I’m feeling downright optimistic about Nepal—for a change. I love the country and its people, so it has been heart-rending to witness the pervasive violence, economic deterioration, and political collapses of the past decade. With 42% unemployment, power outages up to 18 hours per day, a paralyzing fatalism, and politicians given more to platitudes than productivity, it can be hard to envision the light of a brighter future here. Until Monday.
Things were different from the start: an open-air garden party in the hotel grounds with everyone standing around freely. In Nepal, professional events are usually formal closed-room affairs, with a line of ministers and guests seated on the dais in visible acknowledgement of their importance. The event will start 10-40 minutes late, run on interminably, and include long-winded speeches full of flowery language without saying anything concrete.
Instead, the launch of Unleashing Nepal—a new economic analysis of the country, from historical basis to visionary future—was itself an indicator of changing times. The event started on time, ended after 45 minutes (unheard of!), and included three concise and perspicacious speakers. Those may seem like small and irrelevant concerns compared to an ailing economy and unstable polity, but they are indicators—the same way trains running on time are indicators of a smoothly functioning society.
The speech from Kul Chandra Gautam (former UN Assistant Secretary-General) reflected a palpable shift:
These days many leaders speak about building an even more shining New Nepal, that would be not only economically prosperous but politically inclusive and socially egalitarian. But few such leaders ever provide us with any specifics, other than asking us to believe that some old outdated ideologies will produce new miracles…. the people of Nepal have seemingly voted for leaders based on alluring but empty promises, or sometimes even based on threats.
I was not the only audience member pleasantly surprised to hear acute criticism in a public forum when only a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined such candor at an elite event. His comments resonated with aid workers and ambassadors, bankers and businessmen.
This book is not going to ameliorate Nepal’s economic woes. I can’t even tell you yet if it’s a good read. What I can tell you is that I had a glimpse of the New Nepal trying to emerge—running smoothly, being honest with itself, honing in on economic truths instead of political lies, searching for a viable vision of the future, and including highly educated and motivated youth.
You can remove a government with protests in the streets, but you can’t institute a new one through shouted slogans and propaganda. The idea of an underclass rising up to reform and govern is appealing, but it won’t be the farmers who change Nepal. I’ve met them; they’re busy farming. And it won’t be the rebellious, disenfranchised youth. I’ve met them; they aren’t keen on self-directed work. The New Nepal will have to be born from its own intellectual resources, from its own intellectual populace—and some of those leaders, young and old, were standing among us Monday night.
The question becomes: will they be able to step up without being cut down?