[This was published in The Week, Republica National daily, May 20, 2011, p.10]
Chandan Sapkota & Rita Shrestha
The prevailing perception right now is that whatever progress we’ve achieved so far is going down the drain. Try having an engaging conversation with people gathered at teashops or in restaurants. Most harbor pessimistic views of the country. Resigned remark such as “Kehi hunewala chhaina, dubayo desh neta harule” (Nothing is going to happen, the leaders have ruined the country) is deeply entrenched in the minds of the public.
As youth experiencing the undercurrents of hope and changes sweeping the society and economy, we’ll part away from the pessimistic views and argue that positive changes are happening, albeit gradually. The agents of change are the enterprising youth (for our case, consider the age group 15-34) who have pretty much lost faith in their political leaders.
This band of enterprising and energetic population is realizing that it’s in their hands to constructively bring about a positive change of hope in the society and dispel the fear that nothing is happening. Change and progress are happening by not talking only, but by putting ideas into action and showing best practices in a range of activities and vocations.
They are seeing hope amidst chaos and opportunities amidst challenges. The only constraint that’s slowing down this progressive change is the regressive ideas and actions of the selfish political leaders.
In August 2010, a group of energetic youth organized BarCamp Kathmandu, an ad hoc and informal gathering where youth discussed a range of issues pertinent to Nepal’s growth, innovation and development. Connecting with interested youth via Facebook and Twitter, the organizers were able to bring together over 600 participants of various age and nationalities. The networking, discussions, and outcome of the ad hoc gathering were more revealing, enchanting and inspiring than the finest and most productive day at the Constituent Assembly (CA).
“The CA Members should come and see firsthand how to make discussions productive, civilized and engaging,” remarked Shankar Pokharel, one of the organizers of the event, during tea break. The reaction from other youth was that the leaders will be humiliated to see how smoothly this kind of large yet ad hoc event runs without any drama. This is an example of how youth are constructively shaping socio-political-economy debates.
Take another example of a youth who is working on to provide drinking water in remote places cursed by altitude and dryness. Nirmal Adhikari and his associates at Kanchan Nepal—an organization based in Pokhara that focuses on water management in rural areas—visit remote places such as Doti, Dailekh and Jajarkot, study water availability, document lifestyle and help households install rainwater-harvesting tanks. Sharing a picture of such a tank on Flickr, he commented, “Apart from saving time and resources devoted to fetch water everyday, people are also using the conserved water to grow vegetables in places where you might just think it was impossible before the installation of the tank. Furthermore, it’s having an impact on household education and health standards.” Adhikari is making an impact by doing what he wanted to, not just pessimistically talk about the gloomy economic scenario of the country. This is an example of how youth are constructively engaged in development activities and making real impacts.
After completing undergraduate degree in the US, Vidhan Rana returned home with a market research outsourcing project that involves creating and maintaining client database for various state and local government agencies in the US. He has not only opened an office in Bag Bazaar and expanded his team, but is also hosting space for a local NGO, also run by youth, that is constructing schools and providing training to teachers and educational materials to schools it works with in remote areas. Rather than incessantly ranting about underdevelopment and directionless economy, youth like Rana are doing their part to ensure a direction for the services industry and making an impact by providing access to education for the disadvantaged and marginalized ones. Unlike “youth traders,”, i.e., those who make easy money by importing goods and selling them with a hefty margin without adding any value to the productive capacity of the nation, youth like Rana are the real entrepreneurs who are not only creating a foundation for future economic growth but are also giving others an opportunity to realize their potentials.
Similarly, enterprising citizens who have knowledge, experience and expertise about entrepreneurship have founded Entrepreneurs for Nepal (E4N) to encourage youth to become agents of change and real entrepreneurs. A group of conscious youth is leading a campaign against bandas. Another group of youth is engaged in cleaning public parks and airports during weekends. Even more are trying to mobilize citizens, via personal and social networking sites, to hold their elected representatives accountable.
These are some of the examples of how youth are voluntarily becoming agents of change because they have lost faith in political leadership and believe that change should come from within. These smart youth are slowly rising up in political sphere, banking sector, I/NGOs, intellectual circles, policymaking, and so forth. They are gradually changing the socio-political and economic landscapes.
By the end of this decade, the number of people in the age range 15 to 34 is expected to be about 14 million, which is approximately 40 % of the estimated total population in 2020.
The number of people in the age group 15-24 will peak in 2017 and the 15-34 segments will peak in 2023. They will be the agents of change and a catalyst to the engine of growth.
Source: Computed from US Census Bureau’s population projection
With a sizable young population and low dependency ratio, the consumer market will see a huge rise in expenditure. Nepal will be one of the countries dubbed as “Young Asia” with low dependency ratio by 2050. Properly managing and encouraging the sheer number of people in this age group to constructively engage in socio-economic, development, and political activities will be of immense importance for the future of Nepal. They not only need predictable and bankable policy and political environment, but also jobs in virtually all sectors.
Hence, achieving high economic growth rate is necessary to accommodate the already enterprising youth as well as those who have zeal but lost faith in the economy. Returns to investment in this age group are enormous. Instituting an appropriate structure and policy to give direction, opportunities and jobs to the growing number of youth will be one of the most pressing economic challenges in the next few years. Else, we’ll see more migration of thousands of youth to the Gulf and other employment destinations in Asia and North Africa.
The economic and political challenges faced by our nation are changing rapidly. On the economic front, our per capita income is increasing at a very slow pace and economic growth has been below 5% for years now. Compare this with the strides in growth rate and per capita income of not just India and China, but also Bhutan: they are galloping but we’re treading at snail’s pace and that too with great resistance. Meanwhile, the biggest macroeconomic challenges in the coming decade will be to rectify our trade deficit (i.e. bringing down exports to imports ratio of 1:6 to about even-even), accelerate economic growth, bring about structural transformation by reducing the number of people engaged in agriculture and finding them gainful employment in non-agriculture sector, relax the most binding constraints to economic activity (infrastructures and governance), tame surging prices of food, fuel and commodities, and provide safety nets to the most vulnerable population. With the existing pace of reform, it’s impossible to tackle these myriad of challenges. Its course has to change and it can’t be initiated by the existing political leadership who are in their 50s or more. It requires new energy, new people, new vision and enterprising youth that are less selfish than the existing leaders.
On the political front, the dynamics is changing so rapidly that it’s even hard for political analysts to correctly fathom the trend and where it’s heading to. Perhaps one reason for this is that the political rhetoric and superficial commitments of our politicians have no consistent logic as they change statements and commitments like anything. This is leading to disequilibrium in politics, policy, commitment and action. For instance, consider the commitments made by our leaders to bring out a Constitution within two years, integrate the PLA fighter within months, stimulate double-digit economic growth rate in a few years, produce 20,000MW of electricity in two decades, and not to impose bandas in 2011. All of these commitments are unfulfilled and repeatedly rebuffed by the same leaders who committed themselves to these pledges on paper.
While youth are exploring opportunities amidst challenges in their own pace, it’s the responsibility of the state to further accelerate the novel exploration so that innovation and structural transformation occur at a speedy rate and sustainable fashion. Unfortunately, the biggest constraint to this change for the better is our political leadership, which has already shown its party-centered selfish, myopic, opportunistic and at times oppressive facades. They are not only ignoring but also undermining the changes happening in the country. Worse, they are averse to youth’ new ideas and demand for accountability and results. To counter this, even more conscious youth are needed in the political sphere.
Changing from within
Having that said, let us be mindful of the fact, however, that not all youth –such as the indoctrinated party cadres and illiterate and misguided ones – are acknowledging this change and the need to change from within. But it’s the duty of those who’ve realized this to ensure that those who haven’t realized are made aware by instituting best practices.
With all the undercurrents of change sweeping, albeit slowly, among the young generation, the country’s economic and development scenario isn’t as gloomy as is perceived by those who have lost faith in the political system. Change is coming to Nepal and is led by the young generation. The only unchanging constraint is the political leadership.
[Published in The Week, Republica National Daily, May 20, 2011, p.10]