Shesh Ghale is the president of the International Coordination Committee (ICC) of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), the umbrella organization of the Nepali diaspora. His two-year term will come to an end in mid-October this year. In an e-mail interview with New Business Age recently, Ghale shared his views on the evolution of NRNA as an organization, the role played by NRNs in Nepal’s economic development and the Rs 1 billion fund he has established. Excerpts:
Can you tell us something about your childhood, your journey from Nepal to Australia and becoming a billionaire there?
Born in a very tiny village with only about 40 households, my father migrated from Ghalegaun to my mother’s village. I remember it was very hard on him to be accepted in the new society. I faced a situation similar to what my father faced some 60-70 years ago; I had to leave the country to get settled and accepted in a new country - Australia.
Despite being uneducated and not very well off financially, my parents did all they could for my education. My grandmother used to take me to the school daily and sit around me whole day otherwise I would run away from the school and go home.
I don't think I had natural talent; I had to try hard every time. My parents always kept a teacher at home, providing him with food and accommodation so that he could teach me at home after school hours.
At 13, I had to leave my home village for another village located some 40 kilometres away. I had to walk the whole day to reach there. I was crying and was very emotional when I had to leave my home village. From Grade 7 to 10, I had to cook my meal and live by myself in a new place. My father used to visit me every month with food supports. I did not need any money those days, just the food. Perhaps, I will detail my school story some other time.
After SLC, I went to Kathmandu for higher studies. I got a government scholarship to study engineering in Russia. In 1986, I returned to Nepal and worked for highway projects for a few years. One night, I woke up and decided to quit my well-paid job and leave for Australia for management studies. My student life in Australia was not different from others. I had to work hard. To support myself financially, I did all sorts of jobs.
You have been actively associated with Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) for more than past one decade. How has NRNA evolved as an organization over these years?
Many friends in the Nepali Diaspora have worked very hard and are still working very hard to take this organization where it is today. Naturally, the formative years of NRNA were different from now. As individuals and communities have grown, they have different and increased expectations which we leaders have to match with our limited resources.
The achievements made over last decade are immense. The credit for this goes to our elders who continue to inspire us to embrace new challenges. Now we need to set forth a vision for the next 10-20 years and work towards making some forward-looking steps each time.
In a nutshell, we are trying hard to build an institution which is credible and trust worthy for our communities overseas and agencies around us including the Government of Nepal (GoN). Our existence is for the wellbeing of each non-resident Nepali and for the larger communities in Nepal.
You are the first elected President of NRNA. All your predecessors were chosen unanimously. Has it affected your performance as NRNA President?
I don’t think so. I found most NRNs helpful and cooperative towards my agendas. I am very satisfied with everybody’s help. It’s a collective effort.
It is said that NRNs seek more concessions and services from the government than the work they actually want to do in Nepal. What do you say?
NRNA is a voluntary organization. We don’t have huge resources. It is basically run out of individual NRN resources whilst community expectation is huge. Our community is large. It is in millions. We can do much more if everybody and every agency including the Nepal government help us. Most of the benefits we ask from the government ultimately go to the community. For example, we have been asking for the retention of our Nepali citizenship. If this demand is met, nearly half a million Nepalis who have already taken the citizenship of other nations will be happy and think about investing in their motherland. I am sure that providing such incentives will only benefit Nepal.
Do you agree that NRNs are not doing as much as they can for their motherland? Could you list some major contributions that NRNs have made to Nepal's economic development?
Yes. They are doing bit by bit and here and there. NRNs are contributing to many fronts for social causes and investments.
We have attempted to release the stats on various investment projects which are being implemented. Some quarters of our community are hesitant to provide details and stats of their own investments. There may be reason/s which is beyond our control. However, we are very certain that NRNs are increasingly investing in Nepal.
In terms of social causes, we are doing our bit; the projects range from being based on individuals, groups and communities to societies. They could be from school buildings, health centres and camps. They are numerous, hard to quantify. Of late, we are also focusing on retirement homes. Of course, when there is a natural disaster, we all join hands which is a frequent occurrence in Nepal. It is not only in Nepal; please remember we support our communities overseas in some 70 countries. They are not yet well off; they need help. I think NRNs are now investing particularly in tourism, hospitality, banking and finance, education, health sectors and small hydro projects.
The important thing to understand is how this community (NRN) will evolve in next 20/30 years? What will be its capacity to give to and invest in Nepal - whether capital or know-how or expertise and knowledge? If you don’t accommodate them (NRNs) now, they will be disconnected with Nepal.
The government has agreed to most NRN demands. What more does it need to do to attract NRN investment to the country?
Things move very slowly in Nepal. We understand that and we have the patience. We would love to see business and investment environment to be improved. We do not demand for ourselves; we say things that are good for the overall economy and prosperity of Nepal. There is no such thing as NRNs’ demand; we advocate major policy reforms - whether that is social or economic. I have been saying doing business in Nepal is difficult. The investments that NRNs have made so fa are totally driven by sentiments and feelings alone. To attract major sizable investments, the environment must be improved, index of ease of doing business must be improved, bureaucracy must be improved, and many practices must be improved. Nepal needs systemic improvement. There are amazing individuals but they cannot do much. So are individual investors but we need more diverse investors in Nepal which is only possible by systemic improvements. Systemic improvement is only possible by policy reforms and legislative improvements.
What may be the reasons that NRNs have not been able to invest in Nepal as much as they could or wanted to?
Investments are mainly for two reasons. One, profit/dividends. Two, capital growth. For a business to get one or both you look for a growing economy. So, Nepal needs a targeted growth policy for 10/20 years. I said this last year, I say this now. Nepal can grow double digit for decades. Once you have this environment, not only NRN but everybody will jump here.
NRNs must have seen several best practices being implemented in different countries. Has the NRNA ever tried to suggest to the policy-makers or the government to implement such practices in Nepal as well? What are the new initiatives that you took as NRNA ICC President?
Most things I do are just simply steps towards improvement. I see my job as a stepping stone towards improvements. It’s a process rather than one off.
If I can improve a little bit forward in a sustainable manner then I would have done the job. You never finish anything here as expectations are huge from all sides. But the resources are limited. However, I gave priority to make this organisaiton more systemic and sounding like an institution, setting up policies and procedures and putting together structures and frames so that it withstands headwinds. In this process, infrastructure is very important so that we can better serve our community. This is still an unfinished job though there has been some progress.
One of my major jobs is to reach out to Nepali communities globally to listen to their advices, issues. Another important thing which is ongoing is policy advocacy. Another priority area is welfare of migrant workers (contributors of 30% GDP). This is a monumental task but I am very familiar with the issues and driven to do something for them. I have set up a fund for them but I want to improve it into a sizable fund.
I think we are in a trust-building phase within our own community and with outside agencies such as GoN. I think we have to work hard and work a lot in order to get there. So its about trust, trust and trust. I would say test us rather than trust us.
How do you view the business and investment environment in Nepal at present?
I have said enough here and there
You have also announced an Rs 1 billion welfare fund. How will this fund work? What areas will it give priority to and where?
We have engaged a set of consultants to identify index of both areas - health and education. This will help us take up projects. We will extend our assistance to the most-needy and make as much impactable and sustainable and life changing.
We are driven to improve the system in these two areas. I hope this Fund will grow over the period and use global philanthropic standards for its governance and management and delivery.
What is the latest progress at Sheraton Kathmandu Hotel? When will it come into operation?
It’s a very long term investment - an investment in brick and mortar. It will outlast my life. I am not here for quick returns. We believe a quality facility will attract quality tourists, business groups and to some degree will create induced demand of quality visitors.
There are a number of five-star hotels coming into operation within two to three years in Kathmandu including yours. It is said that looking at the tourist arrival and also the number of high end tourists visiting Nepal, it is not possible to get the returns from such investments even in many years. What is your calculation?
I see one positive thing though although it is my observation only. Since our signing of a 25-year management agreement with Starwood for Sheraton brand, there has been a huge number of international brands entering the Nepal market and lots of investment going into hotel industry. This is a good sign yet a competition for quality. This is very good for communities, government and Nepal as competition drives efficiency and quality product and services for the customers and users. This lifts industry standards and image of the country. This will generate skilled employment trained in global standards and eventually employable globally. As far as my calculation is concerned, I don’t see any profits flowing before 10 years. But I am happy to bring a quality product and brand to Nepal.