Last week, more than a hundred think tanks came together in Bangkok to discuss how they can help manage the transition amidst trade wars and the shrinking of space for open dialogues and discourses. The Asia Pacific Think Tank Summit was organised by the United Nations ESCAP and the University of Pennsylvania. While the world has progressed and is discussing pertinent issues, back home in Nepal, we continue to be preoccupied with mundane issues like the health of the prime minister, parties and lawyers busy protecting criminals and, of course, politicians making sure they do not lose control of universities. No one, whether in government or heading institutions, has a vision as to how the country or their respective organisation will look like in 2030. It seems that the only way of thinking prevalent at the individual level is the drive for personal gain—more wealth, more parcels of land, and probably more gold. Given that, it is always enlightening to hear discourses on the future.
Managing a China-led future
For a world accustomed to the West’s domination of thought, innovation and economic matters, one of the most uncomfortable issues is the emergence of China. A study carried out by the McKinsey Institute points out how, over the decade from 2007 to 2017, China almost tripled its production of labour-intensive goods from $3.1 trillion to $8.8 trillion. At the same time, its share of exports has dramatically decreased, from 15.5 percent to 8.3 percent, which means that the country is consuming more. It is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that there are two different yet important economic systems in the world now. The people who envisioned the Washington Consensus never imagined China’s rise. We need to engage with China—a country that is making its own rules—in the way it operates rather than wishing or pushing it to change. China’s size and scale need to be recognised. Think tanks need to learn from both these systems, rather than judge and take sides.
The assumption that there is a line dividing government and business is not valid anymore. The way China is moving ahead has changed the way other countries think. Vietnam, for instance, is more than happy to ape China over the West. By 2040, Asia will claim a 50 percent share of the global GDP and a 40 percent share of consumption, with more than half of the world’s population residing in this region.
The West, especially the United States, is retaliating in different ways; rule-based trade is coming to an end. National security issues are being used as an excuse to change rules and uncertainty on trade is impacting investments. This is also visible in the way the Japan-South Korea trade dispute is taking a toll on tourism and investments in the two countries. With populism on the rise and the world adjusting to a new global order, think tanks, too, need to recalibrate their way of operating.
Keeping up with change
Discourse is changing rapidly. Publications and research have been coming at a much faster pace. There are more challenges and opportunities emerging each day. Communication technology has shrunk the world on the one hand, and has polarised it on the other. Social media has provided the users with an overwhelming amount of content—sometimes similar and sometimes contradictory. It is much harder to keep track of what is factual. Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence is helping create new breakthroughs in healthcare but at the same time is making people vulnerable to cybercrime.
However, at the think tank summit, there was a consensus regarding the biggest challenge: How will countries create policies, and legal and operational frameworks, to manage a society that is ageing. A presentation from Japan argued on how the concept of retirement age should be scrapped. This means the concept of social security will no longer be relevant and people can be paid based on productivity. If this happens, the concept of work, income, and saving—all will change. Japan’s argument could be valid for Nepal, where 50 percent of the population is below 25 years of age; many in the 21st century are unlikely to opt for a 30-year career in a single sector.
For Nepal, where politics and the bureaucracy hardly attract the most analytical and educated, it is challenging to hope for a deeper dialogue. Our challenge is to manage a society where communication technology has penetrated at a faster pace than information technology. There are hundreds of online news portals but barely a handful of research agencies that collect data, mine them and convert it into useful information. We have banks boasting of apps for quick transactions but using obsolete software for information management.
Nepal has an opportunity to engage in these discourses more closely, as many other countries face similar situations. Nepal Economic Forum has offered to host the summit in 2021 and by then we hope to sensitise people on the need to reimagine the roles think tanks play.