I recently returned from Nepal where I was working on a project that might interest the larger Centre for Research in Digital Education network. The project is called Research for Emergency Aftershock Response (REAR) at the University of Edinburgh. The two weeks of this project started with meetings with NGOs throughout Kathmandu followed by shadowing Welthungerhilfe, a German INGO, in their work east of Kathmandu in Ramechhap District. Kathmandu, one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions anywhere in the world, still shows signs of the 2015 earthquake with wooden beams propping up inviting but decaying architecture. Rolling blackouts seemingly at odds with the endless signs from mobile telecoms in a country that is heavily dependent on mobile remittances from overseas Nepali workers. The cellular structure is intact, fast, and relatively cheap. Facebook and WhatsApp reign supreme. Many sites are zero-rated, to the chagrin of net neutrality advocates. Life is increasingly digital and digital life is increasingly structured by social media.
Ramechhap, about eight hours drive from Kathmandu, was particularly hard hit in the 2015 quake and the trip I was tagging along with was about school reconstruction projects in the mountain communities there. We visited two villages at 1500 meters that had essentially been studying outside since 2015 and monitored progress of school reconstruction using modern, more earthquake resistant design. Little electricity, faint public transportation, roads that aren’t for the faint of heart. Mobile remittances and the mobile money used to perform them prop up the local economies. As percentage of GDP, Nepal is the world leader in remittances at 31%, a number that I suspect will have risen since the earthquake of 2015 (the data itself is from 2015). The mobile telcos (NCell and Nepal Telecom) know this and have built infrastructure to support it. We saw cell towers high in the mountain passes ostensibly to facilitate the overseas remittances that these communities so depend on, but also facilitating digital communication amongst the villages themselves. Although the gender digital divide in Nepal is high (as it is throughout most of South Asia), there is a urban/rural divide at work there: women in Kathmandu are much more likely to own and use a phone regularly than those in the rural districts of Ramechhap, for example.
But the economic situation has potentially paved the way for an educational or development one. These remittances have fostered greater infrastructure investment for mobile, which in turn can be used to create entrepreneurial activities, educational opportunities and more. Some went so far as to make mobile repair the focus of their efforts creating women entrepreneurs along the way. The point is ultimately that if we can spot these underlying developments in other fields (remittances and finance, for example), we should be able to track a parallel path to some sort of digital education opportunity as well.