In the mountains and on the moon

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In the mountains and on the moon

KATHMANDU, Nepal - As China joins the United States and the former Soviet Union as the third nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon, the contrasts could not be more stark between China’s progress and that of Afghanistan, a country still mired in poverty and the past, as a new space race unfolds.

A few weeks back, Korea’s space agency released images of a planned Korea lunar module to be launched in 2020.

Yet, even as Korea and the rest of Asia look skyward, with perhaps a complicated mix of pride, fear and trepidation, to the tremendous success to date of China’s 20-year-old, multibillion-dollar space program, much more needs to be done here on earth to bring business growth to some of the highest parts of Asia and the Pacific region, which is still home to the vast majority of the world’s poor.

That was a clear message in Nepal at a conference on poverty reduction, which helped mark the 30th anniversary of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development. Headquartered in Kathmandu, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod) is an intergovernmental knowledge and learning center founded on Dec. 5, 1983, to serve its eight member nations - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

Poverty remains a persistent challenge among the people who continue to live their lives in some of the world’s most remote mountain regions in Asia, including Afghanistan and China. Limited economic opportunities still characterize sparsely populated communities on the Tibetan plateau as well as the Himalayan villages that Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, once passed through 60 years ago this year en route to the first successful ascent of Mount Everest.

Here and elsewhere in Asia, however, the reality is that while the government has been the key driver in putting a man on the moon, it is the private sector that is the key to sustainable economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction. That is as true in the plains and lowlands of Asia, as it will be in its most remote mountain regions, characterized by inaccessibility and fragile agricultural ecosystems.

To address this, business, government and civil society must come together and move beyond the politics, stereotypes and animosity that have long divided the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region - home by some estimates to more than 180 million people, as well as vast water, forest and other natural resources at the risk of unsustainable exploitation - and focus instead on partnering for sustainable economic growth. This would also further open the door for responsible Korean investment.

At the recent Icimod conference, I joined with several business and Chamber of Commerce counterparts on a panel moderated by Corporate Social Responsibility in Asia (CSR Asia). Together, we outlined three crucial areas that must be addressed to spur private sector engagement in Asia’s remote mountain regions.

The first is innovation. The private sector is often ready to explore partnerships, but joint activities and plans for engagement must be innovative, with a business model that is not purely philanthropic, but structured to ensure both end beneficiaries in the community and the private sector can benefit.

This will include an assessment of risk and return, something that the private sector is long accustomed to, and which government and civil society should also integrate into their own efforts in increasing accountability for time and money spent.

The second is involvement. The business community is too often invited to “participate” in a project or asked to fund a piece of research that already has been outlined and decided. The message is, in essence, “we want your money,” but any other involvement is not welcome lest it “taint” the effort.

Instead, the private sector must be engaged early on. An innovative partnership would go beyond business as usual and involve the private sector in fashioning programs that also leverage a commercial partner’s market experience and knowledge. Such innovative, involved and engaged partnerships can benefit of both mountain communities and the bottom line in the long run. This is critical to success and sustainability of any private sector involvement.

One spotlighted example of private sector intervention discussed in Kathmandu was a pilot effort to work with marginalized farmers in South Asia, helping catalyze linkages - just as other programs have facilitated cooperatives - to share information, improve agricultural products and yields, and ultimately build better supply chains and profits.

The third is impact. For the business community, impact assessment is critical. Unlike the government, business depends on past success to fund future success. Results must be measured to ensure there is rationale for sustained or expanded business involvement.

The remoteness of mountain communities cannot be an excuse for the lack of financial returns on a business investment. When a pilot program is brought to the business community for assessment and possible expansion, its impact and scalability must be clear and transparent.

Pilot projects help demonstrate that something is possible, but impact assessment is necessary for the business community to decide on scaling up an engagement. Don’t throw good money after bad, as it were.

While governments typically drive basic infrastructure investments such as rural electrification and farm-to-market roads, the private sector is well positioned to help mountain communities by providing financing, market linkages, knowledge and other services.

The innovation, involvement and impact of government in a nation’s initial journeys into space are clear and unquestionable in the United States, in Europe and now in Asia. As China sends forth a rover onto the lunar surface, an Indian spacecraft is en route to Mars, and Japan has long launched satellites from a space center in Kagoshima.

But here on earth, and even in space where the private sector has become increasingly involved in commercial satellite launches, it is clear that business can be a powerful partner in any endeavor. This must include the fight against poverty in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region.

Even as Asia reaches for the stars, let’s not forget the poorest of the poor still at home, in the shadows of Asia’s tallest mountains.

*The author, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, is managing director of the advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.

By Curtis S. Chin
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