Why Should Nepali Youth Matter? Because It's There
Why Should Nepali Youth Matter? Because It's There
For a culturally nuanced understanding of ground realities in Nepal, the international community should mobilize the youth who comprise more than half the population of the country, says AMANDA JOY RADER.
As we debate the role of Nepalis in the new Nepal, we must also focus some attention on an important demography in the country: the youth. Remember those massive youth-dominated pro-democracy demonstrations in April 2006? The significance of this segment is evident in numbers as well— by some estimates, more than half the population is under 25 years of age.
There are several other aspects of the youth that deserve attention. In this piece, however, I would like to focus on the international dimension of youth and democracy, especially in light of the recent developments in the country.
I found two recent reports by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group very relevant to my topic. I draw some insights from them (See note at the end of this essay).
First, I try to examine some of the lessons learned about the international community based on events in April last year. Second, I reflect on how the international community can positively participate in democracy-strengthening and peace-building in the post-April 2006 environment. And third, I propose some initial ideas (and these are not from the ICG) on the role of youth in guiding international engagement in Nepal.
The International Factor
On April 21, 2006, under pressure generated from sixteen days of mass protest in Nepal, King Gyanendra offered that the seven-party alliance (SPA) nominate its candidate for prime minister, thereby returning executive power to the people. Though this proclamation failed to fully restore democracy, several key members of the international community—namely the US, the UK, India, China, the EU, and the UN (their vague statement was publicly interpreted to be in favor of the offer)—encouraged the SPA to accept it.
Not only was this international support for the acceptance of King Gyanendra's offer resolutely rejected by the Nepali people, they also felt a sense of betrayal for the stance taken by these international actors. While the civil society of Nepal was heroically acting together in solidarity for the promotion of democracy and in refute of countless acts of human rights violations, the international community was effectively backing away from its complete support for the implementation of a full-fledged democracy in Nepal.
Consequently, the international community lost considerable credibility in Nepal. As civil society leader Davendra Raj Panday explained: The concerned donors and diplomats…exposed their lack of knowledge and sensitivity about this country, its history and its people and their aspirations so thoroughly that they have little right to expect us to listen to their misplaced messages that will no doubt come our way again and again (cited in Crisis Group Asia Report 115: 12)
The people's (and specially the youth given their demographic dominance and political activism) general trust in the sincerity and genuineness of the international community was significantly eroded as a result of its reaction to the April 21 proclamation. Concurrently, several weaknesses in the international community's role in Nepal were exposed as a result of the events that unfolded over those several days in April:
There is a considerable and problematic gap between representatives of the international community in Nepal and the common Nepali people. There is a lack of sufficient investment in research and reporting from the grassroots level, and too much utilization of political elites as sources of insight to national sentiment.
This gap is fueled by an excessive focus on Kathmandu and an exaggerated sense of self-confidence in its 'knowledge' of Nepali reality. The focus of the international community has tended to concentrate in the capital. Until 2005, the International Committee of the Red Cross was the only organization with full-time staff based outside of Kathmandu (besides volunteer workers and some missionary groups). Principally generated from limited sources mainly based in Kathmandu, many times the international community overconfidently asserts its conclusions as to what it understands to be the reality 'on the ground'.
A second gap results from the international community's failure to follow through in practice with what it states in rhetoric. While in its oral and written statements the international community had been demanding and prioritizing a victory for democracy in Nepal, in actuality it demonstrated a priority for political 'stability' by supporting concession to the King's proposal.
Recovering the Trust
In order for the international community to recover the trust of Nepali people, first and foremost it must acknowledge the significance of the massive movement of civil society that successfully asserted its voice in April. This recognition should manifest by ensuring that the Nepali people be the drivers of international engagement and by supporting civil society's efforts to transform Nepal's political, economic, and social structures to ones that are just, inclusive, and fully participatory.
This dynamic structural transformation of Nepal requires the support of an equally enhanced approach to development on the part of the international community. The approach should continue certain strategies that have been successful in the past, while adjusting others that have proved detrimental. There are several key roles that will contribute to a positive impact on the part of the international community.
The international community should focus on four fronts: 1) public participation and rule of law, 2) responsible funding to development efforts, 3) helping to conclude a free and fair elections, and 4) support plans for transitional justice.
The first involves encouraging the opening of political space at all levels of the public sphere, technically and financially supporting forums (workshops, conferences) that provide the opportunity for civil society to voice its opinion and contribute to solutions, and emphasizing the inclusion of traditionally excluded sectors of Nepali society. It is critically important the international community do not intervene with the people's own decision about the monarchy. There is also the need to contribute to the strengthening of civil police, assist in training politicians and civil servants to professionally manage armed forces, and continue exerting pressure for investigation and follow through on all human rights violations as well as prioritizing democracy and rule of law above other efforts.
The second key role of the international community is to promote a fair distribution of funds. This can be challenging given the past cases of corruption and personal politics. The international donors must avoid carelessly injecting large quantities of money and/or competing among funders. Good coordination of aid efforts between contributing countries and organizations is also vitally important. The monies must be spent on the neediest, but in practice that is not the case always. Hence, the need to release funds only when certain criteria are met (criteria which promote democracy and rule of law, such as police redeployment or working-order of Village Development Committees). Consensus is important in making any decisions. For example, donors must make certain that all political parties are buying into the particular development project (acknowledge the intricate link between development and politics). Rather than beginning new programs, it is efficient to focus on existing projects that operate according to Basic Operating Guidelines (transparency, anti-corruption mechanisms).
The third front, and currently a very important one, involves the Constituent Assembly elections. The international community should assist Nepal in the actualization of fair and fearless CA elections that are slated for June 2007 under the United Nations supervision. Clearly, a lot of groundwork needs to be completed before the elections. The international community should work to sensitize political leaders to the importance and benefit of fair elections as well as assist in building the capacity of the Electoral Commission. When needed, they can also provide other logistical and financial support.
Fourth, they must support plans for transitional justice. They should offer programmatic and technical support drawing from the experiences of other countries transitioning out of conflict-ridden situations
As the international community succeeds in promoting more public political spaces so that civil society can fully participate in the new nation-building, it should take care to listen and thereby reduce the gap with the common Nepali people; a gap that was exposed during the April events. Only then can the international community begin to rebuild its trust with the Nepali public based on a more solid grounding. As the international community continually redefines its role, its guiding tenet should be respect for the will of the Nepali people as rooted in their full and inclusive participation. Rather than feeling intimidated by a powerful democratic mass movement (such as that in April), the international community should highlight and encourage such democratic movement for their potential to generate long-term change toward the realization of a more just and equitable society.
And, again, mobilization of the youth in every front must always be a priority.
Because Nepal today is essentially a country of the youth, we must fully mobilize them for any meaningful and substantive change. Most of the country’s youth have been participant to and/or victim of the violence that has ensued over the past eleven years. That also means they have a stake in the peace process, and hopefully an interest in making some difference in the changed political climate.
It is therefore vital that young people be included in all aspects of the peace-building process, especially as participants in directing the involvement of the international community in Nepal.
Responsible and committed participation will bear fruits. But often that type of participation is much more challenging than street demonstrations. It can also be painfully slow and time-consuming. Yet, for a real social change, there is no other option. Youth organizations at all levels of Nepali society should encourage and promote the civic participation of young people at every level of their communities and work with the international community to increase the number of democratic forums for this purpose
Youth leaders should educate themselves on the history of international involvement, its successes and challenges, and potential for positive contribution to Nepal. As a Rotary International World Peace Fellow, I would share experiences relating to RI’s international involvement and its youth programs, for example. Many Rotarians are young people. They work to effect change within communities around the world, demonstrate leadership skills, and devote to international humanitarian causes.
Nepali youth can create and maintain linkages with the international community by contacting representatives of donor nations, INGOs, and the UN regarding their role in Nepal's peace-building process. In the process, they can impart for the world culturally nuanced understanding of the ground realities. To promote better connections of the international community with Nepal at a grassroots level, Nepali youth should advocate for and fill positions within international acting bodies.
This short list is only a beginning to what can be a much more extensive plan that highlights the potential of youth for ensuring a positive role of the international community in Nepal. Focus should first and foremost be on increasing interaction and thereby improving understanding between the international community and civil society as a whole. As creative and energetic members of society, youth are an ideal subset of the population to promote and ensure this relationship.
So if someone asks you why Nepali youth should matter, here’s the answer: Because it’s there. It may take time to see it and recognize it, but it is indomitable just like Mt. Everest was, at least for George Mallory.
Those reports are: Asia Report No. 115 published on May 10, 2006, and Asia Report No. 126 published on December 15, 2006. The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization, with nearly 120 staff members on five continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. All reports available at www.crisisgroup.org.
Amanda Joy Rader is Rotary International World Peace Fellow Nepal. This is a revised version of a paper she presented at the Youth Social Forum in Kathmandu on 30 December 2006.