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Training environmental leaders in Nepal, Sandee style

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | December 21, 2015

I had always wanted to visit Nepal and between the 9th and 14th of December I finally made the voyage. I participated in a seminar of Sandee (the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economists) and spent some time with my colleague and friend Biswo Poudel.


The flight to Kathmandu is among the longest as it one of the farthest locations from San Francisco. I selected the shortest flights and after 24 hours in transit I was in Kathmandu – unfortunately my luggage could not keep up with the pace of flying and arrived the next day, after enjoying an overnight stay in Bangkok.

Life in Nepal is affected by two recent setbacks: First, the major earthquake that shook Nepal in April 2015. On the surface there were not many obvious signs that this had happened. A few houses in the downtown area were crumbled – but many more are not habitable. In the older part of town and in the villages the damage was much more substantial – many old houses and some temples collapsed.

The Nepalese have also faced a de facto blockade of goods shipped through India. The blockade is apparent everywhere: queues of cars waiting for gas at official government facilities, many flights have been canceled and planes that serve Nepal bring their fuel with them. Tourist resorts are deserted and there are few choices of food at restaurants and even a shortage of medicine in hospitals. The pain of the blockade was reduced by the smuggling of fuel – and more than doubling the price of gasoline in the black market. I could not figure out the cause of the blockade, but I suspect that whatever were the sins of Nepal, the blockade was an excessive response.

I figured out that while Nepal is part of the Indian civilization, it hates to be treated like a little brother. The Nepalese are also stuck between India and China. They have been independent for millennia and want to keep good relations with the giants at its borders, and want to do so without taking sides.

I also realized that religion plays a major role in Nepal — there are 4000 temples in Kathmandu — and the music and chanting from temples are pervasive. Many of the Nepalese are both Hindi and Buddhist and I learned to appreciate their religious perspective. While the monotheistic religions believe that the world is ruled by one deity, my Nepalese friends assume that the world is ruled by a cabinet with many rulers through a hierarchical system. In Nepalese schools there are temples to the education gods and in hospitals, to the medicine gods. This approach may be quite inclusive – if you believe in many gods, the odds of accepting another one seems to be quite high.











Despite the Modi blockade (named after the Indian prime minster, who the Nepalese viewed until recently as a reformer and good neighbor, and now see him as a capricious bully), my trip was wonderful. The limited food choices were still very tasty, a combination of interesting Indians dishes with fresh salads and soups. The weather was spectacular: I enjoyed watching snowy mountaintops when the temperature below in the valley is around 60F. Biswo and his wife, Pratibha, showed me fascinating parts of their country and the Sandee workshop was wonderful.

As I understand it, Sandee is part of a program initiated by Karl Goran Maeler and Sir Partha Dasgupta and by the Swedish Beijer Institute, which was aimed to create leaders of environmental economics research in developing countries.

The program established four regional networks for Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Sandee for South Asia. Each program has its unique features and flavors. Sandee is 15 years old, and offers education and training activities, including a summer school of three weeks in environmental economics, a shorter winter program and other educational and policy programs.

The most advanced program is a research-training program for economists with a PhD or masters degree who work as assistant professors as well as in government. Each year, the program selects 5 to 15 participants from a pool of applicants. Participants receive around $10,000 annually to conduct supervised research for 2-3 years.

Each participant is assigned an advisor, and the participants meet their advisors at the biannual workshops. The advisors – the “faculty” of the program – are leading environmental and resource economists from prominent universities.[1] The advising process is very detailed and deep: the participants and their advisors interact constantly and during the biannual meeting each candidate makes a presentation and receives feedback from the advisors, other assigned reviewers, and other participants. The reviewing and feedback processes assist the candidate in designing a conceptual framework and data collection plan, and help to improve the analysis and writing of a research publication.

Some of the time of the biannual meetings is allocated to learning and exposure to new research. I was invited to the 31st biannual workshop to speak about my work on Biotechnology and Sustainable Development. Another guest speaker was Professor Mushfiq Mobarak from Yale, who provided an excellent review on the use of impact assessment studies as tools for increase adoption improved practices and for introducing change.

Both of us also served as commenters on the participants’ presentations. I was very impressed with the depth and quality of these the research efforts, which covered major issues of development and the environment. Particular emphasis was given to (1) understanding and designing strategies for adaption to climate change, (2) analysis of the factors that influence adoption of new technologies and estimating the impacts of these technologies, and (3) estimating the cost and benefits to economic agents in developing countries from environmental conservation activities that provide global benefits. Such activities may include conservation of biodiversity and sequestration of greenhouse gases.

The perception is that the toughest challenge of an academic career is to get a degree and then a job. I think that actually working on your own after graduation is even more challenging. This is especially so in a developing-country environment, in which young scholars are frequently not surrounded by experienced faculty members who provide support and can teach the tricks of the trade.

The biannual research and writing workshop train the participants to withstand the rigorous critical review that academic researchers face and help them to respond to feedback rather than give up. They provide the exposure and skills that will make researchers much more effective teachers, advisors, and colleagues in their own right. I admire the commitment of the advisors, who have been coming to South Asia twice a year to supervise their students for minimum or no compensation. Their dedication is a testimony to the value of the program – as economists who value their time dearly they would not make this effort unless the benefits are immense and justify the cost.


I learned from this program what the term “capacity building” means, both in concept and practice. The program creates research leaders, and some of the participants go on to become policy analysts, advisors, and scholars.

The program also improves their skills as teachers and in turn, will cultivate the skills of their students. Finally it brings together economists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, and Nepal. I saw emerging friendships and collaborations that may forge better understanding between future leaders of nations, many of which have a history of conflicts and misunderstandings.

My 15 years of experience as co-director of the Beahrs ELP allows me to appreciate Sandee even more. Beahrs ELP participants are from many disciplines and the program emphasizes broadening of horizons and multidisciplinary cooperation. Sandee’s emphasis is to strengthen the capacity of economists in their chosen disciplines.

Both of the programs work to build an international network of collaboration. We invest immense amounts in educating our youth, but education does not need to end with graduation. With the fast accumulation of new knowledge and technological change, some forms of knowledge and skills become obsolete. Both programs are forums for lifelong learning that is especially important in the context of development work. I believe that these types of investments in our future deserve support and nurturing.


After the workshops, Biswo and Pratibha took me on a tour of Chitwan (their hometown) and the region’s national park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While we didn’t see the emblematic Mount Everest, we were nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains and wide rivers running through it.

One attraction of the region is its jungle safari, where you may encounter rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, and, if you are lucky, tigers. This region also taught me about environmental leadership in action. During the civil war in Nepal (1996-2006), environmentalists in the region risked their lives to save its animals and were successful in establishing an active ecotourism industry.

Absent are the Holiday Inns and Hiltons, and instead there are homegrown and charming resorts that attract people from all over the world. Some tourists may climb the Himalayas and then relax at these charming resorts. My time in Nepal showed me that environmental leadership is about learning and practice. It requires support from the outside but it must also build commitment from the inside.

[1] The advisors this year were Jeff Vincent and Subarbau Patanayak from Duke University; Celine Nauges from the University of Tolouse; Jean Marie Baland from University of Namur Belgium; the founding director of the program, Priya Shyamsundar, and its current director, E. Somanathan from the Indian Statistical Institute; and Enamul Haque from Asian Center for Development.

Comments to “Training environmental leaders in Nepal, Sandee style

  1. Nice to see the ongoing efforts of SANDEE to introduce the scholars from outside world with south Asian economists. Due to blockade by India will ultimately affect the lower earning group of the society drastically as they have already affected by the last devastating earthquake.

    I guess the poverty rate will be increased drastically due to high inputs costs of agricultural production. I expect that this course will pave the path to think how researchers could provide effective policy suggestions on effective utilization of natural resources to overcome both natural and man made crisis.

    Good luck Nepal and its amazing citizens!

  2. Dear David: Thank you for joining us at SANDEE and for your inspiring economic story telling. It’s really so good to hear you endorse our activities so vigorously. Have a great year and look forward to reading many more of your blogs. Priya

  3. Great insight of our society and political handicapped environment. Thanks Dr. David for your simple truth description. Hope inspirational wave will shake up even a few minds of Nepal

  4. Thank you David for the time that you managed to put at SANDEE R&D after long hectic travelling. I got a lot from your valuable debate on Biotechnology and Sustainable Development.

    Muhammad Nawaz (SANDEE Researcher)

  5. Nepal continues pursuing childish political paths that keep Nepal continuously on the brink of being a failed nation.

    Environmentally, Nepal “boasts one of Asia’s highest levels of water resources per inhabitant, with up to 83,000 megawatts of potential hydropower reserves. Today, Nepal produces less than 800MW of electricity, yet somehow this stunning underachievement seems to escape the notice of most globe-trotting environmentalists.

    Nepal desperately needs adult politicians and adult visitors/consultants who confront the “blame India” denial mechanism and who can help get this poor, struggling country on the right path via serious, in-depth self-examination.

  6. Hello David,Thank you for taking the time to write your blog. Dan and I learned from your perspective. We are interested to hear the chants. If you know anyone that wants to record them I can send a piece of our recording equipmen. Our AD11 would do the job.
    Cheers David!

  7. I much enjoyed this, and congratulations for understanding our situation well here, not many visitors do. Now is our third day without electricity either! We managed to get half a gas cylinder after three days and 2 nights queuing, everyone is cutting the reserved forests to cook and survive – boy are Indians “popular” here now! But China will help reasonably selflessly – they usually do actually.
    All the best,
    Chris F.-J., Kathmandu.

  8. It’s a very good thing to be seen in Nepal such a wonderful workshop and researchers. This sounds good. Things like this is a long lasting effect in economic and cultural aspect of Nepal. But as per my opinion, this is still a nice and safe place to travel.

    Sourav Basak
    Blogger, entrepreneur and thinker

  9. Thank you, David, for taking time to come to SANDEE workshop and spending your valuable time with our researchers. Very nice summary of what you have seen in Nepal.

  10. It was very nice to read these reflections, David. Chitwan sounds wonderful. How long does it take to get there from Kathmandu?

  11. Dear David: Thank you for the blog, which collects social, political and environmental issues of Nepal. Given the current situation which is going to have a long-lasting effect in socio-economic and cultural aspect of Nepal, I hope this blog will be an help in building confidence among people, who are willing to travel Nepal but are confused about the prevailing situation, that Nepal is still a good and safe place to visit.

    Thank you,

    Bishal Bharadwaj Nepal (also SANDEE researcher)

  12. The stand off or blockade in Nepal could result in economic sabotage and opportunity cost in escalating black market. What can Nepal do? Sandwiched by China and India. Can the World Economic Order be of any help? Perhaps, the USA and UN can be of help. God bless Nepal.

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