January 19, 2016 Print

Earthquakes and Maoists have not stopped a bootstrap think tank from Nepal from leaving its mark on the policy landscape.

Robin Sitoula stands with his wife on the lawn outside their house. Aftershocks to the April 25, 2015, earthquake that rocked Nepal are frequent and severe, making it imprudent to re-enter buildings that still stand. Robin is able to access Facebook via his cell phone, and types a response to nervous messages flowing in from friends from throughout the extended Atlas Network: “Arpita and I and the whole Samriddhi team and family are fine. Huge damages in Kathmandu and other cities! Thank you everyone for your wishes and prayers!”

The earthquake is only one of many challenges to confront the country of Nepal and the team of Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation, an Atlas Network partner that Robin has led since its founding in 2007. To really understand the impact of Samriddhi, you must not merely look at what it has made happen, you must understand what might have happened.

Flags in Nepal, 2015

What might have happened

Not long ago, Nepal was on the brink of being taken over by Maoists, who have been a powerful political faction since 1995 when they laid out a plan to capture the state and impose the equivalent of a communist dictatorship. In 2012, it seemed their ambitions were coming to fruition. The specter of Khmer Rouge–style terror hung over the country.

Today, the situation is different. The Maoist grip on Nepal dissolved in the wake of a stunning electoral defeat in 2013, and the Maoists themselves are internally reforming toward moderate views and participating in democratic processes. The changed political landscape has given Nepal a chance for success that once seemed remote.

Even before the earthquake in 2015, there were many challenges in Nepal, such as burdensome regulations for entrepreneurs and an inconsistent application of the rule of law. These challenges still remain. But they are even more complicated with the devastation from the earthquake.

A timely response after the earthquake

Two days after the quake, the Samriddhi team huddled around a make-shift office, since their normal headquarters remained inaccessible. Luckily, no one on the team had been injured.

The team brainstormed on how to create value for their country in light of the natural disaster that, for the time being, put all other topics on the back burner. They contemplated doing hands-on humanitarian work, but then realized that was not where they had their comparative advantage. Instead, team members from Samriddhi and its five sister organizations gathered in a temporary facility to start NepalRelief.net, a digital platform that matched relief seekers with relief providers. In the three weeks following the quake, their effort benefited more than 30,000 people across the affected areas.

The overflow of government aid into Nepal creates another institutional challenge for the country: how to avoid creating an “aid dependent” economy? Samriddhi joined with other important civil society groups to bring together 800 opinion leaders at a conference that produced a report, “Ideas for Rebuilding Nepal.” It recommends steps to liberate the private sector in order to bring investment and innovation to Nepal, with particular attention to small enterprises that form the backbone of the Nepali economy. Its recommendations for overall reconstruction and recovery include:

  • A focus on micro, small and medium enterprises that form the backbone of the Nepali economy;
  • A strategy for involving the private sector into the overall reconstruction process and increasing private sector investment;
  • A policy initiative that understands and responds to the realities and demands of communities, and a holistic approach that incorporates geological, socio-cultural, and economic realities of the affected areas;
  • Creation of space for innovation and experimentation; and
  • Fast-track decision making and better governance.

“Successful reconstruction efforts of countries in post large-scale natural disaster scenario are often associated with the ability to tap into the potential of its civil society, communities, and the private sector,” the report explains. “For example, Gujarat was able to use the ‘window of opportunity’ provided by the earthquake in 2001 to push forward long overdue reforms, which not only built a stronger society but a more affluent one with larger private sector participation. There are many lessons to be learned from efficiently handled disaster response of different countries. On the one hand, one size may not fit all, but on the other hand, fundamental basis of successful policies such as that of ensuring empowered community participation and involving private sector by opening up opportunities for investment can be corner stones for the reconstruction policy of Nepal.”

Just three months after the earthquake, Samriddhi was back on track, conducting new research, hosting new events, and promoting sound economic ideas to policy makers to improve the prospects for a free and prosperous Nepal. For example, the country audit report on Nepal’s economic freedom. This massive undertaking engaged the top strata of policymakers and experts in Nepal to examine the overall policy regime in five major areas in the Fraser Institute’s annual Economic Freedom of the World Report. This effort that brought about pragmatic policy recommendations to help expand economic freedom received significant media coverage and attention from the Nepalese government.

In recent months, Nepal also experienced violent protests, government-imposed curfews, industry shutdowns, economic blockades, petroleum shortages, and soaring regulatory costs in wake of the promulgation of a new constitution. The constitution that was expected to usher in a new era of freedom and democracy unfortunately came out as a compromise document that did not cover all groups and was met with violent protest that is making it difficult for real economic recovery to take hold. 

“This crisis we are living through right now is surely not our first, nor will it be our last, and through all of them in between, we have risen stronger than before,” Sitoula explained.

Samriddhi’s incubator-style approach

Samriddhi’s team embraces an incubator-style approach where team members are encouraged to dive in, learn something, and when possible and where relevant, spin-off or start up something new to add to the growing freedom movement in Nepal. Samriddhi’s public policy and entrepreneurship training programs serve as a breeding ground for individuals interested in making a real difference in the country.

Basanta Adhikari, who volunteered for Samriddhi’s “Let me earn my living” (Gari Khana Deu) campaign and who is also a graduate of its public policy and entrepreneurship programs, founded Bikalpa - An alternative in Biratnagar, Nepal’s fourth-largest city, in 2014 to promote liberty in Eastern Nepal. Bikalpa’s advocacy effort to lift the ban on electric rickshaw registration in Biratnagar is one of its many projects to champion the rights of entrepreneurs in the region.

Artificial government-erected occupational barriers restrict the number of rickshaws that can operate legally, however, hitting enterprising low-income drivers the hardest by pushing them into the informal economy, points out Nepal-based Atlas Network partner Bikalpa, an Alternative.

Raju Sharma, another graduate of Samriddhi’s programs, is on his way to establish a similar initiative that champions entrepreneurs in Western Nepal. Surath Giri, who worked with Samriddhi for six years in several capacities, now promotes entrepreneurship and market ideas by being on the Board of Global Shapers and also through his blog A libertarian in Nepal. He also worked with another graduate of Samriddhi’s Arthalaya program to establish another company, Nepal Language and Research Services (NLRS) just last year. Govinda Siwakoti, another of Samriddhi’s graduates, promotes entrepreneurship and market ideas through films while running an audio-visual company, Onion Films, which he established with some other graduates. Finally, Samriddhi's Director of Coalitions & Relations, Mr. Manish Jha also went on to establish a data company called Facts Research & Analytics, which seeks to bridge the information asymmetry problem to help markets perform better in Nepal.  These intellectual entrepreneurs are Samriddhi’s most important ambassadors who, while running their own companies and organizations with their own vision and goals, promote liberty from different fronts.

In the past few years, Samriddhi has been able to build a strong network of freedom minded individuals and organizations in Nepal. At the same time, through its policy work, Samriddhi's influence in the policy circle has also grown. The extended network of supportive individuals and organization around Samriddhi is what enables it to respond to some huge challenges such as the earthquake and economic blockade from the perspective of liberty. There will certainly be bigger or newer challenges in the future, but with the synergy that Samriddhi, Facts, Onion films, and Bikalpa bring together, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the future of freedom in Nepal. 

Robin Sitoula, founder and executive director of Samriddhi, speaking at Asia Liberty Forum 2015 in Nepal

Nearly a year after the devastating earthquake that ravaged Nepal, Samriddhi is still going strong. “What motivates us,” said Robin, “is our belief that in the long run, what will give Nepal the strength to face any calamity (natural or manmade) is prosperity of its people that comes from unleashing entrepreneurship and freedom.”