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NGOs in Kathmandu and Mountain Cell Towers in Ramechhap: ICT4D Projects in Nepal

Reposting this here from Panoply Digital.

I recently returned from Nepal where I was working on a few projects: the first a two day training event in Kathmandu for women business associations from the South Asia region (Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh) for one of our favorite clients the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). These were women business owners who were advocating for greater inclusion for women on boards, policy bodies, and chambers of commerce, paving the way, no doubt, for future generations of women business owners in the region. A lively two days of hands-on work with ICT using VotoMobile, Google Forms, Signal (for secure communication, an issue for many) as well as a full day of monitoring & evaluation (M&E) training. All had some experience with this but this was about aligning these activities with organizational goals.

I had written about this before, but really what is exciting is the work these women are doing: providing entrepreneurial training for women, advocacy for policy, projects for greater inclusion of women in the workforce. From Nepal, we have the  Federation of Woman Entrepreneurs’ Associations of Nepal (FWEAN) and their work with the LWF project to increase women’s access to employment, skills, and enterprise development in sectors like compost, farming, crafts, beekeeping, and more. In Sri Lanka, we have the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce Sri Lanka (WCIC) and their mentoring programs to assist all women entrepreneurs to gain the knowledge required to manage and plan their finances and grow their business through regular meetings and mentoring relationships. In Pakistan, we have the South Punjab Women chamber of Commerce and Industry (SPWCCI) and their work on to bolster capacity in women entrepreneurs in  South Punjab and to provide facilitation for growth and development of trade & industry through advocacy and representation. Inspiring work.

Although not a Panoply Digital project, the second project I worked on there produced some takeaways possibly of interest to the ICT4D and in particular the M4D crowd. 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 sound, 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.

For Panoply Digital, though, it was these remittances and the mobile money used to perform them that is critical. 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 development opportunity as well.

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About Author

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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