After every earthquake comes the social aftershock. Two years after Nepal’s devastating quake, which killed almost 9,000 people and left tens of thousands injured, deep social and political rifts continue to rock the impacted communities. The ruins of the quake exposed the structural poverty driving an exodus of workers to seek economic opportunity abroad. Nepal’s global migration chain, according to new research, has enchained their home country to a system of perpetual poverty and unstable development.
There’s a straightforward solution for resolving Nepal’s economic fissures, however: providing decent work within the country that lifts wages and living conditions for future generations. Yet shifting Nepalese society from a migration-driven labor structure to a community-rooted economy requires a new approach to development that departs from standard development formulas, according to researchers with the think tank Just Jobs Network.
Nepal’s current economic structure revolves around funneling young migrants through labor-trafficking networks into poverty-wage contract jobs in richer countries, particularly in the Middle East. These jobs typically involve industries like construction that are rife with unsafe and abusive conditions. The remittance economy is structured so that the price of this risk is outweighed by the wages promised—for a few years, at least. But on a national scale, the most promising segments of the labor force are being wasted because of a lack of opportunities within Nepal to build livelihoods and to serve their communities simultaneously.
Creating a more robust domestic economy requires democratization of both governance and labor markets. Researchers say that both international development agencies and Nepal’s political elites should “embrace a more inclusive vision of economic growth” in which “reconstruction is not merely the replacement of physical assets, but also is the rebuilding of social, economic and physical foundations.”
Though not all of Nepal’s decline prior to the earthquake can be attributed to migration alone—indeed, there have been meaningful wage gains as a result of remittances earned abroad—the researchers describe Nepal’s pre-disaster economy as a slow-moving crisis: “poor infrastructure, slow progress in adopting new methods and technology, the lack of an appropriately skilled workforce, major energy shortages, and political instability.”
The quake worsened conditions, but it also presents new opportunities. So Nepal’s story may mirror that of “disaster relief” in many Global South countries. Historically, catastrophic storms and earthquakes in El Salvador and Haiti have led to protracted “recovery” processes that generally involve inadequate long-term investment in sustainable industries. Resources are often poured into an aid-driven economy, prone to mismanagement by both international and domestic agencies.