Preparing Youth Leaders for a New Nepal

Statement by Rotarian Kul Chandra Gautam

at Rotary Youth Leadership Award Programme. Dharan, Nepal, 31 December 2009

It is a very special honour for me to join you all at this Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) programme in the historic town of Dharan. My special thanks go to our gracious hosts, the Rotary Clubs of Dharan, Itahari and Biratnagar for sponsoring this event.

Having devoted most of my adult life working for the United Nations, and specifically for UNICEF, it is always heart-warming for me to have a chance to interact with young people and youth leaders. My main job at UNICEF was to help the children of the world to grow up to their full human potential, and become like the youth delegates attending this RYLA event – healthy, educated, cultured, productive, and committed to build a better world for humanity.

Congratulations, my young friends here, for being selected to attend the RYLA event. And my sincere thanks to all Rotary clubs of Nepal who have sponsored these bright young participants to attend this event. You have made a very wise investment in building a bright future, not just for the youth leaders who are attending this event, but for the destiny of Nepal.

I suppose you all know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of RYLA globally. Like Rotary itself, RYLA grew out of a visionary idea of an Australian Rotarian named Alec Symons who felt that there was an extraordinary opportunity to prepare young people for future leadership, not just of Rotary but also of their community, nation and the whole world.

In 1959 the city of Brisbane, Australia hosted a major Rotary event. That event coincided with the centenary of Queensland. Queen Elizabeth 2nd had dispatched her cousin Princess Alexandra to represent her in the celebrations. The Princess was in her early 20s. So, inspired by Alex Symons’ vision, the Rotarians decided that they would organize activities that would be appealing to the generation of the young Princess.

That celebration turned out to be a grand success, and the Rotarians of Australia decided to make it a continuing Rotary Youth Leadership Award programme, to train youth between the ages of 14 and 30 to develop their character, personality, leadership and citizenship skills.

In 1971 Rotary International itself adopted RYLA as one of its flagship international programmes.

RYLA is one of several youth-focused programmes of Rotary International. Other well-known programmes are Interact, Rotaract, the Rotary Youth Exchange and the Ambassadorial Scholarships programmes. Every year thousands of young people all over the world participate in these programmes. They get academic, vocational and professional training, acquire leadership and citizenship skills, promote international understanding, and spread messages of good-will and human solidarity.

What a wonderful programme you are part of. And I hope you will take full advantage of it.

A few months ago, in my keynote speech at Rotary Nepal’s first district convention in Kathmandu, I recall I mentioned how marvelous it would be if instead of joining the YCL and Youth Force and other destructive and disruptive youth gangs, more youngsters of Nepal would join or work in the spirit of Rotaract, Interact, and other Rotary youth exchange programmes, like RYLA, which exude the spirit of “fellowship of service”.

As I warned then, this is not an invitation for YCL and Youth Force and others to infiltrate Rotary, but to be inspired to transform themselves to provide selfless community service to others, and to acquire valuable professional skills and leadership qualities for their own growth and development.

Dear friends,

I came back to Nepal after being abroad for nearly 40 years. Many of my Nepali friends told me that during these 4 decades, the situation of the country had deteriorated. But actually I found that many good changes have taken place in Nepal. The most encouraging changes have been in the status of children, youth and women.

Just to take a few examples:

Four decades ago, when the population of Nepal was half of today’s, 100,000 children died every year before their 5th birthday. Last year, less than 40,000 died. That is still too many deaths, but a huge improvement nevertheless.

In the last 40 years, we have seen dreaded diseases like smallpox and polio eradicated; deaths due to measles drastically reduced; goiter disappear, and immunization services for children and access to drinking water supply have become virtually universal.

It is all the more remarkable that Nepal made great strides in reducing maternal and child mortality even in the middle of a violent conflict in the last decade.

Forty years ago, barely a quarter of school-age children received primary education. Girls going to school were a rare sight. Today 90 percent of children enroll in primary school, including a majority of girls.

I am very impressed how in villages women have become so articulate, fearless and aware of their rights. Increasingly, even the traditionally marginalized groups such as dalits and janajatis are exerting their rights and reclaiming their dignity.

I am happy to note that some of these positive changes in Nepal have taken place thanks to the good work and support of Rotary.

It is inspiring to see Nepal’s youth today aspiring to become global citizens. Many of them – not just in cities like Kathmandu and Biratnagar, but in towns like Dharan and even in rural areas – are very knowledgeable about what is going on in the world. Globalization is penetrating everywhere. The outreach of the mass media, particularly FM radio stations is amazing. Mobile phones are found everywhere. Many of our youngsters can now use the internet and access information from around the world.

The opportunities that young people can aspire to today were unimaginable during the youth of your parents and grand-parents.

Of course, we still have remnants of many age-old problems as well as some new ones that did not exist a generation ago. We have yet to tackle effectively and equitably some of the indignity of poverty, illness, illiteracy and malnutrition. Meanwhile, some new problems that did not exist four decades ago have surfaced and worsened in the past two decades: HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, trafficking and sexual exploitation of children and youth on a massive scale, and a terrible civil war that led to new forms of violence and abuse of children and youth.

The violent Maoist insurgency, and the counter-violence by the State, led to destruction of some existing infrastructure, delay in completing new development projects, and a massive exodus of millions of young people from villages to urban areas, and then on to foreign countries for employment, often facing great risks.

While remittances from foreign employment sustained the Nepalese economy from total collapse during the years of conflict, many new social problems emerged.

But most importantly, two deplorable things have happened as a result of the insurgency which threatens to ruin the very fabric of Nepali society: a) the emergence of a culture of violence, and b) the rise of inter-ethnic animosity.

Nepal used to be known as a peaceful country, the birth-place of Gautam Buddha, and a great contributor to international peace-keeping. Today, we have become a violent country, experiencing an orgy of lawlessness and impunity.

Youth are at the centre of this orgy prodded by their older political masters. Instead of being seen as dynamic agents of change and hope for the future, the largest and most active youth organizations of this country, aligned to various political parties, are feared by ordinary people as perpetrators of violence, intimidation and unruly behaviour. Far too many of our youth have become professional agitators rather than entrepreneurs.

Whether it is to settle minor local disputes, or partisan issues blown out of proportion, or even genuine grievances that require thoughtful debate, the first and instinctive recourse of our youth organizations is to call for strikes, demonstrations, shut-down of public transport, closure of schools, disrupting public services, instilling a sense of fear, and inconveniencing innocent people.

The voices of more thoughtful people, including youth, who want to settle disputes and differences of views through peaceful dialogue, are drowned out. The aspirations of our youngsters to live in peace, to learn and earn, to develop their personality, to be creative and useful citizens are thwarted by the violent and disruptive behaviour of their organized peers.

Sometimes we hear demagogues justify violence citing how deeply unjust, unfair, discriminatory and oppressive the Nepalese society has been against certain communities and marginalized groups and that to combat such deep-rooted “structural violence”, one can justify the kind of revolutionary violence that the Maoists practice, and now some of the ethnic and regional groups are emulating.

Yes, development in Nepal has been uneven and unequal, and none of us is satisfied with its pace or quality. But based on my experience with the United Nations, I can cite dozens of countries in Africa, other parts of Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere that are in a similar situation or even worse than Nepal. We would certainly not advocate for a violent world revolution to rectify such inequities and injustices.

A few weeks ago the senior-most leader of Nepal’s largest political party stated that to achieve his party’s revolutionary goals, there could be not just 10,000, but a million (10 lakh) deaths in the next revolution. I do not see any solution that this party proposes, nor the scale of injustice in Nepal today, that could possibly justify such violence.

If we can justify 1 million deaths in Nepal, I suppose one could justify 2 million deaths in Burma, 3 million deaths in Sudan or Congo, maybe 10 million deaths in India. Nobody in their sane mind would justify such scale of violence in this day and age.

Dear friends, violence breeds more violence and hatred. We can and must find peaceful ways to build a just, inclusive and egalitarian society.

Mahatma Gandhi was able to bring down the world’s mightiest empire through peaceful revolution. Nelson Mandela found a peaceful solution to dismantle the apartheid regime in South Africa. Martin Luther King, Jr led a non-violent civil rights movement to end racism in America.

And we Nepalis too can surely find a peaceful way to end injustice and bring democracy and prosperity in our homeland.

The path of peace may sometimes seem slow and frustrating, but it is the only path that is sustainable and truly liberating.

It is with this conviction, that I have recently joined a “Rollback Violence” Campaign (Himsa Antya Abhiyan) championed by a group of peace activists including, Ani Choying Dolma, Amrit Gurung, Rajesh Hamal, CK Lal, Madan Krishna Shrestha and Haribamsa Acharya. And I hope many of you will join this campaign.

I am happy to see at this RYLA function, a rainbow of young people from many communities – Pahadis and Madhesis, Janjatis and Dalits, Bahuns and Chhetris, men and women – all working together as friends. That is the beauty of Nepal that I cherish so much and feel so proud of.

Unfortunately, some of our political leaders and ethnic activists are now trying to convince us that there is so much bad blood amongst us that we must carve out separate ethnic and linguistic federal units for Nepalis to co-exist and make democracy work.

We all want to see a New Nepal that will be economically prosperous, environmentally sustainable, culturally rich and diverse, where our children and grand-children will be able to take full advantage of globalization. I believe that is the aspiration of most of the younger generation of Nepalis.

But in the context of the restructuring of the new Nepali state, we are being offered backward looking solutions that give far more importance to seemingly redressing the real or perceived injustices of the past, rather than capitalizing on the great promise and potential for building a bright future in a rapidly globalizing, inter-connected world.

Yes, our ethnic, cultural and linguistic identities must be honoured, treasured and preserved as a wealth of our nation. But as in many other developed countries, it can be done through affirmative action, real devolution of power and authority to local governments and communities, and through creative, proactive governance mechanism. It does not require Balkanizing the country and creating artificial, unsustainable Bantustans that are likely to be the hotbeds of new forms of discrimination and discord.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Rectifying historical injustices does not require reversing the clock of history and going back to our baise and choubise rajyas. We can build a new Nepal based on a new platform that unites us all as Nepalis rather than what divides us.

I deplore efforts by political parties and activists that constantly harp on our differences, and spread hatred. Classifying some Nepalis as pratigami, reactionaries, feudals, exploiters, foreign agents; and glorifying others as agragami, janabadi, rashtrabadi, etc is a recipe for spreading hatred and violence.

Leaders who spread such divisive messages have caused horrors and ruined their countries. Hitler classified people into the good Aryan race and evil Jews. That led to the genocide of six million Jews and unleashed the Second World War.

Divisive policies by Stalin in the former USSR and by Mao in China denouncing feudals and capitalists, and glorifying the dictatorship of peasants and proletariat, led to tens of millions of deaths and inhuman suffering of millions more.

Invoking a similar philosophy, Pol Pot tried to destroy the old Cambodia and create a new one from Year Zero leading to the death of nearly 2 million Cambodians.

When the world ignored clear warning signs from Hutu ethnic activists in Rwanda demonizing their Tutsi compatriots, we witnessed a gruesome genocide of half a million people.

Dear friends,

It is the enlightened politics of unity and solidarity – finding common ground rather than accentuating our differences – that is likely to lead us to the path of peace and progress.

I believe that with the right kind of leadership and good policies, Nepal is poised for an economic take-off, a socio-cultural renaissance and progressive political transformation.

Our established political leaders have so far failed to live up to our expectations. We will need to develop a new youth leadership to build a prosperous new Nepal. We need young bright minds with fresh new ideas to erase the borders that separate us, and build bridges that unite us all as Nepalis across the barriers of geography, gender, caste and ethnicity.

Youth leaders gathered here under the auspices of Rotary Nepal could be the nucleus of such new leadership to build a new Nepal. What can RYLA do to empower you to develop such leadership skills?

I am afraid I cannot offer you a simple formula for developing such leadership attributes. I am not aware of any golden rules to lead you to guaranteed personal and professional success. Each one of us has to find our own unique path to success.

Sometimes, people ask me, Mr. Gautam, what is the secret of your success? How did you manage to go from a small, isolated village of largely illiterate people in the mountains of Nepal to become a senior official at the United Nations?

As I said, there actually is no secret, nor any magic formula for success in life. In my own case, it was a combination of good luck, hard work, and a few strategic decisions I made along the way, which I would like to share with you.

Good luck is, of course, beyond your control, and hard work is something that, I know, most of you are accustomed to.

So let me share with you some advice on certain strategic choices and decisions you can make, based on my own experience, and that of many others, which might be helpful to you.

I call them the 5 golden rules for success:

1. First, find a silver lining in every dark cloud:

The world is so full of misery, injustice and hatred. It is easy to be discouraged. But you know, in all such situations, you can always find some glimmer of hope, against all odds, and make your mark.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining. Think positively, search for that silver lining. I can assure you that you will find it, and it will energize you enormously.

2. Second, Take a longer-term view of life:

In the day to day life of a person or an institution or a country, there are always things that go wrong and upset you. Let that not weigh you down.

If you persist and persevere, even against great odds, chances are that things will eventually work out for the better.

Similarly, don’t be impatient or greedy or tempted to fall for short-term gains or instant gratification. Go for things that are of lasting value, that you will feel proud of over the long haul.

This principle has served me well in both my personal and professional life, and I bet it will serve you well as well.

3. Third, Do the unexpected:

I have found it both personally and professionally rewarding to do things that surprise people, in a positive way.

We all tend to do things that our family, society, colleagues expect us to do – and do them well. That is only normal and natural.

But if you want to shine and be noticed, sometimes it is good to do things that people don’t naturally expect you to do.

The satisfaction you get, the pride you feel, the recognition you will enjoy by doing the unexpected are of a completely different, energizing nature than doing what everyone expects you to do well.

4. Fourth: Always go beyond the call of duty:

In every job and most assignments I have undertaken, I ask myself what my boss or my colleagues would expect me to do, if I were to be seen as a high performer.

Then, I tell myself, let me do something beyond that.

I advise you too to volunteer to do things that are not in your normal job description or in your school curriculum. Don’t say, that is not my job. Try to contribute ideas in areas beyond your normal work.

Of course, this means working much longer hours than normal, working on weekends and holidays, cutting down on vacation time.

Some of these can lead to bad habits and may be unhealthy. So, watch it, and don’t overdo it. But if you do extra work not out of any compulsion, but voluntarily and joyfully, you will note that going beyond the call of duty is the true mark of rising stars.

5. Fifth and finally, Never forget where you came from:

For someone like me who came from a humble background, it was always helpful to remember my roots, where I came from, whenever I felt a little disappointed that I did not always get what I desired or deserved.

But then, I remind myself, and my children, that virtually everybody in my village – and in thousands of villages in Nepal and other developing countries – would feel privileged to have the kinds of problems, the little inconveniences and discomforts that we often complain about.

I would guess that many of you come from a fairly privileged background. But ask your parents and they will tell you the hardships and sacrifices they or their parents went through. Remind yourself of such hardships to overcome your frustrations.

There are nearly 7 billion people in the world today. And believe it or not, you are luckier than at least 5 billion of those people. Half of this world’s people still live in communities where there are no roads, no electricity, no telephone, no television, and of course, no internet – all things that probably most of us take for granted.

So whenever you feel disappointed, because you did not get the grade you deserved, the job you wanted, the latest gadget you desired, or could not go on a holiday that some of your friends enjoyed, please remind yourself how lucky you still are compared to the 5 billion people who are less fortunate than you are.

In recalling your roots, please remember that you are growing up in Nepal at a very special time – when Nepal has gone through a terrible civil war, an exciting people’s movement, historic elections to a Constituent Assembly and transformation from a monarchy to a republic. Few people have an opportunity to experience such momentous changes in their lives.

This country now seems messy and ill-governed. But I can assure you, it is destined to rise and prosper. And you, dear youth leaders, you can certainly partake in our shared dream to build it into a country that we all hope will soon be sundara, shaanta, bishaal (lovely, peaceful and grand).

To get to that destination, please consider following my 5 paths to success as well as RYLA’s emphasis on building your character, personality, leadership and citizenship skills. I am sure the various Rotary Clubs of Nepal will help you in your endeavours.

I wish you tremendous success for your own development and for providing a new kind of positive leadership that Nepal so desperately needs and deserves.

Thank you.

(Mr. Gautam is a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations)