On any given day, at least twice, the departure terminal in Kathmandu’s Tribhuwan International Airport fills up with crowds of young Nepalis leaving the country to find better economic opportunities elsewhere. At any airport in Middle Eastern countries, Nepalis are equally hard to miss: they make a considerable number of workers as well as passengers in the terminals there.
There is little wonder why: in 2006, Nepal’s unemployment rate was estimated at 42 percent. By 2008 it was estimated to hover around 46 percent, with the labor force defined as largely unskilled. By 2010 more than 1.2 million Nepalis were working as migrant labor around the world. It hardly comes as a surprise therefore that the World Bank’s Migration and Remittance Factbook 2011 had estimated remittances amounting to about 23 percent of GDP. Still, agriculture, which contributes about 35 percent, is the single largest sector of the economy.
PHOTO: REPUBLICA FILES
Indeed, agriculture has remained a relatively consistent economic sector in the country through those years, keeping approximately 75 percent of the labor force engaged. In fact, there are indications that a growing number of communities in both hill and Tarai districts are reengaging with agriculture or scaling up their enterprises.
For a country that annually witnesses about 300,000 youth depart to become migrant laborers abroad, it is great news when tens of thousands of Nepali youth not only find skills-based work at home but also become employers themselves. In the last five years, USAID’s Education for Income Generation (EIG) project, developed in close coordination with the Government of Nepal and many local partners, has managed to do just that.
EIG started in 2008 and ends this year. As Nepal stepped out from the shadows of its political conflict, the program was designed to help members of a generation of marginalized communities transition to an era of productive youth. And the program was designed so that its benefits would extend to the communities to which the beneficiaries belonged.
Today 74,000 disadvantaged youth who were trained in entrepreneurial literacy, vocational skills, and agricultural productivity and enterprises are reaping benefits, with newfound incomes, raised living standards, and substantially increased food security.
In agriculture alone,54,000 beneficiaries have been able to grow and earn more through diverse, high value crops. All in all, these beneficiaries, of whom 82 percent are women, have seen their income grow by about 250 percent. In Karnali, a notoriously food insecure district, an estimated 9,000 youth are direct beneficiaries of improved food security.
The program, with the help of its Nepali partner organizations, also designed its vocational skills trainings after studying the market’s needs. With that, more than 11,000 youth were trained in various skills ranging from masonry to mechanics, carpentry to industrial wiring, mobile and air-conditioner repair, and more. Within six months about 80 percent of the beneficiaries were either employed, or had managed to establish businesses in which they had employees of their own.
In the region’s Dalit community, EIG offered 421 scholarships for professional degree certificates to become teachers or nurses, but really to become role models in their respective communities. And in four districts across the mid-western region, the program helped establish 80 distillation units to process non-timber forest products like lemongrass and citronella into essential oils. The raw materials are largely grown and harvested by women’s groups and, with EIG’s help; these products are now sold in the export market.
EIG was introduced at a time when the country seemed ready to enter a new period of steady socio-economic development. The program found in its beneficiaries a determination for economic empowerment to bring a sense of stability for their families. Surely, that is an aspiration that resonates across the country.
There are many examples of successes. In regions where EIG worked, basic literacy trainings helped former bonded laborers become enterprising farmers. After a few workshops, a former Maoist combatant had become a skilled and busy carpenter. One certificate and a few months later, young girls became their families’ sole financial pillars as beauticians or small restaurant owners with thriving businesses. None of these will come to an end, even though EIG does this week.
As the nation moves ahead, it is worth considering that the spirit of the 74,000 EIG beneficiaries remains largely untapped across the country. The terminals of TIA and airports in Middle Eastern nations are testament to that fact. But as EIG draws to a close, its results demonstrate an alternative path for hard-working, ambitious youth. EIG’s tens of thousands of young beneficiaries in western Nepal have shown that Nepali youth who are willing to work hard can make a life in their own towns and villages, with their families and loved ones, in their own country.
The author is Senior Development Outreach and Communications Specialist, USAID/Nepal