It is the seventies. Tibetans are rooting at various refugee camps in South Asia. Signs point towards a drawn-out struggle as the Chinese government ruthlessly consolidates its illegal occupation of Tibet. Tibetan leadership finds itself in a difficult predicament of having to sustain a community in exile while also making maximum efforts to find a path home. Schools, clinics, monasteries, and other development projects are needed. Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) prepares brief project descriptions; often this is unnecessary as aid flows in generously from India and other concerned foreign governments.
Fast forward to 2012. Tibetans in exile haven’t yet found a path home. However, everything else has changed dramatically. A significant number of exile Tibetans have emigrated overseas and hence are less dependent on CTA; the great burst of bricks and sticks activities has subsided considerably and instead schools, monasteries and clinics are now wooing prospective students, novice monks and medical staff; rapid leap in technology has ushered in the Facebook and Twitter era; and the specter of donor fatigue looms as donors and foreign governments are feeling poorer with their economies in a period of anemic growth. Amidst these sea changes, CTA’s development playbook – its approach towards designing, funding and implementing development projects – has remained largely unchanged. Furthermore, many Tibetans continue to remain shackled to a recipient mindset even though five decades in exile have lifted many into middle and upper middle class socioeconomic status.
Campaigns leading up to the historic 2011 Kalon Tripa election were characterized by colorful slogans galore. The three that rose to power noun status and recited even by middle school students were ‘unity,’ ‘innovation,’ and ‘self-reliance’ – the campaign slogans of Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay. As the fourteenth Kashag completes six months in office, now seems like a good moment to indulge the wonk in us and share some personal thoughts. How do we construct a new development paradigm that’s innovative, high impact and eventually enables Tibetans to become more self-reliant?
The new development playbook needs to be entrepreneurial, with areas of intervention strategically chosen, characterized by long investment time horizon and requiring enhanced participation from Tibetans everywhere. Five possible areas could include: private sector development, strengthening the nonprofit and civil society sector, fostering public private partnerships, nurturing Tibetan philanthropy, and reforming the Green Book Program.
Private Sector Development: Private sector is widely accepted as an engine of growth and source of jobs and incomes. Private sector development is a colossal and complex undertaking and even real governments struggle to get it right. So, our Administration’s options may be limited. Three promising areas for exploration could include: helping establish and strengthen existing institutions representing Tibetan businesses; creating the right conditions for business, particularly small enterprises, to grow; and facilitating the creation of an informal capital market where entrepreneurs can access capital to start or expand their business, and community members can invest in promising enterprises.
Our administration could provide capacity building and institutional support to membership-based organizations. In terms of enabling enterprises to flourish, CTA could help foster entrepreneurship through raising awareness of entrepreneurship as a career option in schools and colleges, holding workshops, business competitions and acknowledging successful Tibetan entrepreneurs and encouraging them to be role models and mentors. One possible approach for mobilizing capital may be a crowdfunding model. Perhaps, the community could develop an online platform that is a hybrid of indigogo.com and kiva.com and link enterprises with those willing to donate or invest.
Strengthening the Nonprofit and Civil Society Sector: The nascent Tibetan nonprofit and civil society sector has a prevalence of organizations focused and excelling in political grassroots and advocacy work. This is not surprising given that restoring freedom in Tibet is the raison d’être of Tibetans. However, it is critical that there be an enabling environment which leads to the formation of organizations with expertise in a wide range of specific areas like agriculture, economic development, education, environment, health, policy research, etc. Expertise in research, project design, implementation, evaluation, policy recommendation, etc. Peter Drucker, the American management guru, wrote persuasively on the growing importance of the nonprofit or social sector and viewed organizations in this sector as increasingly taking care of the social and economic challenges of a modern society. As most of what Tibetans build in exile is with an eye to transplanting the experience and institutions in a free Tibet, the creation of a vibrant nonprofit and civil society sector could be one of the important legacies of the Tibetan exile experience. CTA’s role could be that of an incubator of a select number of nonprofits focused on specific issues. Scholarships could be offered to students to specialize in nonprofit management and studies, and the community could be further educated on the important role of this sector.
Public-Private Partnerships (PPP): CTA alone cannot meet the development needs of the Tibetan refugee and diaspora community. The development approach could be broadened to include Public-Private Partnerships. Other governments and multilateral organizations are increasingly using PPP towards more sustainable and resilient pathways to development. The new approach could include inviting private Tibetans and other entities to help build and operate school, hospitals, and create various public goods and services. Private parties could be incentivized by the prospect of a modest profit or be motivated by philanthropic reasons. Monastic institutions in particular could be an important participant in such collaborations. They can be encouraged to establish and operate secular schools, hospitals and provide other social services. The Catholic Church, especially the Jesuits, is a model as they operate some of the best schools and colleges in India. The viability of PPP initiatives will depend to a large extent on the vibrancy of the Tibetan private and nonprofit sectors. Therefore, efforts around strengthening the private and nonprofit sectors becomes all that much more important.
Nurturing Tibetan Philanthropy: We have a critical mass of relatively affluent Tibetans, and can now gradually begin the process of transitioning ourselves from a dependent to a more self-reliant and even a benefactor mindset. There has always been a rich tradition of giving within the Tibetan society, but the giving has been primarily to religious purposes. The January 2012 Kalachakra Teaching, where the event organizing committee raised almost $7 million, is a case in point. In order to nurture a robust Tibetan philanthropy and free up locked resources for development, a big challenge is secularizing Tibetan giving. How do we bring about a mind shift whereby starting an educational scholarship program or constructing a clinic is viewed as earning the same if not more karmic dividend as sponsoring a teaching or building a monastery? Those Tibetans with the capacity to give should be encouraged, solicited, their philanthropy acknowledged and held up as models to inspire others.
Green Book Reforms: A major cause of the American Revolution was the taxation without representation grievance felt by many of the British colonists who eventually declared their independence and formed the United States of America. The Tibetan situation is one of reverse where thanks to the democratic reforms we have representation, albeit still imperfect, but no taxation. Many exiled Tibetans don’t pay their annual green book dues, which for those living outside South Asia costs less than an evening of dinner and movie for two. The contribution makes up a significant portion of CTA’s annual revenue and enables our Administration to run various programs and services.
The Green Book could be likened to a sacred covenant between Tibetans and our representative entity in exile, namely CTA. By making the annual volunatary contribution, we are affirming recognition and support for our Administration. Yes, the application procedures and collection mechanism could be further optimized. Yes, we may not be fond of some of the policies. However, participation in the voluntary taxation program is a fundamental duty of all exiled and diaspora Tibetans. CTA could make it easier for Tibetans to contribute and those who have the capacity to give more ought to make a higher contribution.
NOTE--The writer works at Kashag Secretariat, Central Tibetan Administration.
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