Youth of the nation

  • Nepal and Estonia re-established democracy around the same time, but while Estonia took a digital route, Nepal remains stuck in the past

Feb 19, 2015-

My all-time favourite quote from the late management guru Peter Drucker is, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” Nepal’s never-ending poverty, then, could also have resulted from using yesterday’s logic in today’s nation-building efforts.

New logic

Both Estonia and Nepal re-established multiparty democracy around the same time. Yet, while the former has successfully established itself as one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world, the latter has not been able to progress from abject poverty to relative prosperity.

The secret of Estonia’s phenomenal success was bidding farewell to yesterday’s logic after re-gaining independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead of using its youth for street power like in Nepal, Estonia’s senior political leaders paved the way for the young to lead the country. Estonians took this radically different route to nation-building because they were faced with a rapidly changing time when technological innovation was the most important factor shaping the global landscape. As expected, Estonian youth political leaders turned the country around economically and socially in less than a decade—roughly the same amount of time that has elapsed since Nepal’s first Constituent Assembly election in 2008.

When Estonia re-gained independence, its only independent link to the outside world was a Finnish mobile phone concealed at the Foreign Minister’s residence. This economic and technological backwardness drove the 32-year-old Prime Minister Mart Laar to take the responsibility to modernise the country with a sense of urgency. This modernisation was spearheaded by the prime minister and implemented by a highly motivated team of young cabinet ministers who were sincerely supported by committed bureaucrats of all ranks. Together, they set ambitious socioeconomic development targets and ensured that these targets were not missed at any cost. Furthermore, they effectively mobilised state resources and successfully transformed the country into one of the most digitally advanced democracies in the world, where a third of voters cast their ballot online.

Estonia’s transformation

Prime Minister Laar tailored the ambitious goal of transforming Estonia into an information society by modernising its education and its private and public sector with information technology.  

On the government front, Laar prioritised e-government transformation with an almost fanatical zeal under the motto ‘Service First, Democracy Later’. The government issued National Electronic Identity Cards embedded with a microchip, replacing paper ones. With the new e-IDs, Estonian citizenry could access more than 4,000 government and another 2,000 private offerings, making Estonian public service one of the most digitised bureaucracies in the world. Rubber stamps, paper, and long queues have become a thing of the past, associated with the old Soviet regime. These days, Estonians almost never have to visit government offices.

On the private sector front, the government was adamant about creating an entrepreneur-friendly environment by using digital technologies. Business registration was streamlined by allowing entrepreneurs looking to register a firm to use their e-IDs and logging onto an e-business portal. The whole registration process takes around 18 minutes, provided all requirements are met. This favourable business climate, coupled with an excellent digital infrastructure, gave rise to groundbreaking innovations like Skype and Kaaza that disrupted the communication and music industry, respectively.

On the educational front, by 1998, Estonia’s schools were equipped with computers and classrooms were accessible on the world wide web. Similarly, on the societal front, the government declared internet access a human right in 2000. As a result, wireless internet is available almost everywhere and is almost always free.

Nepal’s wrong turns

In contrast, it seems that Nepal did almost everything that could be done to take the wrong turn when it came to modernising the country through a digital revolution. As a result, Nepal is still a least-developed country, grouped together with  Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, and Somalia, while Estonia proudly stands with Sweden, Germany, the UK, South Korea, the US.

By 1996, the developed world had already recognised the power and the potential of the internet and was taking serious measures to expand its benefits across society. By then, companies like Yahoo, Netscape, and Amazon were already household names in the US. Unfortunately, the same year, Nepal did the impossible by dissolving the National Computer Centre that had been established in 1974.

It was not until the turn of the millennium that the Nepal government came to its senses and formulated an IT policy. In line with the policy, the National Information Technology Centre (NITC) was established in 2002 to facilitate informatisation within the government and work towards e-services delivery. The Department of Information Technology was established in 2012. Both agencies have been trying to sort Nepal’s e-governance transformation in their own right.

Estonia, on the other hand, is a rapidly advancing techno-economy where its youth still gets to run the country. Just last year, 34-year old Taavi Tiovas was sworn into office as the country’s new prime minister. He is equally dedicated to maintaining Estonia’s leadership in the digital landscape. Estonians now sit at the pinnacle of digital transformation and proudly prescribe words of advice to the world: “If you want to follow our path of techno-economic development, do as we did.” Thus, following in Estonia’s path, Nepal needs government leaders who are  ‘techno-politicians’ blessed with an intuitive understanding of how to shape progress in this new unpredictable environment where technology is changing at breakneck pace.

The time has come for senior political leaders in Nepal to step aside and pave the way for the youth to take up leadership positions. This might sound radical, but not so if we evaluate what has become of our country after years of political strife and economic chaos. According to the Foreign Employment Promotion Board, around 1,800 employable youth leave the country every day, mostly to the Gulf, due to a lack of opportunities. Furthermore, Nepali migrant workers, whose earnings account for one-fourth of Nepal’s economy, are dying at an alarming rate in foreign lands each year. Likewise, educated youths are leaving the country (never to return) for better educational and professional opportunities.

Encouraging a return

However, on the brighter side, there is a reversing trend as well. Highly educated and competent youths are returning to take up leadership positions in government, hoping to sort this disorganised country out. For example, Swarnim Wagle, an economist trained at the London School of Economics, Harvard Univeristy, and Australian National University, with over 15 years of international experience voluntarily returned to Nepal to accept a senior policymaking role in government. Similarly, Mahabir Pun, trained at the University of Nebraska, returned to his native village of Nangi at the turn of the millennium and succeeded in bringing the Internet to rural schools to improve the quality of education using the digital medium.  

For a change, it’s time to let go of yesterday’s ways of doing things and convince competent individuals like Wagle and Pun to return to lead Nepal. We need more people like them up in Singha Durbar.


(Shah was part of a study conducted on National Identification Cards for service delivery in Nepal)

Published: 20-02-2015 08:51

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