Brunch with the Post
Sujeev Shakya: We are not a learning cultureThe writer and management consultant diagnoses Nepali society and its ills, but also sees limitless potential.
Pranaya SJB Rana
Sujeev Shakya wears many hats. He describes himself alternatively as a “thought leader” and “thoughtpreneur” on his website, although I have little idea what either of those terms mean. But professionally, he’s a management consultant and advisor. But he’s also founder of the Nepal Economic Forum, an economic policy think tank; a senior advisor at the Bower Group, an international consulting firm focusing on Asia; a prolific writer of newspaper columns and two books.
Given everything he does, it’s a wonder that he has time for a casual long-winded conversation over brunch. When we meet at Cibo Bistro in Pulchowk, Shakya has just come off his book tour promoting his latest, Unleashing the Vajra. The book picks up where his last book, Unleashing Nepal, left off 10 years ago.
“When I wrote Unleashing Nepal, I had just come from the corporate world,” he says. “And when I started working with other corporates, multinationals and the donor community, I realised that I had been living in an oasis.”
Shakya started out working for the Soaltee Hotel, but in 2008, he started Beed Management, his consultancy firm that works with numerous clients in Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia and Rwanda. Unleashing Nepal, released in 2009, was his attempt to make sense of the country and the way in which it functions. He diagnosed the country’s potential at a time when many were worried that Nepal was verging on becoming a failed state.
“I think that book helped change the narrative of Nepal,” says Shakya. “It is not a small country, it is not a small economy and of course, there are sectoral opportunities in hydropower, agriculture, tourism, services. So a big part of Unleashing the Vajra is about looking at the past to see what has materialised.”
But what has materialised and has it been anything substantial? Shakya goes step-by-step listing his predictions and whether they’ve come true or not. The constitution, federalism and mass migration, check. Hydropower, check. Agriculture, check. Rent-seeking, check.
“People are richer and they are more educated,” he says. “But there is also more garbage on the streets, more litigation in court and more greed.”
The rent-seeking tendencies of Nepal’s private sector is something that Shakya visits often in his columns for the Post. But in his new book, he doesn’t spare the one crucial community that he says has facilitated rent-seeking—the development industry.
“What has happened with the donor agencies is that there's no accountability for the money that comes in. We don't ask them questions, and we've turned donors into an avenue for rent-seeking,” he says. “There are people who've been at these agencies for 20-25 years and they create impediments for any young person who wants to get in, just like in politics or any other facet of Nepali society.”
The ability of many Nepalis to simply park themselves in an organisation and remain there for years without adding much value is legendary. Take a look around and you will find these special people in almost every organisation. Now, it appears that the development agencies and donors have also been infiltrated.
This rent-seeking is proliferating, not just across the country but also across the world— through the NRNs and their organisation. The Non-Resident Nepali Association has been at the receiving end of Shakya’s barbs.
“This has hit our image abroad,” he says. “We used to be well-respected across the world but now, when Nepalis get together, there's always the four Ds—Drinks, Dinner, Dance and Dang-dung.”
This is perhaps a unique Nepali thing or a South Asian thing, but it is a talent paralleled perhaps only by our ability to come up with ways to circumvent the rules. Shakya has identified this too, as he points out often.
“At this time of self-quarantine, rather than thinking about the best way to quarantine oneself, everyone is trying to think of ways to not do it,” he says. “During MaPaSe, everyone was trying to figure out how to not get caught.”
Shakya believes that this has a lot to do with how most of us were raised. In our families, we were told to do what the elders told us to without talking back. In school, we were taught to never question the teacher. Even in our temples, we’re told to follow the old ways without question because our ancestors established them.
“We're raised with dogma so we were never taught to question,” he says. “And so, we never developed any critical thinking.”
Shakya likes to draw a distinct contrast between the people of Nepal and Rwanda, where he’s been working for a long time now. Both countries went through civil insurgencies, even though Rwanda has a much more heinous history. But Rwanda has built itself back in a way that Nepal has not been able to.
“The fundamental difference I see is the pride they have in being a citizen of their country,” says Shakya.
But aren’t Nepalis notoriously proud? So quick to take offence and just as quick to support anyone internationally who displays any inkling of being Nepali.
“It’s all stupid, hollow nationalism,” says Shakya. “It's DV-nationalism.”
Every year, around a million people fill out the DV form, he explains, which means that at any given moment a million able-bodied people are ready to leave the country.
“Nepal's nationalism is limited to ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’ and ‘Mount Everest is in Nepal’,” says Shakya. “But in Rwanda, people think they can do anything and then, they become the best in the business to get it done.”
In order to start a car assembly plant, Rwanda got Volkswagen. In education, they got Carnegie Mellon to start CMU Africa. Qatar Airways has acquired a majority stake in Kigali Airport. Their tourism advertisement was on the sleeve of the Arsenal jersey. Our tourism advertisements have been a fiasco.
The problem, says Shakya, is that in Nepal, no one wants to hire anyone smarter than them.
“We are not a learning culture. Everyone is already an expert in everything. So you have people like me talking about weight loss,” he says with a smile, drawing attention to his portly frame. “In Rwanda, ministers will call you at 5am in the morning asking for help understanding something they just read. But after Nepali people reach a certain position, they don't even read anything.”
This doesn’t mean that Shakya is not optimistic. He’s just well aware of the many shortcomings that we as a society need to address. There is potential, he says.
The vajra is an unrelenting force, something that has unlimited potential and cannot be stopped. Can Nepal really ever be the vajra?
“In the past 30 years, despite challenges, we've moved very fast,” says Shakya. “We're located in the middle of the future of the world and unless we screw it up ourselves, the graph will only go up.”
Cibo Bistro, Pulchowk
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