Monthly Archives: May 2013

Out with Old

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Free Students Union (FSU) elections, political parties are going all out to strengthen their position ahead of the upcoming student election. Extravagant promotional materials inside college premises hint of a celebratory mood. But rumors of fake admissions and extravagance in campaigning definitely raise a big question about the source of money that is being pumped into these elections. The FSU election is supposed to elect a body that addresses the concerns of college-going students. However, the effectiveness of the FSUs is highly questionable. Over the years, political agendas have been put on the frontline rather than academic agendas. The FSUs have become a metastasizing tumor.
Over last few weeks, FSUs have been vehemently criticized in the media, but FSUs have turned deaf ear to the comments and suggestions coming their way. Ideologically blindfolded leaders see nothing except what serves their narrow interests. Hence they openly flout election guidelines they themselves created. Apart from FSUs, the silence of academic and administrative leaders of Tribhuvan University and students is also to be blamed for this unruliness. 

Time has come we started to question the rationale behind political FSUs and to look for an alternative to FSUs, which routinely fail to raise academic and other issues faced by students. Rather than invest millions for election of student body, it would be wise to invest in welfare of students. But this can happen only when university authorities and students partner for promotion of quality education rather than petty politics.
The alternative is a new system for formation of FSUs in colleges. The new system of students union should incorporate the concept of clubs and other sub-divisions under the leadership and supervision of the union. Elections should start in the classroom. This can be in the form of electing class representatives (CRs) or class captain every year. To make election inclusive, one male and one female can be elected from a class for representation in the student’s union where all CRs meet. The executive team can be elected from among them. For instance, if a college has 15 different classrooms, there will be 30 elected CRs in the council and the executive team can be elected from among them. The size of the executive team can be need-based. 


Furthermore, multiple student clubs addressing the varied interests of students must exist in colleges under the supervision and leadership of the union. The clubs should have a democratic system where members of a particular club are free to choose their desired leadership. Students should be free to open a new club under student union after getting enough members and after making a strong case that their need is not being met by existing clubs.

The student’s union should act as an umbrella body that guides and governs the plans and activities of all other clubs in the college. The student’s union thus formed can sit with college administration with plans of the union and clubs and try to fit the activities in the academic calendar. This way, student’s union will essentially be a student’s body. Exams, results and other academic activities start happening according to the calendar and everybody benefits.

There should be clear demarcation of roles and responsibilities of student union and college administration. Student union should not be provided the right to hamper academic programs and college administration should not be allowed to meddle in the activities of students.
This model has multiple advantages for universities, students and the nation as a whole. The academic calendar comes back on track. Large number of students will directly benefit as several kinds of activities will occur at the college and they can participate in the one they feel meets their interest.

Furthermore, a large chunk of students get the opportunity to practice leadership. They can organize programs under different clubs or they can take charge of any club or student union itself. The model further helps in actualization of student’s issues as they can directly be carried to the student’s union by CRs.
The model is already in place at few private colleges of Kathmandu and is serving pretty well. The KCM Student Council is a case in point. The council started in 2003 and is independent from college management and political parties, yet its annual financial transactions exceed Rs 1,500,000, which is essentially student earned money for student council. Ultimately, the amount is invested in various student activities.
This is a viable alternative to the existing FSU system. As time passes, traditional institutions need to be reviewed and updated. If the FSUs are not ready to mend their ways, students and the universities should be ready to adopt the new model.

Lessons from Lanka

Dial 1919 from a telephone in Sri Lanka and you can get information on 77 different government bodies in three major languages of the country—Sinhala, Tamil, and English. In Sri Lanka, a range of ICT facilities have been introduced to strengthen information management in governance, education, healthcare, industry, agriculture, fisheries, social security and judicial systems, especially at the grassroots level.

The institutional mechanisms of Sri Lanka have been altered for rapid development of society using ICT. Since 2005, the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) has provided leadership in the application of ICT. Its “e-Sri Lanka” program has achieved major economic, developmental, and social improvements. 

In 2010, the government set up a separate Ministry for Information & Communication Technology to strengthen ICT leadership, advance the sector, and collaborate with other stakeholders. The country’s national broadband policy aims at narrowing down the digital divide by implementing an island-wide national backbone network that provides low cost and high-speed connectivity through competition among Internet service providers.

According to ICTA, the ICT literacy rate in Sri Lanka has grown from approximately 5 percent in 2004 to almost 40 percent in 2012. The target is 75 percent by 2015. Cellular phone penetration stands at over 100 percent, and broadband technologies are increasingly available in rural areas.
The rural telecenter network, or the “Nenasala” Centers (“Wisdom outlets” program), provide an important opportunity for rural population to learn. They promote partnerships among government and private organizations, individual entrepreneurs and civil society organizations to create a knowledgeable society. The Ministry of Technology & Research also operates another island-wide network named “Vidatha.” These multi service centers promote access to scientific and technological applications, including ICT, to rural communities.

One of the telecenters established in the periphery of a temple at Udubaddawa of Kurunegala district provides a wide range of facilities. This telecenter primarily focuses on improving local people’s English language and computer skills. During their leisure, young college students take regular English courses and Diplomas in computer courses at the center at subsidized rates. It currently provides a six-month long computer Diploma course. Students can sit for a standardized test after the completion of the course, and can acquire the certificate at a low cost. 

The ICT Center not only serves as a learning center but also acts as a business unit. People can pay their utility bills and access internet facility at a nominal cost. It also serves as a coordinating agency for other distance learning units scattered over small villages where young kids are taught English by local teachers. Sometimes, religious centers are used as learning centers, which attracts a lot of people. 

Today, more than 300 IT and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies operate in Sri Lanka, serviced by a workforce of over 60,000, and generating US $400 million in exports. Sri Lanka expects to create a 100,000-strong workforce in the ICT sector in the next four to five years.

According to Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA), in March 15, 2013, telephone penetration in Nepal had reached 73.88 percent, and internet penetration had reached more than 23 percent. More than 90 percent of them use mobile devices to connect to the internet.

This indicates growing demand for technological knowledge and tools among the general public, a hopeful sign for a country situated next to technological giants like India and China. 

The question is: Have we adapted to this need? The answer, in the existing investment scenario and government IT policy, is a bold “NO”. The creation of ICT centers in rural Nepal is the need of the hour. There have been some efforts to create similar centers, but they have not been very successful in generating results because of the absence of strong policy backing and lack of understanding of the needs of local people.

No rural Nepali will reject the opportunity to learn computer skills and English language, if the lessons are available at a reasonable rate at their doorsteps. In this connection, ICT centers with physical resources should be started, through which people can learn computer skills and access the Internet. The telecommunication companies of Nepal should also think of joining hands with the government and social organizations to create a technologically sound workforce.

People are charged for free passport forms, migrant workers are cheated with fake airline tickets, farmers are paid low price for their products by middlemen. Many of these problems, as well as many other social problems, can be easily addressed by incorporating technology in daily life. 
The growth achieved by Sri Lanka in last 7-8 years is replicable, but only given strong political will. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches are needed to institutionalize technological growth and bring about desired social change. 

The author recently won South Asia Regional Grant Competition on ICT and Youth jointly organized by The World Bank and Microsoft® in Colombo, Sri Lanka


Ringing in change

The recent amendment in the 1980 TU regulation on Organization and Educational Administration regarding the age of candidacy on Free Student Union (FSU) election has initiated a fresh discussion on the age of youth politicians. The Supreme Court (SC) order has further provided legitimacy to the amendment made by TU. At the aftermath of the amendment, the 2015 FSU elections will see only candidates aged below 28 competing for the elections. The recent amendments have been widely acclaimed by students, academia, society, and some student unions.

The age bar levied thus will end the deeply rooted culture of old leaders competing in FSU elections. The average fresher at a college is 18, while the leaders of FSUs are generally a couple decades older than these freshers. The huge age gap not only creates frustration among students, but to some extent contributes to the failure of the leaders to address students’ issues properly. The age bar will hopefully end the culture of student leaders looking for political shortcuts through FSUs. 

It is not only the FSU that requires an age bar. Age bar is also much needed in the youth social sector. The count of umbrella organizations of non-political Youth organizations has reached three. The Association of Youth organization of Nepal (AYON) has listed more than 90 registered member youth organizations in its website, while the website of Youth NGO Federation Nepal claims that it has united more than 2,000 youth-led organizations of Nepal. Apart from that, several other unaffiliated youth-led organizations and youth clubs exist in Nepal. The promising number of youth led organizations becomes a matter of concern when it comes to the age of the leaders of these organizations.

Over the last couple of years, youth-led organizations have criticized the leaders of political youth organizations, calling them undemocratic and age-insensitive. To some extent, the blame for the situation goes to the country’s National Youth Policy, which is almost nonfunctional. The national youth policy defines 16-40 as the age of youth. This naïvely paves the way for the presence of older leadership at political as well as social youth organizations. The guiding document itself is not free from controversy, and lacks serious workout towards its implementation.

Youth-led social organizations should also practice intra-organizational democracy, and create enough space and mechanism for the younger generation to lead. There are youth organizations which are led by individuals rather than by a team of young people. The faces of the leaderships have not changed for several years. Rather than creating space and opportunity for young people, several youth-led organizations have been heavily dominated by a handful of older people.

Until and unless the leadership is handed over from a handful people to fresh talents, youth-led social organizations will not be able to make remarkable or sustainable impacts on society, and do not hold the moral authority to condemn political parties. The change should start from within. Furthermore, youth-led social organizations are heavily dependent on donor agencies, and leadership tends not to change due to heavy budgeted projects and long project durations. 

A change in the leadership at youth-led NGOs is required for them to be able to raise burning social issues related to youth. Issues faced by a 25-year-old female can be better raised by a 25-year-old female than a 35-year-old male. Besides, the issues that were relevant ten years ago may not be of concern now, and this change in priorities can only be mainstreamed when youth organizations are led by fresh leaders.

There are models of youth-led social organizations like Rotary Club and Leo Club where the leadership transfers every year, providing leadership practice to several young people. However, the trend is not carried over in other youth-led NGOs of Nepal. Asking all the youth led NGOs to follow the same model will again be impractical, considering the nature of activities that they carry out. However, youth led NGOs can certainly practice a model where the leadership changes every 2-3 years.

Both bottom-up and top-to-bottom approaches must be adopted to address the issue of leadership stagnancy in youth-led social organizations. These organizations need to adopt a clear democratic process in practice rather than in paper to promote leadership transformation. To aid that, the national youth policy must be updated to meet the changed expectations of young people, and the age bar for a person to be considered “youth” must be reduced to 30.