Lofty mountains have made the Hindu Kush Himalayan region a centre of attraction for the rest of the world. But while culturally and naturally rich, it is a region with high economic disparity within and between countries. It is one of the most populated areas in the earth and also a place where millions of poor reside. Regarding poverty, there are marked differences in mountain verses non-mountain areas of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

And across countries, the differences are particularly sharp between Afghanistan, a nation still struggling to break free from a turbulent modern history that seems at times to keep the country mired in poverty and the past, and China, which has recently joined the United States and the former Soviet Union as only the third nation to soft land a spacecraft on the moon.  Poverty remains a persistent challenge among the people who continue to make their lives in some of the world’s most remote mountain in the region.

Limited economic opportunities still characterise sparsely populated communities on the Tibetan plateau as well as Himalayan villages that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa once passed through 60 years ago this year en route to the first successful ascent of Mount Everest.

Yet, much more needs to be done to bring business growth to some of the highest parts of Asia, a region which is still home to the vast majority of the world’s poor.

While government has been the key driver in putting a lunar lander, or man, on the moon, it is the private sector that is key to sustainable economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction.  That is as true in the plains and lowlands of Asia, as in its remotest mountain regions, home to many indigenous peoples and characterised 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 for too 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 resources at risk of unsustainable exploitation – and focus instead on partnering for sustainable economic growth.

At a recent conference on vulnerability and poverty organised by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) — a regional knowledge hub based in Kathmandu – I joined several business and chamber of commerce counterparts on a panel. Together, we outlined three important 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 members of 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 to increase accountability for time and money spent.

The second is involvement. Too often, the business community is 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 programmes that also leverage a commercial partner’s market experience and knowledge. Such innovative, involved and engaged partnerships can be to the long-term benefit of both mountain communities and the bottom line. This is critical to success and sustainability of any private sector involvement.

One spotlighted example of private sector intervention discussed at the conference was a pilot effort to work with marginalised farmers in South Asia, helping catalyse linkages – just as other programmes 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 government, business depends on past success to fund future successes. 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 programme 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.  It is clear that business can be a powerful partner in any endeavour. This must include the fight against poverty in the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

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


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