संस्थामा एक पिढीकाले अर्को पिढीलाई नेतृत्व हस्तान्तरण नगर्दा समस्या धेरै आएका छन् । उनी भने कार्यभार त्यागेपछि कहिलै दख्खल दिन फर्कंदैनथे । पेसा, व्यवसाय छोरा सिद्धार्थलाई सुम्पेपछि उनले आफूलाई लागेका विषयमा समय बिताए । छोरालाई भार थाम्न सक्ने भएपछि मात्र नेतृत्व हस्तान्तरण गरे ।

सुशासन र पारदर्शिता ः सुशासन र पारदर्शिताको कुरा आउने बित्तिकै हामीलाई दातृ संस्थाका कुनै प्रतिवेदनको सम्झना हुन्छ । किनकि हामीले यी दुई शब्दलाई धर्ममा मोक्षजस्तो कुरा गर्न सकिने, तर प्राप्त गर्न नसकिने कुराको रूपमा सोचेका छौं । तर उनले नेपालमै बसेर यी दुई शब्दलाई अँगाले ।

उनी भन्थे, ‘कर बढी छ, लगाएको तरिका गलत छ । सरकारले त्यो पैसाको दुरुपयोग गर्न सक्छ भनेर कर तिर्दिन भन्न मिल्दैन ।’ कानुनी रूपमा गलत छ भने कानुनी रूपमै लड्नुपर्ने उनको सोच थियो । तर कर तिर्दिन भन्न मिल्दैन भन्थे । त्यही सिद्धान्त अनुरुप उनले स्थापना गरेका कम्पनीहरू अहिले पनि वर्षेनि कर विभागबाट पुरस्कृत हुन्छन् ।

प्रभाकरसंँगै एउटा युगको अन्त्य भयो । उनका बारे कसैले पुस्तक लेख्लान् । उनको जीवनबाट हामीले सिक्ने कुरा धेरै छन् ।

Nepal still awaits economic reform

Nepal is struggling to implement much-needed reforms for rapid economic growth. When Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli was sworn in as Prime Minister in March 2018, he was expected to go about delivering ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’ — a slogan that helped secure his landslide election victory.

Oli leads the Nepal Communist Party, a coalition of communist parties that united in May 2018. His choice of technocrat — former governor of the Central Bank Yubaraj Khatiwada — as Finance Minister sent good signals to people in Nepal and those watching from outside. In April 2018, Khatiwada released a White Paper discussing what was not working in Nepal and gave the impression that he intended to set the course right. But the new government’s first budget, presented in May 2018, did not suggest that he was pursuing substantial reforms and the second one presented in May 2019 was even worse. It propagated distributive economics and protectionist measures.

As Khatiwada prepares to submit his next budget, he is saddled with the same problems as his predecessors — growth has not been as expected, the fiscal deficit grows and capital expenditure spending is dismally low at less than 40 per cent. Promises of job creation remain unfulfilled as more Nepalis leave Nepal in search of work. Nepalis send US$8 billion home in remittances, while Indian workers in Nepal are sending back US$3 billion — making Nepal the eighth largest source of remittances to India.

As Nepal looks to graduate to a middle-income country by 2030, it faces three major problems.

Not enough foreign investment is coming into Nepal. Nepal needs over US$100 billion in investment over the next decade in order to graduate to a middle-income country. With low domestic capital formation, only foreign investments can bring about the much-needed impetus to economic growth. But while there have been many attempts to attract investment, on the ground realities pose a huge challenge. The country’s mindset cannot deal with foreign investment and still prioritise protecting domestic businesses. Nepal is yet to realise that it must compete for foreign investors with hundreds of countries — there is no queue of people wanting to come to Nepal.

The market in Nepal is dominated by ‘cartelpreneur’. Through cartels and super-cartels, the private sector acts as the biggest impediment to reforms by resisting legislative changes. For instance, construction companies have cooperated as a cartel (registered as an association) to ensure that a government law requiring the following of international standards not be promulgated. Similarly, sugar producers were able to push the government to impose bans on the import of sugar. Dairy companies pushed the government to put agriculture on the negative list for foreign investors, stopping large international companies from entering Nepal.

Many of these cartels in the garb of associations are structured to be part of a political party apparatus, allowing them to drive the parties. In the absence of legitimate funding, political parties are dependent on donations from these private sector companies with many cartels acting as fund-collecting bodies. The big dilemma for politicians and political parties is that if the number of foreign investors were to grow, they would not be able to provide funding to parties due to stringent anti-corruption laws. So, Nepal tends to attract foreign investments from companies and countries where such issues are overlooked.

Any country that is pushing a reform agenda needs a champion — and there is no such champion in Nepal. No bureaucrat or politician has come forward to push the reform agenda. With a communist regime that believes in distributive economics and promotes rent-seeking behaviour, there are also not many entrepreneurs outside the cartel circus who are advocating for reforms.

This leaves a few think tanks, organisations and individuals to push the reform agenda in whatever way they can, but they have not been able to gain the clout required to put pressure on the proceedings. Development partners also do not want to confront the government on this issue. They are happy to operate their private sector development programs with cartels and super-cartels despite knowing the plan is destined to fail.

Nepal needs a big transformation in attitudes towards reform in order to achieve ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’.

End of an era

In the basement of a building at the Soaltee Hotel, at the end of a long corridor, a room exists where many major decisions have been taken that have changed the fate of the business, the country and its people. A room occupied by Mr Prabhakar Rana for four decades since the building was added at Soaltee in the late 70s, this room saw luminaires from around the world for breakfast, lunch or tea, and of course, lots of conversations. I walked this corridor in 1989 when I joined as a trainee as part of the Chartered Accountancy course. I got to meet Prabhakar Rana when he was the chairman of the Soaltee Hotel. He was one of the most influential people in Nepal and contrary to what I had heard, he was such a warm person;  his messages of inspiration are still fresh in my heart. Later, the walks along the corridors to his offices continued–and became more frequent–as I took on more responsibilities and moved up the ladder. The board meetings, the pow wows, and getting introduced to amazing people from around the world–all became a part of my life. The business expanded, the diversification of business and partnerships grew, but he remained the same astute business person.

After I left the group in 2008 as Group President, my relationship with Rana became a different one. We did not have the baggage of the association of being of an employer and employee, and the relationship grew into one of a mentor and mentee. As I started Beed, the firm I still lead, he introduced me to people who became our clients and continued to help expand my network. He continued to be the brand ambassador one could dream for. He joined the Nepal Economic Forum, the think tank I chair, as an Advisory Board member and provided the much-needed boost to push it to the next level. When in Kathmandu, he attended every event we hosted, and never did they end without quick feedback on what he liked and what could be done better. The big lesson I learnt from him, which I will always cherish, was to take feedback consistently and act on them. Many things will be written about him, but for me, three key things stood out.

I got to meet many people from around the world in my career, both at home and abroad. The character that distinguished Rana from any other Nepali was that he was truly global. He can be regarded as one of the few Nepalis who traversed the world, provided opinion on global affairs, had a fantastic network, yet resided mainly in Kathmandu. I learnt from him that you can be global at the same time be grounded in Nepal. His rolodex comprised of the who’s who in the world and he ensured he kept in touch with people. He planned his itineraries meticulously and never forgot to call people that he could not meet. Rana was magnanimous in hosting people but was never opulent. He had a class of his own that reflected the breakfasts and meals he hosted–or even just the simple conversations over tea. An avid reader, he kept in touch with world affairs and many of us agreed on the fact that even till the last meetings we had with him, we emerged out of meetings learning two new things. His mind traversed the globe in seconds and he was futuristic in his thoughts. When Rana told me in 2006 after the second Jana Andolan to be ready for a decade of transition in Nepal, we did not believe him. But it turned out to be true. When he talked about the rise of China a decade ago after the Beijing Olympics, we could not really understand the extent to which he saw the world polarising between the US and China. When he talked about the rising world of authoritarianism we did not understand, but in one of my last meetings with him, he did emphasise, ‘did not I tell you?’

I learnt many personal lessons from him too. Like how to detach and move on. In a country where family feuds are omnipresent and succession in families messy, we learnt from him what a handover meant. When he passed on the mantle of the group to his son Siddhartha, whom I got to work very closely with, he really did let go of the business. He intervened at shareholder meetings and advised us only if we went to him to seek advice. In the Nepali business world, Rana became synonymous with transparency and professionalism. He partnered with the best companies in the world and hired the best people. He learnt how to keep ownership and management separate. He ensured that his people were empowered, but also that they were accountable. Rana believed in fair competition and pushed for global standards and delivery. His values are a stark contrast to the current Nepali business world of cartels, blurred ownership and management structures, myriad of conflicts of interest and nexuses between business and politics. In the later years of his life he lamented on the way Nepali businesses had evolved and how the different chambers and associations he had founded and he was associated with had ‘fallen from grace’.

When I saw him in September in New York battling in a hospital room, I thought as a fighter he will fight and that we will again meet as he had promised for lunch in either New York or Kathmandu. That lunch never happened, but we are hopeful that a book will come out in the future that will help us learn more about a man who redefined Nepali identity and business.