For the past almost 10 years, the NRN community scattered across the globe, has shown a great interest in helping their motherland by transferring whatever they can – their skills, knowledge, innovations and investments. As most NRNs have acquired a range of skills and knowledge, some at the cutting edge of their profession, through education, training and work experience, they most likely have the capability to make such transfers. Some of the NRNs have also become successful entrepreneurs and are now willing to invest in Nepal. Furthermore, many in Nepal believe that the NRNs may one day provide much needed innovative ideas, skills, knowledge and financial resources that could help develop the country.
To initiate such transfer of skills, knowledge and innovation (SKI) of NRNs the International Coordination Council (ICC) of the NRNA set up a taskforce in 2009. This taskforce conducted groundwork to establish the two flagship projects: the Open University Nepal (OUN) and the Nepal Science Foundation (NSF). Recognizing the importance of this issue, the NRNA-ICC recently formed a permanent SKI committee and developed its terms of reference to manage the transfer of SKI. Recently, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the Nepal Government and NRNA to create frameworks for the establishment of the OUN.
From the various reports and newspaper articles by NRNA, we deduce that their emphasis is mainly centered on the OUN and NSF as the vehicles for the SKI transfer. In the past, they had also identified the e-Library project as one of the means to transfer SKI but that appears to have been abandoned. While these initiatives in themselves undoubtedly are praiseworthy, it is still unclear how were they chosen, how can they become the most appropriate vehicles to transfer diverse fields of SKI from a globally scattered community of NRNs and how will these institutions implement the transfer. The answers to all of these will depend on how these institutions will evolve and operate; how and what courses will be taught at the OUN; and whether the NSF will be busy in organizing just another talkfest or will do some substantive work and deliver on its objectives. It may not be farfetched if someone claims that OUN and NSF will focus more on ‘knowledge’ transfer, a bit on skills transfer if some vocational courses were included in the curriculum of the OUN. Whether the transfer of innovation will be covered is not clear yet but as we will argue below the transfer of innovation is not likely to happen in any way in the next 10-20 years when Nepal has to make a leap.
It needs to be recognized here that knowledge transfer without innovation and/or skills transfer would have no real impact. The transfer of knowledge without innovation or skills transfer – has been the key characteristic of Nepalese education system so far. Without higher level skills graduates will be unable to start private enterprise to employ themselves and create employment for others or be employable by profit-seeking enterprises; they will always rely on the government to create jobs for them. Innovation comes with business investments and carries high risks. It is therefore more responsive to incentives, rewards and opportunities. Whether innovative NRNs will embrace the OUN and NSF flagship model, therefore, depends on whether these flagships also work on creating investment friendly environment in Nepal. They also need to offer unique opportunity of combining the new knowledge, skills and local resources available in Nepal. Despite good intensions, without proper facilities innovators/investors will go where the best opportunities for profits are.
There seems to be a lack of congruence in the meaning of SKI and what the mechanism of its transfer should be. For example, for many NRNs, knowledge and innovation have come through scientific disciplines and not from the other sectors/disciplines which significantly contribute to income, welfare and standard of living of the people. Due to such misconceptions and lack of understanding resulting from inadequate communications or miscommunications many NRNs with potential for transferring SKI are hesitant to take part in the dialogues and debates on SKI. Given that there is a need to better understand the concept of SKI and the appropriate mechanisms of its transfer, it appears that there is a considerable scope to refocus and adjust the scope of activities the NRNA SKI committee.
Before we start elaborating on the process or mechanism of SKI transfer, we need to understand clearly what the terms skills, knowledge and innovation mean. To make an effective transfer, we need to know exactly what we want (or propose) to transfer before we start transferring. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to (i) broadly describe the SKI concepts in simple terms (ii) explain what does SKI mean, which components of SKI can be transferred and outline its effective transfer mechanism with a road map. Once we are clear on what we want to transfer, how can we transfer it, where and to whom do we transfer it clearly, specific projects can be designed and implemented for effective transfers. An open and serious discussion on the proposals outlined in this paper may help achieve that.
2. What are Skills, Knowledge and Innovations?
“Skills” means ability to do something well arising from talent, practice, or formal or informal vocational training or experience. Skills enable a person to do a given task more efficiently relative to an unskilled person. Skills reduce wastage of time or material resources or both and thus lower the cost of producing goods and services. Other things remaining the same, better skills make a person more competitive, more productive, which in a fairer society results in higher incomes and a higher standard of living which, in turn, are measures of progress. Higher rewards to higher skills can come from the costs saved and therefore may not impose any burden to the rest of the society. Higher skills add values and create new wealth to share.
For a country to remain competitive and progressive higher skills should always be rewarded. A society that does not reward skills adequately will not provide necessary incentives to people to acquire additional skills. If skills stagnate, the country loses its competitive edge in the globalised market and economic growth stops and may even regress.
Any new understanding is considered as a ‘new invention’ – some patentable, some not. Accumulation of all these ‘inventions’ or ‘discoveries‘ made over time and across the world both in areas of natural sciences or social sciences or in any other field results in the stock of ‘knowledge’ available for all to use, albeit not always free of charge. “Knowledge”, therefore, is a familiarity, awareness or systematic understanding of something based on facts, information, or descriptions which is acquired generally through formal (academic) education or training and/or research. As scientists, in areas of agriculture, engineering, medicine, information technology and others, possess a great deal of knowledge on their specific field so do the intellectuals or personnel in the field of, for example sociology, business, education, religion or politics. Most stock of knowledge is stored in text books, whereas the incremental or the frontier knowledge lies with the researchers and in their recent publications. A distinction needs to be made between the stock of knowledge and the frontier knowledge by which the stock grows.
A country that has access to frontier knowledge can enjoy the early mover’s advantage in putting the skills of its workforce at the highest level. It, therefore, will always be able to gain additional competitive advantage in the global market place. Countries which cannot afford to maintain the frontier research capability may, nevertheless, try to benefit from their access to people working at the frontier research if an access to such research outcome can be managed through, for example, by technology transfer or by organizing and attending conferences, seminars and workshops on frontier research. This is perhaps what NRN diaspora want to do when they are aiming to transfer knowledge to Nepal. We, however, must be aware of the various barriers, such as IP rights, being put in place and the absorptive capacity of the country.
“Innovation” is the act of creating something original, new or novel such as applying a new idea or theory or device or product or patent resulting from a study or an experimentation. Innovation could apply to any field or anything. For example, a biological or physical scientist could propose a new hypothesis for testing or could develop new techniques, methods or tools for the first time while a successful innovative business person could propose new ideas for rapid spread and reaching to scale of his/her business ideas or products. In agriculture research and extension, innovative ideas could be ways of rapidly transferring new technologies to farmers at scale in both time and space. Further, an academician or an education specialist could introduce online or e-learning or distance education which could be something new, innovative delivery mechanism for schools and universities of Nepal. However, we need to be clear at this point that the proposed method should be using a new technique for the first time. If this new method of delivery has been in use elsewhere and is being introduced in Nepal, then, viewed in a global context, it is the skill of delivering online education that is being transferred to Nepal, NOT the innovation in the delivery of education.
The innovators are the ones who recognize that the new idea is useful to the society. They use new ideas either to create a new product or create more valuable products from the same inputs (or costs) or to reduce the cost of production of the existing products. They can gather relevant stakeholders, explain their vision and organize the necessary production and/or distribution process and support further research to reduce the costs to minimum (re-innovation). At the same time, they upgrade the skill level of their workforce. In short, the innovators are the ones who turn new ideas into cash (value). They provide the crucial link between the idea creators (inventors), market and the skilled workforce (skills). In summary, the value of knowledge lies in its fruitful application in solving human problems by ingenious means. While doing so it also alters the skill sets of the workforce that produces and distributes the goods and services. People will learn a new software, drive or operate a new machine and so on. The art and science of applying a new knowledge (or inventions) into practice is called innovation.
It follows from the meanings and examples of skills, knowledge and innovation given above, that these terms are not only “science based” but also encompass an array of non-scientific activities that have potential to bring dramatic positive changes in income, improve quality of human life and enhance wellbeing. In a nutshell, knowledge points to people engaged in basic research, skill refers to productive workforce from carpenter to a world class scientist – and innovation refers to the entrepreneurs, policy makers and other visionaries who make things happen.
3. Elements of a Transfer and its Mechanism
3.1. Elements of transfers
All transfers have the following three distinguishing elements.
- A transfer takes place between two parties: one that gives and the other that receives. In the proposed SKI transfers, the NRN community is the giver and the resident Nepali population is the receiver.
- The object being transferred changes ‘custodianship’ or creates new owners.
- Transfers are different from exchanges in the sense that transfers are mostly one way and are given free of charge while exchange is a two-way process – both parties give and receive objects of almost equal value. In transfers, the party who transfers does not expect anything in return as a compensation for the stuff transferred.
This distinction between transfer and exchanges is sometimes confounded by the presence of an unintended transfer in commercial exchanges. For example, if an overseas company with a superior technology enters a business deal with a Nepali partner and brings in, say, solar powered ovens to run a bakery. People are employed and trained by this company, which quickly becomes a success. Other people copy it. In a matter of years solar powered bakeries with different names are seen all over the country. Here the technology trickled down from a foreign company to bakeries owned by other Nepali businessmen. This effect was not a part of the business deal between the foreign company and its Nepali partner. This transfer of technology is propagated by the way of commercial competitiveness. This is not the sort of transfer NRNs are perhaps considering to make happen. Our understanding is that NRNs are interested in intentional transfers of their SKI to Nepal. Transfers that occur through commercial or business investments are governed by profits, excluding the externalities, and are the issues dealt by other teams.
3.2. The supply side: who are the givers of SKI?
NRNs with various skills, knowledge and innovative ability are spread across the globe. Obviously, Nepal Government, in principle, would rely on all NRNs for the supply of the necessary SKIs. As the transfer is meant to be free and for the benefits of resident Nepali individuals not all NRNs would be able to play the role of a giver. Many NRNs, who are at their prime working age, may not be able to spare more than a few days in a year for such volunteering works, they are time constrained, they may not have acquired enough skills at the cutting edge to be able to teach others what they know; or they may not have attained a comfortable position to share their innovative ideas if they are in the innovation space.
Planning, organizing and executing the real transfer of any component of SKI would involve time, money and other resources. NRNA or any other Nepalese professional organizations across the globe, therefore, should identify the NRN population that has something to transfer; that they are willing and interested to make the transfer voluntarily. This section of the NRN population then can be provided with a mechanism to make the transfer.
A number of NRNs are now entering into retiring age. Over time a constant flow of retiree population will be forthcoming. It is a well-known fact that altruism increases with age. Hence, this segment of the NRN population can be tapped and utilized to run the transfer program, including the transfer of their own skills, knowledge and innovative ideas. NRNA or other relevant professional organizations need to start liaising with this segment of the NRN population and identify the conditions under which some of them may be willing to work/participate for transfer of their skills, knowledge and innovative ideas. Retiree NRNs could be the genuine and reliable suppliers of SKI (brain gain) that can help change the country. In our view, retired NRNs constitute the core of the supply side of the transfer. Around this core, other prime age and second generation NRNs may add their value.
3.3. The demand side: who are the enthusiastic recipients of SKI in Nepal?
Skill is a relative concept. In a dynamic world, relative skill levels of a person/society keep changing and therefore need constant updating. A progressive society therefore sets up incentive structures for people to actively seek to update their skill levels all the time. In principle, there must be an infinite desire to learn and update all sorts of skills in Nepal. It should not come as a surprise that in advanced economies skills are valued highly. However, in a society, where rewards are reserved for attributes other than skills, such as caste, kinship and connections, people may lack necessary incentives/motivations/drive to acquire additional skills. In such societies, benefits of higher skills (or human capital) acquired by a person go to enrich someone else. Similar arguments hold for acquiring additional knowledge or innovative skills.
The question then arises is whether Nepal as a country provide adequate incentives/motivations to people to upgrade their skills and knowledge or not. A positive answer would indicate the existence of the demand for better skills in Nepal. A negative answer to this question may explain why the SKI level of an average Nepali has been so low by international comparison and that may call for additional steps to remove the factors causing the disincentives.
As all elements of SKI constitute what is known as the ‘human capital’ the key question can be stated in terms of the real ownership of the human capital in Nepal. It is a question of property rights and its enforcement. Whether the human capital embodied in a person’s SKI is owned by the person or not, whether the fruits of human capital belong to its owner or not and whether this property right has been unambiguously enforced in Nepal or not? Unless people are fully assured that they can reap a fair share of the benefits of their own SKI, we safely assert that, there would not be any party in Nepal who would be enthusiastically looking forward to receiving any transfer of SKI from the NRNs. We further claim that current governance framework fails to deliver this guarantee which has been the real, fundamental reason of Nepal’s backwardness.
Without any complementary program to establish rule of law in Nepal, where the law would guarantee a fair share of the benefits of SKI to its owner, it is highly likely that the whole exercise of SKI transfer would just be a series of expensive talkfest and dramas. Irrespective of how serious and dedicated NRNs are to transfer their SKI to resident Nepalese, there will not be any serious motivation to receive it and therefore there will not be any meaningful transfer of it.
3.4. Matching demand with supply of SKI
A proper matching of demand for SKI with its supply would be a critical element in a successful transfer of SKI from NRNs to Nepal. As mentioned earlier, the supply of SKI is scattered across the globe while demand is also spread out across Nepal. It is quite possible that many NRNs would like to transfer their SKI, which may manifest in many different forms, to their own place of birth or places they lived or worked for a long time before they moved overseas while many others would like to transfer anywhere in the country as long as there is demand for their type of SKI. Similarly, there may be shortage of a particular type of SKI in a particular location, and hence they may not be interested in other types of SKI. For example, apple farmers in Jumla may be looking for expert help in production, processing and marketing of apples; they may not benefit and not interested in the transfer of the service of a world class mining engineer.
4. SKI Transfer: What Should be the Focus?
Can we transfer skills? Yes. Can we transfer Knowledge? Yes. Can we transfer Innovation? Conditionally yes, but it depends on the situation. Innovators need to have access to the new ideas. For example, buying of a pizza franchise and helping to set up pizza business in Nepal is not necessarily an innovation. It could surely be a new business but is not an innovative business. If new business were developed around the patents (or novelty of equivalent status in other fields), possibly held by NRNs, then that may constitute an innovation. If that business were developed by resident Nepali, then that would be considered as a transfer of innovation.
Quite a number of NRNs are highly skilled people. Their skills, whether simple or complex, are transferrable under appropriate conditions. These skills embody a lot of knowledge and therefore transfer of these skills would also entail a concurrent transfer of ‘old’ and ‘new’ knowledge and in some cases, it may involve a bit of re-innovation (subsequent cost reducing activity of an innovative business).
Knowledge is transferred through three different ways: by involving in the cutting-edge research (transfer of frontier knowledge), by teaching or lecturing (transfer of pure knowledge for its own sake such as religious sermons) and through skill transfers (teaching with real world and useful application). Transfer of frontier knowledge may occur if collaborative research at the cutting edge – for new inventions – can be organised between Nepal and some leading foreign institution. Given the current state of Nepali institutions, an effective transfer of frontier knowledge can be put on the back burner for the next 10-20 years. This is our reality.
Transfer of knowledge for its own sake can be done, but that may not be new knowledge. This is what Nepali educational institutions have been doing so far. It may or may not bring change in the skill levels of the Nepali population. Any knowledge that neither impacts on the productive skills of people nor contributes to addressing the problem facing the country is worthless. On the other hand, transfer of knowledge that is done through enhancement of productive skills of the people has the potential to bring the change. It is better done by directly transferring the higher skills NRNs may have to people living in Nepal. Naturally this process will require some knowledge transfer. In this case the knowledge would be custom designed and so packaged to fit the need of the skills that are being transferred.
A successful Innovation links frontier Knowledge with Skills and ultimately, up-skills people involved in the process. It may also bring in new resources. In a globalised economy, which is very competitive, the innovation that matters is the one that applies the frontier knowledge, not the application of old or traditional knowledge. The innovators who apply frontier knowledge, regardless of where they are located, will drive away their competitors across the world. It is just a matter of time. There is, however, some scope to make money by applying old knowledge (re-innovation) in Nepal, but it will not be sustained in the longer run. Innovators may use old knowledge for some time as a stepping stone to move up to the frontier knowledge but would not survive if they remained tied up with the old one for too long. We need to be acutely aware of this fact and note that the flow of the frontier knowledge is severely restricted.
At this point, we assert that, at least currently and in the near future, the NRNA or other professional organizations will not be able to transfer the new and frontier knowledge or innovation to Nepal even if some NRNs are working at the cutting edge. The only condition under which such a transfer may happen is that if the innovation requires the employment of the resource available only (or mainly) in Nepal (such as Yarsagumba or Ophiocordyceps sinensis). This possibility should be taken as an exception rather than a rule. So, the possibility of innovation transfer at the moment is limited to re-innovation (further reduction of costs), provided Nepali labour force and other resources become internationally cost-competitive. Nevertheless, the long-term vision and goals of NRNA or other professional organizations should be to transfer innovations too.
In a nutshell, the only meaningful and effective transfer NRNs can do immediately is their skills and updated knowledge. If skilled and knowledgeable NRNs, whether working as a professor or a scientist or a plumber, are determined, they can transfer their skills and knowledge to Nepal provided it is wanted in the country. As there may be a big gap between the skill levels of the NRNs and that of a Nepali counterpart, a successful transfer resulting in its application will be a significant leapfrogging.
To make sure that skills of NRNs are wanted in Nepal, we need to make sure that the rules are fair and provide adequate incentives to up-skilling and that they are enforced. To do so NRNA or other professional organizations may need to play the role of a strong civil society as well. We, therefore, propose for mapping out the SKI suppliers (globally) and receivers (in Nepal) and matching the supplies of various skills to their demand in Nepal. By contributing in the up-skilling of the Nepali population NRNs can make a significant contribution in the development of the nation. We have now started identifying the SKI suppliers from Australia in the fields of agriculture, forestry, environment and natural resources management through the newly registered “Nepalese Association of Agriculture, Forestry and Environment in Australia Incorporated”.
5. Road Map for an Effective Skills and Knowledge Transfer
A study needs to be urgently conducted to identify potential users or demanders of SKI in Nepal. For example, is SKI needed in scientific research sector (for example, innovative and cutting-edge research in agriculture, forestry, engineering, medicine, information and communication technologies-ICTs, etc.) or is it required in extension and development sector (for example, extension and dissemination of research outputs in various sectors by using spatial and quantitative techniques such as decision support systems and tools)? Is there a demand of skilled construction workers (for example, in roads, transports, electricity, etc.) or of skilled hospitality trainers or graduates in big hotels and restaurants? Is there a demand of cutting-edge ICTs, such as cloud computing, on-line or electronic delivery of education, and spatial and quantitative techniques such as remote sensing and computer modelling? Are skills and innovations required for introduction of new tools and technologies for modernization of the airports, roads and trains services? Are knowledge and innovations required in reduction or elimination of bureaucracy and corruption and for modernization of public sector organizations and institutions? Do we NRNs need to provide special trainings to government officials to modernize the public sector organizations? What sorts of innovations would be required in the education sector? Obviously, on-line or e-learning and distance education are powerful methods of delivery and transfer of SKI by NRNs are certainly needed in the schools, vocational education and training (VET) centres and in colleges and universities. However, a systematic database would be required identifying provinces and districts where there is a greater demand of NRNs as teachers to close the education and learning gap in the educational institutions. Likewise, SKI transfers by NRNs would be needed in health sector such as in hospitals and medical colleges, and database needs to be urgently prepared to identify the demands of NRN health professionals (doctors, nurses, aged-care and child care workers, etc.).
Another aspect of demand side of SKI transfer is the need to educate people to feel the need of SKI transfer by NRNs. Many people in Nepal may not know that there is tremendous SKI with NRNs across the globe and hence they need to be educated. On the other hand, what are the terms and conditions under which NRN-generated SKI would be sought? What are the motivations for NRNs to transfer their SKI? For example, some NRNs, especially semi-retirees or retirees, may just need travel expenses from Nepal government to travel to Nepal to transfer their SKIs voluntarily and for their recognition and honor while the NRNs of early- or mid-career may also expect some remunerations to dedicate themselves in transfer of their SKI. Will the Nepal government be ready to recognize or honor the senior and retired NRNs who want voluntarily be involved in transfer process, or the government be ready to provide the energetic, innovative and dedicated NRNs the minimal expenses required to travel to Nepal and be involved in transfer process? In addition, some NRNs may generate funds themselves through fund-raising activities or approach donors to support their SKI transfer activities while some may require funds from the Nepal government to implement their activities. This all needs to be worked out in details while preparing the mechanisms and roadmap for transfer of SKI.
The following steps may provide a road map to the transfer of skills and knowledge at the conceptual level:
- Develop a current NRN skills and knowledge database by NRNA or other relevant professional organizations with a forward-looking time profile of availability. The database would include the skills profile and the timing and conditions under which it can be available for the transfer. Such a database should include various types of skills suppliers currently available or to be available in near or distant future and conditions under which the effective skills suppliers maybe available or forthcoming.
- Establish a Skills and Knowledge Transfer Team in Nepal by the government body that
- Liaise with the government departments, NGOs, rural communities.)ng less imputs and time. and producers/employers and identifies their specific skills and knowledge needs
- Conduct a ‘systematic’ study to identify demand of SK (I) in different sectors/provinces
- Match the needs with the NRNs Skills and Knowledge database
- Negotiate the terms of engagements
- Evaluate whether Nepali legal/constitutional framework provides adequate incentives to people to up-skill themselves. To make sure that this happens NRNA and other organizations should also play the role of a strong civil society.
- Make sure that NRNs work together with local counterparts and stakeholders and ultimately handover their SKI activities to the locals (the transfer happens).
- Monitor the effectiveness of the transfer and review the program every year.
Skills, knowledge and innovation do not just relate to science and academic areas but also include all aspects of non-scientific and non-academic activities. As for innovation, its transfer from NRNs currently and in near future is outside their capacity though NRNA and other relevant organizations should have a long-term vision and goal of its transfer too. Therefore, we recommend that the NRNA and other organizations now focus on ‘Skills’ and ‘Knowledge’ transfer. We provide a roadmap to follow.
+Dr. Pant is retired economist and an Honorary Member of NEPAFE.
++Dr. Timsina is Senior Fellow, Global Ever Greening Alliance and current President of NEPAFE.