Can Nepal’s Youth Build Back Better and Differently?

Some of the first groups to mobilize relief supplies in response to the earthquake were youth groups. These organizations take a wide variety of forms, including university clubs, social-service organizations, and even informal groups of friends. Here, we examine the context for the prevalence of youth service, the reasons why it received such significant media attention, and the relationship between government and civil society in a time of crisis.

According to the 2011 census, forty percent of Nepal’s population are “youth,” a category defined as ages 16–40. It is estimated that 14 percent of this group have been or are currently abroad for work or education, the majority being men. Nearly half of all households report at least one member with overseas experience. While statistics like these abound and are often out of date and inaccurate, few would contest that a large percentage of Nepal’s population is young and mobile. Yet many overseas job opportunities require low levels of skill and are undesirable to young, educated, urban elites, even though few will find viable job opportunities locally (see Jeffrey 2010).

Youth organizations have filled this gap in many ways, providing Nepali youth with an opportunity to develop new skills, meet others with similar backgrounds, and establish networks that might lead to new opportunities. Amanda Snellinger (2013, 85, 92) argues that Nepali youth activism provides an opportunity for youth to “define their social place” and “shape a livable present” in the context of an insecure national economy and high un/under employment. On April 25, 2015, there were thus many young Nepalis who had spent years developing their skills, collaborating on projects, and working with NGOs, ready to take up what would likely be the most significant endeavor of their lives.

The reaction of youth groups to the earthquake was immediate. Brabim Kumar KC, president of the Association of Youth Organizations Nepal (AYON), noted that his organization was engaged in relief work within twenty-three hours of the earthquake. Youth groups mobilized a distinctive form of expertise, utilizing social media, overseas connections, community affiliations, and facility in English to collect and distribute supplies. While many initial efforts took the form of accumulating supplies and distributing them to affected areas, others focused on providing information, seeking to identify what was needed where and to bring attention to situations in which supplies were caught in red tape. Youth groups in Nepal allied with overseas Nepalis to promote awareness and collect funds. While helping those in need was a central motivation, the media attention given to youth and grassroots activism provided additional impetus for some young people to take heroic, but also dangerous action. Regardless, the enthusiasm of young Nepalis offered hope at a moment when it was in short supply. 

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AYON volunteers clearing rubble from damaged houses in Makwanpur district. Photo by Dipendra Khadka.

This was not the first time that Nepali youth were active during a crisis. Nepali student unions and youth politicians were important actors in the political crisis of the last two decades (Snellinger 2012). In 2010, the government formulated a national youth policy that recognized the role of young people in Nepal’s revolutions and the struggles they endured, and subsequently many youth organizations registered with the government. This coincided with the increasing popularity of youth projects and “good governance” programs during post-conflict reconstruction. Although many of the current youth groups draw from a similar constituency, politically oriented youth groups did not play a central role in the recovery efforts immediately after the earthquake.1

While the tradition of youth organizing made it possible to mobilize quickly after the earthquake, there were also tensions as various groups competed for international funds and favor. Groups with a strong social media presence and links to the international aid community and the Nepali diaspora were the most prominent in post-earthquake media coverage. Many journalists celebrated the quick response of youth groups, in contrast to what was seen as the lackadaisical response of the government. Yet the language of resilience, as applied to the actions of youth, has its own drawbacks. In line with the emergent—and contested—motto of the earthquake recovery, “Build Back Better,” how can Nepal’s young people not only build their own country stronger, but also help to build better futures for themselves? In looking at past recovery efforts, the problems caused by government “brain drain” and by following priorities set by international agencies are legion, and absolving the government of responsibility has an ironic ring to it in these neoliberal times.

Years of NGO dependency have caused many to express concern about international aid and for some the idea of “Build Back Better” implies self-reliance and priorities set from inside the country. The political crisis of the last two decades has caused widespread distrust of authority and a sense of insecurity, and some look to the earthquake as a new beginning, hoping that the newly promulgated constitution will break the years of political deadlock. One youth activist said that the earthquake was “the time to seek our position and role.” Even so, not everyone is celebrating the political potential of relief work for building a new Nepal, as relief distribution has frequently been seen to participate in the same discriminatory hierarchies that have marked Nepal’s modern political history. For those in the remote areas that are most affected and least accessible to aid or media, “better” is not as important as building back quickly. While many of Nepal’s youth have found new motivation and purpose in light of the earthquake, disaster is not a career plan. Perhaps the recovery ought to be organized not around the call to build back better, but to build differently, in ways that neither follow the dictums of aidland (Fechter and Hindman 2011) nor those of Nepal’s entrenched elites. This is a plan with few precedents in Nepal’s recent history.

Note

1. A possible exception to this is Bibeksheel Nepali, a political party that identifies itself as a youth party. The party has aspects of both youth civil society groups, as discussed here, and more traditional Nepali political actors.

References

Fechter, Anne-Meike, and Heather Hindman, eds. 2011. Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland. Boulder, Colo.: Kumarian.

Jeffrey, Craig. 2010. Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Snellinger, Amanda. 2012. “The Young Political Generation Today, Five Years Later.” Himalaya, the Journal of the Association of Nepal and Himalayan Studies 31, no. 1. 

_____. 2013. “Shaping a Livable Present and Future: A Review of Youth Studies in Nepal.” European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 42: 75–103.