Paradoxes of the NRNA Movement in Australia and Beyond

Dr Krishna K. Shrestha Associate Professor of Global Development University of New South Wales, Sydney

The Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) movement in Australia and globally is growing with the unprecedented rate of Nepali people moving overseas. An interesting narrative has emerged and sustained about the nature and significance of the movement as a whole.  Many NRNA advocates argue that this is an essential platform for the Nepali diaspora to connect with Nepal while promoting Nepali culture and interests overseas.

Conversely, critics argue that the movement is indeed important, but the practice of NRNA has been co-opted by business interests, and more recently, influenced by the political polarisation mirroring the negative Nepali politics and some elements of the semi-feudal culture moving with the Nepali diaspora worldwide.I have been watching the NRNA movement unfolding in Australia from a distance for some time.  Recently, I had an opportunity to be part of the Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NRNA)Australia Elections as a member of the Elections Commission.  My experience is revealing to say the very least.

My interest to becoming the commission member was a response to recurrent calls by many friends, who repeatedly asked me –“why don’t you get in and try to help out the NRNA movement”, “why do you just become a critic from the sideline”, and so on.  It’s not that I have been completely out and about.  After all, I’ve been a critical observer and a life member of NRNA Australia, and also on several occasions, ‘selected to be a policy advisor, albeit almost no opportunity or space to do any meaningful work. Well, now that I have had the opportunity to see what’s NRNA leadership practice like, who are the main players, and how people work, etc, and once again responding to many calls, I’m sharing some critical reflections below.

My purpose is entirely constructive, that is to help us all to think the NRNA movement a little differently.  And I can tell you in a nutshell first: the NRNA Australia has massive opportunities, but it’s leadership competence, culture, practice and the politics of diaspora is full of paradoxes, largely failing to harness the existing and emerging opportunities.

Technocratic illusions in NRNA

I felt that NRNA Australia (and perhaps NRNA globally) is suffering from technocratic illusions. NRNA Australia, like many organisations of a similar nature, is facing so many critical problems such as flaws in constitution and by-laws, independence of election commission, extreme polarisation and groupism, confusing role of the board of directors, exclusionary criteria for candidacy, issues of competency and professionalism in leadership, misalignment between ASIC requirements and voluntary nature of NRNA, rise of fake news, business co-option, mirroring of the Nepali politics in Australia, failure to engage meaningfully with the multicultural Australia and so on.

The NRNA issues and problems are not technical problems, these are social, cultural and political problems. Solving these problems require governance expertise which NRNA Australia currently lacks.

Having these problems are in fact a sign of a vibrant and evolving institution. However, the issue is something deep-seated; the NRNA issues and opportunities are largely seen as technical matters. And the solutions implemented include various technical means, such as rewriting the constitution, making different committees, investing money to increase membership etc. Basically, there is no change in the mindset of unpacking the root causes of the problems so that the problems are well understood before solutions are proposed.

As William Easterly argued, many people and organisations suffer from so-called technocratic illusions where problems are wrongly identified, and then solutions implemented are obviously wrong and misplaced. The NRNA issues and problems are not technical problems, these are social, cultural and political problems. Solving these problems require governance expertise which NRNA Australia currently lacks.

The surplus-shortage paradox of NRNA

Linking with the above, the NRNA leadership (both past and present) has too many people with good University degrees, strong interest and extensive experience in business, politics, finance, science, engineering, health sciences, IT and so on, but it seems apparent that there is extremely little number of people in the NRNA leadership having the required skills, competency and conviction to organise ‘governance work’ with quality that is required in the highly political, westernised, multicultural Australia and the highly vibrant Nepali diaspora globally.

I am often baffled by the notion, often popularised by the very people who are vital in the politicisation of the NRNA movement,  that the NRNA is and should be a non-political movement. In this day and age, there is no such thing as keeping out of politics, as all issues are political issues. It is about time that we must recognise NRNA as a deeply political movement.  While the NRNA movement is facing the crisis of legitimacy for some time now due mainly to the low intake of membership, for example below 10% of the eligible members in Australia, and those who want to see a strong and bright future of NRNA, cannot drum up the non-politicisation of the NRNA movement. No one, as it seems, can really maintain their neutrality in times of crisis.

If we want to see the NRNA Australia to flourish and become exemplary globally, future leaders with the essential political and governance competence must come forward, challenge the status quo, and transform the NRNA movement going forward. 

Power vs marginality

 There has been a huge drive, for better or worse, to secure positions and power within NRNA Australia and globally. Perhaps it’s only natural that people are wanting power and prestige, especially after meeting some basic needs. However, a vast majority of membership is not engaged with the membership and the politics of NRNA, mainly because there is an underlying discourse that top NRNA leadership hierarchies don’t listen (or unwilling to listen) to the wider public.

I’m very passionate about political issues, but I also think that listening to people who disagree is extremely important. For the members, one of the penalties for refusing to participate in the NRNA politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. Above all, regardless of how powerful the leaders of NRNA Australia are and will be, living in Australia means that we remain to be one of the most marginal groups in the Australian society and polity.

Our power and prestige will not make much sense if we do not have a more united voice championed by competent NRNA leaders who can ‘create the space’ for recognition and action by the Australian society and politics on our legitimate needs. Or else, we will remain not fully and fairly recognised. At best we will only be using the ‘invited space’ and a lip-service granted by the authority and politics at their mercy. We will miss out on what we actually deserve.  

Thinking ahead, moving forward

In order to start thinking about and addressing some of these challenges of NRNA Australia, we must first unpack and understand the problems and their root causes. The 3-Cs: Context, Culture and Conviction, are vital to understand the NRNA problems. The context is about the use of evidence rather than gossip and opinions to shape our understanding on what’s going on within the changing political economic and social processes within Australia and globally.

Our culture has so many good things, but it is not perfect. Culture is about acquired human behaviour that is changing and adaptive. NRNA as a movement must move above and beyond the egoist, feudal, suppressive and wealth maximising culture, to the culture of deliberation, inclusion, respect, professionalism and unity.  All possibilities and problems only start to make a genuine sense when our values and beliefs are beginning to hit our heart and mind; that is what convictions would entail.

Individuals and organisations within NRNA must start thinking about NRNA as a collective movement and thinking about our responsibility to the movement, rather than obtaining benefits from it.

Any good initiative requires a competent and strategic leadership – the leadership that can navigate through the waves of problems and find opportunities in every step of the way. Perhaps this is the very point that is not lending well to the NRNA movement so far.  A starting point could then be that we choose or nurture a group of competent NRNA leaders who are responsive and responsible to the existing and emerging challenges and opportunities within and beyond NRNA Australia.

Our leaders must enable us to navigate through the chronic cultural and political problems that divided us in Nepal and are still dividing us here in Australia. Our leaders must be a “globally-minded localist” so that local problems are identified and opportunities harnessed in a way that have not been possible in the past. These leaders must also be a set of high-integrity politicians; the leaders who can understand and act upon not just what’s said to them, but what’s actually not said to them, reading between and beyond the lines of politics and politics in Australia and beyond, and taking the Nepali diaspora to the next, brighter level.

In a nutshell, a new breed of NRNA leadership is needed in Australia and globally to transform the NRNA movement for Nepal and Nepali people and the Nepali diaspora everywhere. These leaders must discuss the pressing issues facing NRNA in multicultural Australia, catalysing massive local enthusiasm and energy. There is an acute need to active facilitation of dialogue between increasingly polarised worldviews in the NRNA membership. We must start bridging divides urgently, discussing the difficulties of creating genuine connections and including a multiplicity of voices and perspectives.

The same cultural and political issues that divided us in Nepal are still dividing us here – very sad but true. The NRNA leadership must address this as a matter of urgency. A divided Nepalese voice in the Australian society and polity makes us collectively poor; leading us all to lose as a whole. A united Nepali diaspora is our best interest. Best wishes to us all!

Dr Krishna K. Shrestha –Associate Professor of Global Development, University of New South Wales, Sydney [email protected]