What do you make of Nepalis who introduce themselves as "BDS providers"? I, for one, would be quite confused. Are these really entrepreneurs and businesspeople-the ones who sell specific, professional services to private sector firms, and, as such, have no choice but to face the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace? Or, are they simply smooth-talking, donor-savvy, Shyam-of-all-trades with mile-wide smiles who have simply mastered the fine art of uttering the magic sentence "I am a BDS provider" so that they can seduce a lazily gullible donor agency to throw money at them?
Such questions must take an urgent tone now as more donor agencies jump in to partner-rather indiscriminately, it appears-with NGOs and private firms in using what they call Business Development Services (BDS) to raise both income and employment rates across Nepal.
My fear is that unless donor agencies working to strengthen the service sector in a commercially viable manner, start collaborating more by following the fundamentals of how to help develop markets for services, in a few years they may be staring at distortions and inefficiencies in the markets. The so-called "BDS providers" will be unable to function without additional subsidies.
The very term BDS, referring to a bundle of services such as consulting, auditing, marketing, designing and other such must-have business intangibles, may mean different things to different people, thereby eventually creating a big conceptual confusion. To avoid such a scenario, I suggest the following to all those involved in-as the jargon goes-BDS market development in both urban and rural settings across Nepal.
Donor coordination: Internationally, donor agencies have joined forces to put out a booklet that serves as a guideline on how to develop commercially vibrant service markets for businesses in developing countries. Nationally, however, donor coordination meetings are notorious for more style than substance. Conceptually challenging questions are avoided and everyone is eager to get along with everyone else.
In some cases, participants even cancel meetings at the last minute, showing that no matter how they harp about the importance of sharing information and knowledge, they have neither the time nor the interest to actually learn from one another. Still, with the recent advent of an informal BDS Practitioners' Forum, there is hope that at the very least, there will be an agreement on what different terms mean so that conversations and dialogues among donors will be conceptually consistent.
Some donors, especially those whose strengths are in the area of relief provision, seem to think that most BDS principles do not apply when they work with rural and urban businesses in Nepal. True, in practice, Nepal's case may present certain kinks to the standard principles. That's to be expected. But this is no excuse to throw the principles out the window and go down one's own idiosyncratic path, just to return later to lump one's activities under the BDS umbrella.
The principles, derived from basic micro- and macroeconomic reasoning and based on incentives, can be applied when working with, as the International Committee of Donor Agencies (1998) puts it, "any type of enterprise, anywhere in the world". That is why, starting from the principles, the variations in practice due to Nepal's geographical or institutional uniqueness should be taken up by publications which put out ideas that pose conceptual challenges to the existing theories.
These are two ways donor agencies can learn to be less impressed by those who identify themselves-not by their singular professional competence but-by that commercially meaningless sentence: "I am a BDS provider".