As Afghanistan struggles to break free from a turbulent modern history that seems to keep that nation mired in the past and as Pakistan continues its own fight against poverty, China joins the US and the former Soviet Union as only the third nation to soft land a spacecraft on the moon. The contrasts could not be starker. Yet, even as Asia looks skyward to the success to date of China’s multi-billion-dollar space programme, much more needs to be done here on earth to bring business growth to some of the highest parts of Asia and the Pacific, a region which is still home to the vast majority of the world’s poor. That was a clear message in Nepal at a recent conference on poverty reduction, which helped mark the 30th anniversary of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Headquartered in Kathmandu, it is an intergovernmental knowledge and learning centre founded in 1983 to serve the eight member nations of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. But it need not be a tale of moon vs mountains, if greater efforts are made to increase the effectiveness of development efforts and of policies to foster a better enabling environment for business.
Poverty remains a persistent challenge in some of the world’s most remote mountain regions in Asia. Limited economic opportunities still characterise sparsely populated communities on the Tibetan plateau, as well as Himalayan villages that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa once passed en route to the first successful ascent of Mount Everest.
In Pakistan, according to an ICIMOD analysis, poverty rates are significantly higher in rural mountain areas. The three divisions of Makran, Kalat and Zhob were reportedly considerably worse off, with Kalat and Zhob having at one point almost twice the proportion of households living below the poverty level as the mountain average. The reality remains that while government has been the key driver in putting a man on the moon, it is the private sector that is key to sustainable economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction. That is as true in the plains and lowlands of Asia, as it will be in its remotest mountain regions, typically home to indigenous peoples and characterised by inaccessibility and fragile agricultural ecosystems. To address this, business, government and civil society must come together and move beyond the politics, stereotypes and animosity that have for too long divided the region. Steps must also be taken to address the ‘little bric’ constraints to growth of bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption.
At the recent ICIMOD conference, I joined with several business and chamber of commerce counterparts on a panel moderated by CSR Asia. Together, we outlined three important areas that must be addressed to spur private sector engagement in Asia’s remote mountain regions. The first is innovation. The private sector is often ready to explore partnerships, but joint activities and plans for engagement must be innovative, with a business model that is not purely philanthropic, but structured to ensure both end beneficiaries in the community and the private sector can benefit. This will include an assessment of risk and return, something that the private sector is long accustomed to, and which government and civil society should also integrate into their own efforts in increasing accountability for time and money spent.
The second is involvement. Too often, the business community is invited to ‘participate’ in a project or asked to fund a piece of research that already has been outlined and decided. The message is in essence, we want your money, but any other involvement is not welcome lest it ‘taint’ the effort. Instead, the private sector must be engaged early on. An innovative partnership would go beyond business as usual, and involve the private sector in fashioning programmes that also leverage a commercial partner’s market experience and knowledge. Such innovative, involved and engaged partnerships can be to the long-term benefit of both mountain communities and the bottom line. This is critical to success and sustainability of any private sector involvement. One spotlighted example of private sector intervention discussed in Kathmandu was a pilot effort to work with marginalised farmers in South Asia, helping catalyse linkages — just as other programmes have facilitated cooperatives — to share information, improve agricultural products and yields, and ultimately build better supply chains and profits.
The third is impact. For the business community, impact assessment is critical. Unlike government, business depends on past success to fund future successes. Results must be measured to ensure there is rationale for sustained business involvement. The remoteness of mountain communities cannot be an excuse for the lack of financial returns on a business investment. When a pilot programme is brought to the business community for assessment, its impact and scalability must be clear and transparent. Pilot projects help demonstrate that something is possible, but impact assessment is necessary for the business community to decide on scaling up an engagement. Don’t throw good money after bad, as it were. While governments typically drive basic infrastructure investments such as rural electrification and farm-to-market roads, the private sector is well positioned to help mountain communities by providing financing, market linkages, knowledge and other services.
The innovation, involvement and impact of government in a nation’s initial journeys into space are clear and unquestionable in the United States, in Europe and now in Asia. As China sends forth a rover onto the lunar surface, an Indian spacecraft is en route to Mars, and Japan has long launched satellites from a space centre in Kagoshima. But here on earth, and even in space where the private sector has become increasingly involved in commercial satellite launches, it is clear that business can be a powerful partner in any endeavour. This must include the fight against poverty in Hindu Kush-Himalayas. Even as Asia reaches for the stars, let’s not forget the poorest of the poor still at home, in the shadows of Asia’s tallest mountains.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 29th, 2013.