The NRN manifesto
Non-Resident Nepalis of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your imaginary importance
PREM JUNG THAPA
The Non-Resident Nepali (NRN) movement has come a long way since the London restaurant meeting in August 2003 of the dedicated core group that still provides much of its inspiration and leadership. As more and more Nepalis join the global diaspora our numbers have grown dramatically, but the purpose of the movement has become hazier and more confused.
Are NRNs just one more 'province' of a new federal structure with demands of dual citizenship, voting rights, special treatment and concessions on investments in Nepal? Or are we the new Patriotic Corps rallying under the (slightly confusing) slogan 'for Nepalis by Nepalis' to save the motherland?
Either perspective is valid. Under the former, the NRN Association is like the Nepal Medical Association or the Ex-Servicemen Association: doing its best to further advance the private and commercial interests of its members. In return, the members agree to a seemingly soft commitment to "strive to contribute to the overall development of Nepal".
But many NRNs, especially those in leadership, seem to confuse themselves with the development objective. They preach of a patriotic duty to rebuild a new Nepal with our advice, skills and resources. Again very laudable, though perhaps a bit fanciful.
What is reprehensible, however, is the effort to link these two with an unstated quid pro quo: you (Resident Nepalis) give us special rights, including dual citizenship, and we will bring in our skills and money to save you from doom.
This attitude is derived from three great myths about NRNs, namely:
* the best and brightest of Nepalis are living abroad
* our skills and investments are vital for Nepal's development
* directing our skills and investments back to Nepal is our patriotic duty.
Each of these is patently false, and most NRN members must already know that to be so. Resident Nepalis can judge for themselves whether all our talent has gone overseas, but the more egregious myth is the second one: the belief that NRN skills and resources directed back to Nepal are indispensable for Nepal's economic development.
One or two middle-rung Marwari business houses in Nepal can raise within two days whatever the global NRN Association can offer as investment funds for Nepal over the next two decades. Why then is NRN money more valuable than what local businesses with local knowledge can raise and invest within Nepal? If it is not about the quantity, is it about the quality of the funds? And in the specific case of Marwari investments, is it their ethnicity, and perhaps the dual citizenship of some, that is the problem? If that is so, the proposed dual citizenship of patriotic NRN investors is not problematic?
In fact, there is great danger to Nepal in willy-nilly providing special treatment for NRN investors relative to other foreign investors. A favoured status for the former may even discourage the much larger resources available from the latter. The thought paradigm of national versus international capital is outdated now. There is but one global capital pool. The ethnicity and national origin of investors matters little in this game.
As the NRN community gathers for its Fourth Global Conference in Kathmandu next week, it is essential to clarify both our key objectives and the strategies to be pursued. Sustained economic development that lifts living standards for all Nepalis is the great challenge of our era. This should be the singular focus for all patriotic Nepalis wherever they may live or work, and indeed for all well-wishers of Nepal, irrespective of nationality and citizenship status. How can the NRN community contribute most effectively to this difficult but noble task? Will dual citizenship for those of us already established abroad contribute to Nepal's development?
Ethnicity and past association with Nepal are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for promoting and participating in Nepal's development. It is more fitting that the NRN Association be a facilitator of 'investments' of new ideas and approaches and a window to how economic growth and development occurs in a globalised context.
The future of the NRN movement lies in contributing to a coordinated effort with the Nepali polity, donors, government actors, and resident and foreign businesses to design and implement national policies as well as individual projects that promote broad-based economic growth. It does not lie in creating a special class of foreigners with Nepali ethnicity.
Prem Jung Thapa lives in Canberra, Australia.
A market-based solution for generating work for Nepalis at home
Gulmi's copper mines used to supply metal to the capital of the Oudh kingdom in Lucknow until 250 years ago. But the British East India Company offered copper at a cheaper price, and the Gulmi mines had no customers. Gulmi was annexed by the Gorkha kingdom in 1786. Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher's 50 per cent tax on copper, over a hundred years later, wiped out what remained of the mines.
At about the time of the Gorkha conquest of Gulmi, the Scottish economist Adam Smith published his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, about the nature of the market. He believed that even if everyone behaved selfishly society as a whole would benefit. Smith's successors, particularly Ricardo and Malthus, thought otherwise. Then along came Marx and his theory that capitalism inevitably leads to the rise of monopoly, a polarisation between proletarians and capitalists, and eventually the revolution.
By the time The Communist Manifesto came out, Jung Bahadur was on a sabbatical from ruling Nepal. He met Queen Victoria but it is unlikely he heard about the philosopher in whose name a revolution would be fought in Nepal 150 years later.
Nepal may have been an isolated kingdom, but our lives have always been buffeted by far away events. In the world of ideas, you can either be an incubator, or a dumping ground. Nepal had great leaders who united the country and fought off big powers, but later leaders failed to turn this independence into prosperity. Part of the reason is that Nepal has become a dumping ground for foreign garbage.
This is where overseas Nepalis can come in, with their exposure to the outside world. Nepalis are now working and living all over the world. There are Nepalis who are well off and hold senior positions, but a majority of them are working in menial, hazardous jobs in India and the Gulf. This tradition of exporting Nepalis, which started with the Gurkha soldiers 200 years ago, continues to this day. If there is one thing non-resident Nepalis can do, it is to find alternatives to this trend, the social cost of which has never been assessed.
The only way out is to create new jobs in Nepal, which means one or several of the following: checking unruly labour unions, giving reasonable power to employers, opening more vocational training institutes, investing in infrastructure, and creating new 'intelligent markets'.
An example of an intelligent market is a new crop options market, integrated with an insurance system, to help Nepali farmers burdened with lack of capital, high interest rates and weather risks.
The price of rice drops in December when it is being harvested. In a crop options market, farmers could buy insurance and futures to be hedged against risks. Many overseas Nepalis own banks and if we move soon enough, we can corner the market in neighbouring countries too. This way the land returns to being a source of livelihood, agricultural and finance-related jobs will be created, we feed ourselves, and we even get a market-based solution for food crises.
However, if you give free rein to institutions like an options market, there is always a risk that a few firms will collude to rob both the government and farmers who buy these futures. That's why smart, honest and committed Nepalis are needed to monitor institutions that are set up. Initially, while some non-resident Nepalis can be market makers, others will have to work in foreign futures markets, learn the tricks of the trade, go back to Nepal and monitor the market on behalf of the government.
It is not money that Nepal needs. Indeed, as Paul Samuelson says, without confident hands and confident brains to use it, money itself has no meaning. Gulmi's copper is still in Nepal, it is our minds that can convert it into wires. It is hard to define what wealth is, but if we change something essentially undesirable into a desirable thing, that is a process of creating wealth. All we need is to use our brains. Whatever we do, let's not waste any more time. Let's learn something valuable while we are abroad so that when we go back to Nepal we can create something beautiful there.
Biswo Poudel is an economist affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley and the Coordinator of the Non-Resident Nepali Association Economic Policy Paper Taskforce.