Training environmental leaders in Nepal, Sandee style

I had always wanted to visit Nepal and between the 9th and 14th of December I finally made the voyage. I participated in a seminar of Sandee (the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economists) and spent some time with my colleague and friend Biswo Poudel.


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The flight to Kathmandu is among the longest as it one of the farthest locations from San Francisco. I selected the shortest flights and after 24 hours in transit I was in Kathmandu – unfortunately my luggage could not keep up with the pace of flying and arrived the next day, after enjoying an overnight stay in Bangkok.

Life in Nepal is affected by two recent setbacks: First, the major earthquake that shook Nepal in April 2015. On the surface there were not many obvious signs that this had happened. A few houses in the downtown area were crumbled – but many more are not habitable. In the older part of town and in the villages the damage was much more substantial – many old houses and some temples collapsed.

The Nepalese have also faced a de facto blockade of goods shipped through India. The blockade is apparent everywhere: queues of cars waiting for gas at official government facilities, many flights have been canceled and planes that serve Nepal bring their fuel with them. Tourist resorts are deserted and there are few choices of food at restaurants and even a shortage of medicine in hospitals. The pain of the blockade was reduced by the smuggling of fuel – and more than doubling the price of gasoline in the black market. I could not figure out the cause of the blockade, but I suspect that whatever were the sins of Nepal, the blockade was an excessive response.

I figured out that while Nepal is part of the Indian civilization, it hates to be treated like a little brother. The Nepalese are also stuck between India and China. They have been independent for millennia and want to keep good relations with the giants at its borders, and want to do so without taking sides.

I also realized that religion plays a major role in Nepal — there are 4000 temples in Kathmandu — and the music and chanting from temples are pervasive. Many of the Nepalese are both Hindi and Buddhist and I learned to appreciate their religious perspective. While the monotheistic religions believe that the world is ruled by one deity, my Nepalese friends assume that the world is ruled by a cabinet with many rulers through a hierarchical system. In Nepalese schools there are temples to the education gods and in hospitals, to the medicine gods. This approach may be quite inclusive – if you believe in many gods, the odds of accepting another one seems to be quite high.

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Despite the Modi blockade (named after the Indian prime minster, who the Nepalese viewed until recently as a reformer and good neighbor, and now see him as a capricious bully), my trip was wonderful. The limited food choices were still very tasty, a combination of interesting Indians dishes with fresh salads and soups. The weather was spectacular: I enjoyed watching snowy mountaintops when the temperature below in the valley is around 60F. Biswo and his wife, Pratibha, showed me fascinating parts of their country and the Sandee workshop was wonderful.

As I understand it, Sandee is part of a program initiated by Karl Goran Maeler and Sir Partha Dasgupta and by the Swedish Beijer Institute, which was aimed to create leaders of environmental economics research in developing countries.

The program established four regional networks for Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Sandee for South Asia. Each program has its unique features and flavors. Sandee is 15 years old, and offers education and training activities, including a summer school of three weeks in environmental economics, a shorter winter program and other educational and policy programs.

The most advanced program is a research-training program for economists with a PhD or masters degree who work as assistant professors as well as in government. Each year, the program selects 5 to 15 participants from a pool of applicants. Participants receive around $10,000 annually to conduct supervised research for 2-3 years.

Each participant is assigned an advisor, and the participants meet their advisors at the biannual workshops. The advisors – the “faculty” of the program – are leading environmental and resource economists from prominent universities.[1] The advising process is very detailed and deep: the participants and their advisors interact constantly and during the biannual meeting each candidate makes a presentation and receives feedback from the advisors, other assigned reviewers, and other participants. The reviewing and feedback processes assist the candidate in designing a conceptual framework and data collection plan, and help to improve the analysis and writing of a research publication.

Some of the time of the biannual meetings is allocated to learning and exposure to new research. I was invited to the 31st biannual workshop to speak about my work on Biotechnology and Sustainable Development. Another guest speaker was Professor Mushfiq Mobarak from Yale, who provided an excellent review on the use of impact assessment studies as tools for increase adoption improved practices and for introducing change.

Both of us also served as commenters on the participants’ presentations. I was very impressed with the depth and quality of these the research efforts, which covered major issues of development and the environment. Particular emphasis was given to (1) understanding and designing strategies for adaption to climate change, (2) analysis of the factors that influence adoption of new technologies and estimating the impacts of these technologies, and (3) estimating the cost and benefits to economic agents in developing countries from environmental conservation activities that provide global benefits. Such activities may include conservation of biodiversity and sequestration of greenhouse gases.

The perception is that the toughest challenge of an academic career is to get a degree and then a job. I think that actually working on your own after graduation is even more challenging. This is especially so in a developing-country environment, in which young scholars are frequently not surrounded by experienced faculty members who provide support and can teach the tricks of the trade.

The biannual research and writing workshop train the participants to withstand the rigorous critical review that academic researchers face and help them to respond to feedback rather than give up. They provide the exposure and skills that will make researchers much more effective teachers, advisors, and colleagues in their own right. I admire the commitment of the advisors, who have been coming to South Asia twice a year to supervise their students for minimum or no compensation. Their dedication is a testimony to the value of the program – as economists who value their time dearly they would not make this effort unless the benefits are immense and justify the cost.

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I learned from this program what the term “capacity building” means, both in concept and practice. The program creates research leaders, and some of the participants go on to become policy analysts, advisors, and scholars.

The program also improves their skills as teachers and in turn, will cultivate the skills of their students. Finally it brings together economists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, and Nepal. I saw emerging friendships and collaborations that may forge better understanding between future leaders of nations, many of which have a history of conflicts and misunderstandings.

My 15 years of experience as co-director of the Beahrs ELP allows me to appreciate Sandee even more. Beahrs ELP participants are from many disciplines and the program emphasizes broadening of horizons and multidisciplinary cooperation. Sandee’s emphasis is to strengthen the capacity of economists in their chosen disciplines.

Both of the programs work to build an international network of collaboration. We invest immense amounts in educating our youth, but education does not need to end with graduation. With the fast accumulation of new knowledge and technological change, some forms of knowledge and skills become obsolete. Both programs are forums for lifelong learning that is especially important in the context of development work. I believe that these types of investments in our future deserve support and nurturing.

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After the workshops, Biswo and Pratibha took me on a tour of Chitwan (their hometown) and the region’s national park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While we didn’t see the emblematic Mount Everest, we were nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains and wide rivers running through it.

One attraction of the region is its jungle safari, where you may encounter rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, and, if you are lucky, tigers. This region also taught me about environmental leadership in action. During the civil war in Nepal (1996-2006), environmentalists in the region risked their lives to save its animals and were successful in establishing an active ecotourism industry.

Absent are the Holiday Inns and Hiltons, and instead there are homegrown and charming resorts that attract people from all over the world. Some tourists may climb the Himalayas and then relax at these charming resorts. My time in Nepal showed me that environmental leadership is about learning and practice. It requires support from the outside but it must also build commitment from the inside.

[1] The advisors this year were Jeff Vincent and Subarbau Patanayak from Duke University; Celine Nauges from the University of Tolouse; Jean Marie Baland from University of Namur Belgium; the founding director of the program, Priya Shyamsundar, and its current director, E. Somanathan from the Indian Statistical Institute; and Enamul Haque from Asian Center for Development.

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