A Nepali on a UN mission

Manoj Basnyat in his New York office with MP Man Bahadur Gurung (left) and Hum Gurung (right) in 2014.

To be posted in regions of political instability seems to have been the calling of Manoj Basnyat’s life. As a United Nations representative, he was sent to all the major hotspots: Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Ukraine.

After serving the UN in Nepal from 1994-99 he left just as the country itself was turning into a hotspot. Manoj travelled and lived as a citizen of the world, working for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for more than 27 years.

He died in New York on 12 January, his sudden demise leaving his friends, colleagues and relatives, in shock. Many will remember him for being a catalyst for conservation in Nepal, and for development and peace-building around the world. He changed many lives for the better, and inspired a new generation of those working to balance economic progress and ecological protection.  

As Assistant Resident Representative of UNDP in Kathmandu, Manoj’s focus was on governance, infrastructure and natural resources. He believed in the Japanese way of nemawashi 根回し, an informal process of convincing and gaining the support of communities for positive change. He used this approach for change, wherever he went.

As a conservationist trying to convince communities to take ownership and participate, Manoj's mentorship in Nepal was a lifelong gift for me. He was generous with sharing practical tips on communicating with politicians and bureaucrats, which is perhaps one of the most essential skills at senior management positions. For many like me he was a role model ‘adviser’, with the ability to influence decision-makers, thereby impacting policies at all levels. 

The relationship he maintained with senior politicians in Kathmandu ran a parallel at the grassroots. He maintained excellent relations with village leaders, locally elected representatives and listened to them intently during meetings, which made them seek his advice on major development activities.

My connection with Manoj Basnyat started in December 1996 when I joined UNDP in Kathmandu as Senior Policy Adviser. It was impossible to not be touched by Manoj Basnyat’s optimism and can-do attitude.

UNDP Resident Representative to Nepal Carroll Long on a field visit to Butwal in 1996 with Manoj Basnyat.

He took this positive, practical approach to ideas and their execution to the countries he was assigned to for UNDP. Between 2001-2005, Manoj was the Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in the Ukraine and assisted in the delivery of development assistance as its Country Programme Director. His fluency in Russian helped him in his Eastern Europe postings.

Prior to that, he served as the Policy Specialist and Deputy Regional Manager for the Sub-regional Resource Facility in UNDP’s Regional Center in Bratislava (1999 – 2001). This was a crucial time to be in Slovakia, as the country was having presidential elections  for the first time following a constitutional amendment in 1998.

He also served with UNDP’s Regional Centre in Colombo from 2005– 2006 at a time of the fiercest fighting between the Sri Lankan military and Tamil separatists. He went on to Dhaka to serve as UNDP Resident Coordinator from 2006 to 2008, planning and delivering strategies built around successful partnerships.

Then, it was to another hotspot: Afghanistan, where he served as UNDP’s Country Director (2008-2012), working to help the country recover from decades of war. Attacks were frequent, and Manoj had to often duck into bunker safe rooms in between meetings about development projects.

Former President of Afghanistan Professor Rabbani and Minister Masoom Stanikzai with Manoj Basnyat in Kabul.

From his childhood at St Xavier's School in Kathmandu to college at the Kuban State Technological University in Russia where he did his science Masters, Manoj lived like an explorer—of life and places.

He went on to attend Universität Dortmund in Germany to do a post-graduate in Regional Development Planning and Management. He also spent time at the Asian Institute of Technology in  Thailand and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where he did a degree in leadership.

My last meeting with Manoj was in September 2014 at his office in New York in the company of our acquaintance Man Bahadur Gurung, the erstwhile Chair of the Conservation Area Management Committee of Parche in Kaski. The Gurung community from Sikles had just won the internationally renowned UNDP Equator Prize for nature conservation and sustainable local development. 

We presented Manoj with the coffee table book, Our Village, Our Life: Sikles in Focus, by  Sara Parker. As he flipped through the pages of the book, he said: “I really miss our mountains and plains, our new forests, and the hopes and potentials of rural Nepal.” 

Hum Gurung, PhD, is Regional Project Manager for BirdLife International-led Forest Governance in Southeast Asia and Pacific.