Quake spurs youth cyber relief work

The Bangkok Post

The recent 7.3-magnitude aftershock which followed the earlier 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated Nepal has again drawn global attention. The death toll has already surpassed 8,100. Still, it is hard to imagine the scale of devastation had the earthquakes occurred 15 years ago. Several thousand more people would have died, and much of the world would still be unaware of the catastrophe.

But, cellular technology towers withstood the quake while the buildings around them crumbled. Before the mainstream media reports came out, news from individual sources had quickly penetrated social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Despite limited technological capacity, what is outstanding is how constructively it has been used during the present disaster, despite only a quarter of the population having access to the internet and 90% of them using only a 2G connection.

The media organisations which rushed to Kathmandu and its vicinity in the aftermath of the disaster are sharing the stories that they should be covering — the grim reality on the ground. However, the international media is also portraying Nepal as if everything has ended. This is doom mongering, as the quake has in fact triggered many positive instances of social behaviour.

Social media has been greatly instrumental in the relief operations taking place in the country. In particular, Nepalese youth are showing an unprecedented level of commitment. The international media to some extent has failed to share these stories of initiatives led by the younger generation.

In fact, this strata of the population was one of the first to take part in rescue efforts. Nepalese youth are making optimum use of internet technology to aid the relief work. Their Facebook walls demonstrate the amazing work that they are doing despite limited resources and skills.

In the aftermath of the disaster, technology giants such as Skype facilitated youth endeavours by announcing free calls to and from Nepal. Fortunately, those young people with a smartphone or laptop connected to the internet, reached out to temporary refugee camps, and began to help families to connect to their relatives.

In the face of calamity, people have teamed up and initiated online help desks to connect those who are far away with their family members at home. It is usually arduous to negotiate congested international communications networks in such a distressing situation. However, all you now need to do to reach your friends is to send these teams a message on Facebook or via Twitter. They then often find your family within a few minutes.

Furthermore, within hours of each of the two big tremors, Facebook introduced the safety check feature, where people could mark friends on as “Safe”. People hurried to mark their friends safe in order to reassure acquaintances at home and abroad.

In another instance, young people teamed up to use Google’s Person Finder tool to fill in the information of missing people, and those with information about someone started feeding their information into the system.

Hundreds of young people have gathered and are using their social media skills to discover where the relief is needed most, and then they pledge donations like tarpaulins, rice, or medicine. The relief material is then transported to the most hard-hit areas by volunteers, who also establish local communications and identify local youths who can serve as channels for the relief work.

The creative uses of social media have also led young people to report data regarding physical and human losses as well as to assess the availability of temporary camps and relief supplies. Youth-driven teams are crowdsourcing the information. Now, anyone with a basic cell phone can report physical damage or loss of life as well as seek help.

As the nation receives more aid from abroad, both in terms of resources and personnel, there are admittedly increased chances of financial misconduct, and the effectiveness of some of the aid work may be questioned. To address these concerns and facilitate effective aid delivery, youth groups and relief organisations are implementing a social audit of the rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts in order to make the post-disaster efforts more reliable, accountable and effective.

There is much to be learned from these independent voluntary initiatives in terms of disaster preparedness. There is a need for social immunisation by introducing strict guidelines for construction companies, as well as earthquake-preparedness classes, based on the experience of nations like Thailand.

Governments in areas of the globe vulnerable to earthquakes should have strong post-disaster relief mechanisms ready, and the youth should be equipped with basic first-aid training. Furthermore, the technology to act transparently, and democratically should be embedded in each and every step that we as societies decide to take. This use of technology and the mobilisation of youth have the potential to create resilience and keep hope alive even in adverse circumstances.

The article originally appeared in the Opinion section of The Bangkok Post on May 19, 2015.

Hear us too

In the recent Constituent Assembly (CA) election, eight percent youth were elected as CA members under the First Past the Post (FPTP) System.
The percentage of youth candidates in this election was even more impressive: 41 percent of total candidates were below the age of 40. 
There were many new parties which fielded new candidates. However, the number of young candidates nominated by major political parties was not so exciting. If we are to refer to the National Youth Policy, it defines “youth” as those aged 16-40.
Zakaria Zainal
This age group accounts for 42 percent of the population, but constitutes only eight percent of FPTP winners in the CA. The figures are not going to get better anytime soon, if recent activities of political parties are anything to go by. This means that the agendas and voices of young people are likely to go unheard in the new CA.
The unhealthy tussle in the major parties to finalize their PR candidates does not indicate their seriousness about youth representation. The PR list CPN-UML submitted to Election Commission, for example, sidelined prominent young faces like Ramkumari Jhankri who was at the forefront of second Jana Andolan and has since been consistently advocating for youth friendly policies. 
Other parties don’t seem very different. This practice will continue as long as our parties continue to be ruled by a few dictatorial heads. 
Most of our political parties are undemocratic and hierarchical. 
Lack of intraparty democracy is one of the major reasons. Be it student union, trade union or any other sister organization of mainstream political parties, they all lack intra-organizational democracy. These unions are as fragmented as their mother parties. As a result, they are not strong enough to challenge malpractices in the mother party.
Tokenism trumps meritocracy in most parties, while making political appointments or selecting candidates for CA election. Political leaders look for the people who buy into their school of thought and who belong to their faction. Unfortunately, the youth fall behind when they fail to follow these unwritten rules.
The youth are in no way free of blame. When they are at the forefront of political movements, they dare to challenge their leaders. But when the movements end, they forget their power and surrender before the same leaders. They have enough courage to challenge the autocratic system of the country, but are afraid to challenge a similar situation within their parties. They can come together to bargain when fuel price is hiked, but not to ask for respect for their opinion in their parties.
One of the reasons youth are being sidelined is because the interest groups working on youth are not active. When it comes to the representation of female and marginalized communities, several interest groups working for the benefit of these sections put pressure on the parties for meaningful representation. This is not the case with our youth. Representation of female and marginalized groups is mandated by law. This has forced political parties to make sure they are well represented, which, again, is not the case for the youth.
The time has come for the youth to be considered partners of today, not only of the future. It doesn’t look like the representation of youth will increase in this CA. Despite the lack of numerical strength, the aspirations and issues of youth shouldn’t be ignored in this CA. For this, present CA members should be sensitized about the issues, challenges and aspirations of youth. This in turn will call for youth wings of political parties and non-political youth organizations teaming up to serve as watchdogs.
Time will test both political and non-political youth organizations. The need of the hour is the implementation of the dormant National Youth Policy (NYP). One of the first tasks of youth organizations is to build pressure on elected representatives to do so. 
Representation of youth in CA is necessary to ensure that the aspirations of younger generation are addressed. The youth are the best persons to raise their own issues. Furthermore, the future of the nation belongs to the youth, and this is a moment when the future of the nation is being written. To ensure youth ownership of these changes, it is necessary to make them a part of the system.
Creating a special working group on youth within the CA can be a viable way to compensate for their poor numerical representation in CA. The working group should be assigned with bringing up the agendas concerning youth which shouldn’t be missed in the constitution. Furthermore, both political and non-political youth organizations should assist the committee.
(This article was published on Republica op-ed on December 31, 2013)

Surfing in the dark: Nepal’s need for economic reforms

[Myself, Daphne Koller and Professor Duneier]
More than a year has passed since I visited Princeton University in October 2012. I was there to participate in a panel discussion organized by the university. I was among the 40,000 students around the world who had been taking the online ‘Sociology’ course on Coursera and I had been chosen to visit the university and participate in the panel discussion because of my active participation in classes. I still vividly remember the excitement amidst the nervousness that had engulfed me at being on the stage, in-front of faculty members and students of the university presenting about how internet and online courses were helping students from developing countries like me. It was the moment I realized Thomas L. Friedman is indeed right when he says the world is getting flatter. The information communication technology revolution has indeed leveled the playing field for people across developed and developing societies. An Ivy-league education is at the finger tips of students around the world. Economic reforms undertaken by Nepal in early 1990s are also to be thanked for this wonderful opportunity I got. Nepal opened up its economy to the world and liberalized a few sectors (internet and telecommunications being one of them) during the reforms. And thanks to it, today more and more Nepalese have access to telecommunication services as well as the internet. Thanks to the increased competition among telecommunication service providers as well as internet service providers, the cost of access to internet have come down significantly and almost one-fourth of Nepalese are estimated to have access to the internet. I am sure the numbers will go up significantly in future and the day when every Nepalese will have access to internet is not far away.
However, when I look at some other aspects of lives of ordinary Nepalese, I find that the future that I dream of is nowhere as near as I would want it to be. Till date around 63 percent of households in Nepal lack access to electricity. Even the rest who have access to electricity suffer from power cuts during dry seasons lasting up to 16 hours daily. Ironically, Nepal is said to have a potential of generating more than 43000 Megawatt of electricity from hydro-power alone which would be enough to make Nepal a middle-income country through electricity exports. Power sector was among the sectors not addressed by the economic reforms of early 1990s and we still have a state-owned monopoly Nepal Electricity Authority which controls the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in Nepal. It amazes me how Nepal Electricity Authority manages to incur huge losses despite being a monopoly and how could it hire 11000 plus employees when it has already accumulated so huge amount of liabilities. While 63 percent of our households are reeling in darkness, Nepal Electricity Authority has become a preferred avenue for corruption and nepotism for politicians as shown by the recent arrest of a number of Nepal Electricity Authority officials for their possible involvement in a multimillion-dollar transformer purchase scam.
It has been less than two decades since internet came to Nepal and yet around one fourth of the population already have access to it and the number is increasing rapidly. On the other hand, Nepal got its first hydro-power plant more than a century ago in 1911 in the form of Pharping hydro-power plant. But even after a century later, about two-thirds of Nepalese households do not have access to something as basic as electricity. It infuriates me to see that politicians haggle over who to recruit as managing director of Nepal Electricity Authority or whom to award a certain hydro-power project while general public is suffering under power crisis. I believe Nepal is in dire need of economic reforms, especially in basic utility sectors like hydro-power. There is a need to introduce and encourage competition in this sector which will eventually not only result in better delivery of services but also encourage innovations. The government should break the monopoly of Nepal Electricity Authority and make it more accountable to the consumers it is supposed to serve by opening up the sectors for private players. The government should also restructure the organization under a private-public-partnership model so that it becomes more effective and efficient without losing the sight of its objectives. Only then, we can dream of a day when we will be taking energy as granted like many of us do to internet