Travelling is always a chance to learn a lot, particularly when you go to countries of hope, innovation, and aspiration. In Vietnam, companies are developing infrastructure as part of a three decade plan. In Singapore there is a perpetual desire to do something new and different, to improve one's life. If the president gets a seven-figure corporate salary, he better earn it. Thailand, it is said, is the Argentina of the East-three steps forward, two steps back. The underlying lesson in all cases is that you do not mess around too much with political structures.
Going from Nepal, the other striking thing you notice is how forward-looking countries can be. It's good to have tradition but we are mired in our heritage, looking for state structures from the time of Rama or before the unification of Nepal at any rate. The world benefits from moving towards a regulated market economy and outsourcing services, but we continue to live in the belief (and hope) that the state should do business, that all employees should have tenure for life, and that unions will solve everything.
In many countries you can buy prepaid electricity cards with a choice of service options. We spend our time debating whether to use water for rafting or generating electricity. Private developers have, through public-private partnerships, created cities and townships that provide quality of life at affordable costs. We make owning and developing a crime. Globally, countries find it possible to make their citizens self-disciplining. We have things like traffic lights as merely suggestions, instead of part of a legal framework.
So here's what we need to do. First, of course, stop craning our necks to look into the past and instead turn our gaze to the future. Second, we need to think innovatively about the future. For instance, out-of-the-box-crusader Anil Chitrakar and the Beed have discussed allowing SMS voting for the upcoming elections to the constituent assembly. Nepal will go through a dozen elections in the next five years. The CA election will be followed by the national election, then elections in the federated provinces, for local government, and so on. Given the South Asian love for coalitions, most of these will not last the full term.
We should distribute mobile handsets so people can vote without having to disrupt their daily lives. The software can ensure that no one votes more than once, and the hardware providers will be happy to look at a market of 15 million. This phone can then be used for multiple purposes-microcredit transfers, rural banking, and so on. In Kenya, Vodafone has made money transfers possible through mobile phones. Think of the savings on infrastructure, security, and personnel costs. The initial investment-the cost of the phone sets, the software, security features-will be lower than all the above. There is unlimited potential for advertisers and content providers, whether radio, multimedia news, education programs, or whatever else strikes your fancy.
We don't need bizarre ideas, just an innovative look at existing processes. It's the one thing that could move us into a whole other league.