For the last 15 years, Ganesh Lama has been working as a manager in Qatar. He can't believe how convenient it is to send money home. Until a few years back, Ganesh depended on friends to deliver cash to his wife and children in Kathmandu. He had to wait for months to find someone reliable.
Today, all Ganesh does is go to the Doha Bank in Qatar once a month to transfer the money to Nabil Bank in Kathmandu. "It's done in minutes," he says.
The process of money transfer to Nepal from abroad has not just become efficient but it is now possible to accurately measure how much money Nepalis abroad repatriate to their home country every year.
Even so, only 40 percent of Nepali workers overseas use remittance companies. The rest still rely on the hundi system, which takes up to two weeks, is unreliable and the operator takes a big cut.
Now, Western Union and 25 other recognised remittance companies help with transfers from all over the world to all over Nepal. "People are more confident about sending money home for a nominal service charge," says Arun Acharya from Annapurna Travel, which has been working on remittance banking for the last 10 years. Since 2001, the flow of remittance to the country has grown 15-20 percent every year and in 2004 money from overseas Nepalis crossed Rs 100 billion-making it a bigger source of foreign exchange than tourism and all exports combined.
"It's remarkable, the contribution Nepal's overseas labour force is making to prop up the national economy," says Prajuman Pokhrel of Nabil Bank, which is the main agent here for Western Union. There are now an estimated 1.2 million Nepalis working in 40 countries, not counting India.
Three-quarters of all recruitment agencies were damaged in arson attacks during the 1 September riots last year after 12 Nepalis were killed by terrorists in Iraq. The industry seems to have recovered from the setback. Except for Malaysia, where a three-month freeze on overseas workers was announced in January. The number of Nepalis going abroad is now back to mid-2004 levels. The three-week blockade after 1 February reduced the numbers since people couldn't travel to Kathmandu but it is picking up again.
"Remittance banking is developing in Nepal as destinations grow but many don't realise there is a safe and quick way to send money home," says Sanjay Thapa from Money Gram, one of the top remittance companies with 54 branches inside Nepal.
There is still a lot that needs to be done by the government to regulate manpower agencies, remove exploitation and cheating, and provide skills training so Nepali workers have a chance to earn more. "The government has not been able to support the manpower business, people pay so much to go abroad, there must be a way to promote high-value foreign employment," says Chandra Tandan of International Money Exchange (IME).
Now that some destinations like Malaysia and Qatar are reaching saturation points for unskilled labour, Nepal has to upgrade the skills of its overseas workers. Says Hemant Singh Gurung of Pioneer Overseas who has sent 20,000 Nepalis to Malaysia in the last six years: "There is less certainty now, the demand from foreign countries is not the same anymore,"