by Bailey Marsheck
It’s fascinating how a country deemed “The Roof of the World” can fall so deeply into the shadows of its neighbors. The small Himalayan nation of Nepal, sandwiched between China and India, has struggled to find its footing since its 1990 transition from monarchy to series of short, dysfunctional democratic regimes. Its economy has grown neither robustly nor equitably. Nepal is disadvantaged by its landlocked, heavily mountainous terrain. As a result, its poor and isolated rural areas are a far cry from the relative wealth of the Kathmandu Valley. Yet if the Nepali government were to prioritize its education system, especially in improving the rural schools lagging far behind their urban counterparts, Nepal may eventually outgrow its impoverished LDC status to become a major player in South Asia. Nepal’s recent local and national elections could be a first step in the right direction.
Nepal is ranked 144th out of the 188 countries on the United Nations’ 2016 Human Development Report, using an HDI indicator argued to be a better measure of living standard than GDP because it captures disparity in wealth and opportunity. In particular, the children of rural Nepali villages face massive education inequality. Many children have to walk up to two hours a day to attend underfunded schools decimated by a massive earthquake in 2015.
Like many countries struggling to develop, Nepal remains trapped in a stifling economic cycle. It has poor infrastructure and an underfunded education system, providing it citizens with few opportunities to prosper. Those who do find success tend to pursue employment elsewhere, exposing Nepal to brain drain as the number of Nepali citizens migrating outwards for work is growing each year. Many of these workers use migration as a means to support families back home in Nepal, as 31% of Nepal’s 2015 GDP was remittance-based, the highest of any country in Asia or the Pacific. The problem is that the Nepalese are working to build up other developed nations, subsisting but creating nothing of value within Nepal itself.
Some of Nepal’s struggles stem from a systematic lack of human capital. The few who get the choice to leave Nepal for lucrative job opportunities are almost always from wealthier urban provinces, where students attend private schools and learn English at a much higher rate. English language learning is essential for achieving the requisite level of education to succeed in today’s globalized world. Nepal has few established universities and many Nepalese seek higher education outside of Nepal, impossible in most cases without a firm grasp of English. The Nepali language is rarely spoken by foreigners, while English is the business lingua franca for those working abroad or even internally with the few multinational corporations in Nepal. English is also paramount to Nepal’s tourism industry, making up 7.5% of Nepal’s 2016 GDP as adventurous travelers seek the beauty of the Himalayas and the Annapurna Mountains.
Yet those living in rural areas don’t have access to proper school materials, least of all English learning resources. A staggering 81% of Nepal’s population is designated by the World Bank as rural dwellers, one of the highest percentages in the world. Most of these villagers are relegated to quasi-subsistence farming lifestyles, with agriculture being the largest share of Nepal’s GDP. As Nepal’s mountainous terrain isn’t very fertile, farmers work terraced plots and hope for favorable monsoon seasons.
Having lived an agricultural existence for generations, many parents don’t see the advantages of sending children to school and assume they will take over their parents’ farming role. Those who do attend make do with a lack of basic materials in the old school buildings left intact by 2015’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. There are still significant gender barriers in Nepali culture regarding education as well. Girls are the first children to be pulled from schools and put to work or even married off, as Nepal is very patriarchal and education for girls often isn’t considered worthwhile. A massive 30% of Nepali children never start school, and only 70% of those who do start even make it to grade 8. The school participation rate is highly skewed towards the urban male demographic.
Nepal has been in the news with an unusual frequency over the last few years. Foremost was a possible stabilization of Nepal’s government along with political empowerment of local communities. May 2017 brought the first local elections in over 20 years as the country decentralizes its political power, continuing its transition from a unitary system to a federalist structure. A more equitable power distribution may help to close the gulf between Kathmandu and surrounding areas as representatives from rural provinces can ensure that those in the central government expand their policy scope. With stronger connections to government officials, citizens will be encouraged to push for modernizing reforms rather than leaving politics to the urban elites.
In December of 2017, a landmark legislative election brought the communist “Left Alliance” of the United Marxist-Leninist and Maoist Centre parties to power. Two of the major selling points for voters were the coalition’s prospects for stability and grassroots mobilization. More than just an exercise of political voice, a stable Nepali government would increase the country’s attractiveness to multinational corporations. One reason for Nepal’s low level of foreign direct investment is an unpredictable government system littered with corruption, discouraging any companies from entering and establishing Nepali industry. Good governance might serve as a rebranding signal that the country is open for business. But stability remains far from a given, as the Maoist party is best known for its Mao Zedong-esque revolutionary spirit and was involved in an armed struggle with the government only a decade ago. There are hopes that the party’s more progressive treatment of women and rural proletarian empowerment may encourage higher levels of education and equality. Communist ideologies have a polarized relationship with education, as education systems have both been encouraged and done away with entirely in the pursuit of socialism. At the same time, the parties have adopted a milder ideology accepting the necessity of building up economic power in order to thrive.
There are reasons to be optimistic about Nepal’s future development. A less centralized political system with a governing coalition that is more in touch with its people should better allocate resources to poorer regions. Assuming the current government outlasts its predecessors, political continuity has a chance to attract outside investment and keep Nepal’s brightest from emigrating for more lucrative opportunities. But the necessary human capital to take advantage of these opportunities is impossible to build without equalizing an education system that privileges the few urbanites while ignoring the country’s overwhelmingly-rural labor force.