Brain drain into brain gain

The skills, exposure and savings of the Nepali diaspora can be harnessed to uplift Nepal


In 2023, Nepalis made up the third fastest-growing student population in Canada. There were 20,465 Nepali study permit holders, up from 7,680 the year before, an increase of 166% in just one year.

Of Australia’s 26 million population, Nepalis account for over 300,000. Another 51,000 are in Portugal, making Nepalis among the biggest immigrant groups in the south Europe nation.

Every day, 3,000 Nepalis leave the country, and nearly 1 million left last year. Migrant workers in the Gulf, Malaysia and India mostly return. But a majority of Nepali youth leaving for the United States, Europe, Canada or Australia are emigrants. 

Successive governments in Nepal have failed to stop this brain (and brawn) drain, treating migration as a convenient social safety valve and relying on remittances as a critical source of support for the economy.   

Nearly a quarter of Nepal’s GDP equivalent comes from overseas remittances, higher than most labour-exporting countries. This is an indicator of a stagnant economy.  Most of the money goes into paying for basic needs, and property investment.   

At the 11th Nepal Literature Festival last week (pictured) economist Swarnim Wagle and urban planner Shrinkhala Khatiwada, both Havard-educated returnees, tried to answer the difficult question of how the diaspora can contribute to Nepal.

Nepalis have always migrated. A life of sub-subsistence farming in the mountains was hard, there was exclusion and inequity, and many fled loan sharks. Often, the only alternative was to fight and die in other people’s wars. 

The Nepali word ‘lahure’ comes from the British cantonments in Lahore, where Nepali fighting men went after being recruited ever since the 1814-16 war. Nepalis have fought in most major wars, and hundreds are currently in the Russian Army. Some are also in the Ukrainian military.

Today, Nepal exports more workers than warriors. The number of migrants is increasing because the economy just cannot produce enough jobs for the 500,000 young men and women joining the workforce every year.  

“For most aspirational middle-class Nepalis, migration is the only outlet,”acknowledged Wagle. “Frustration adds to this, there are long queues to pay taxes, get a driver’s license…and then there is the huge wage disparity between Nepal and elsewhere.”

Young Nepalis still in high school already think the country’s situation is hopeless and there is peer pressure to leave the first chance they get. Parents themselves want their children to settle abroad, and sell what little property they have or take high-interest loans to pay recruiters to send them off. The push-factors are not just economic. 

In reality Nepal has made some dramatic progress in health, education, poverty and development, although improvements are not evenly spread around the country. Young Nepalis are leaving without ever having truly lived and worked here. 

In rural Nepal, families are paying up to Rs7 million to human traffickers to take their children to America through the backdoor.  

The biggest frustration is the lack of well-paying meaningful jobs, and this is where the private sector could help. 

Noted Khatiwada: “It is not the government’s job to create jobs but strengthen the private sector to do so. The private sector is responsible for 80% of jobs in the country and that is still not enough.”

She added that the private sector does not necessarily mean big companies, and they need help to grow and create jobs. She added, “Only when people have economic stability and security will they come back home.”

On return, Wagle joined politics, first the NC then the RSP “to deliver results and make the government accountable”. 

The Tanahu MP breaks down the Nepali diaspora into three groups. First, Nepalis now permanent citizens of other countries who need to be engaged culturally to keep their links to Nepal. 

Next are global Nepalis, who are abroad but still want to do things in Nepal. They can contribute through digitisation and IT, clean energy, high-value agriculture and tourism.

Third, are migrant returnees who come back with limited savings and skills, and who need help so their entrepreneurial dreams can take root and prosper so they do not have to leave again. 

To this we can add that Nepal’s politicians must go another step and reform election laws so that Nepalis abroad also have voting rights. The established parties do not want to risk doing this, since they know the diaspora vote may unseat them. 

In this paper, we have frequently profiled role models who have returned to Nepal and done well including a Korea returnee who started a modern dairy farm in Gulmi. There are others like the aspiring bell pepper farmer in Dang who left a lucrative Wall Street job. A Kavre native who gave up his Canadian PR to run a resort in Pokhara. There are many like them.

And there are people like Swarnim Wagle and Shrinkhala Khatiwada who aspire to give back to Nepal what Nepal gave to them.  

Sonia Awale

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