Saturday, January 12, 2008

Nepal, Inc.

We should be rebranding our nation in a more positive light

International media images of our troubled nation are upsetting. Nepal appears like a Lilliputian comedy, with little people fighting over little things in a faraway little place.

In Jonathan Swift's classic, the Lilliputians and their enemy, the Blefuscudians, are constantly at war to settle their dispute over the right way to eat a boiled egg. The former, called Big-endians, insist on eating from the rounded end and the latter, the Little-endians, argue on behalf of the pointy end. The ongoing Nepali theatrics reinforce that mythic analogy.

The problem is that such stereotyping conceals more than it reveals. Media images change, as we change. During the 1960s, the press couldn't get enough of our Shangri-La image. Then, during the 1980s, the international media found nothing much to report from here. With the royal massacre, the parachutists suddenly descended on Nepal and found out there was a war going on. And now there is the 'failing state' myth.

We may very well be a failing state. But what now, as we cross our fingers in the hope that peace will prevail and reconstruction begin? And how do we want to be perceived by the outside world? Let's start repairing our attributes and build our image anew.

Many countries in the developing world which were wrecked by wars, poverty, famine and corruption have in recent years embarked on image restoration, also called 'nation branding'.
Nepal's own campaign 'Naturally Nepal-once is not enough' is aimed at boosting tourist arrivals. Effective place branding, however, targets wider public perceptions than tourists, including our export destinations, the host countries of our migrant workers, and our immediate neighbours.

Simon Anholt, author of Brand New Justice and a leading proponent of nation branding, writes that branding in transitional and developing societies ensures that their reputation keeps pace with their progress.

His prescription for Nepal: . Find out what the world really thinks about Nepal.
. Link the image closely to the country's economic, political and social aims.
. Get a coalition of government, business and civil society at the highest level to map out investments, innovations, policies, actions and behaviours to be carried out in every sector over the next five to ten years.
. Carry these out to world-class standards.

"It's not good enough to read the papers and assume that a place has a bad image: it needs to be properly measured and properly analysed," Anholt cautions. He has developed a Nation Brand Index (NBI) based on measures of quarterly global public perceptions on a country's assets or appeal in governance, economy, culture, people, and tourism.

Apparently, politics is our worst indicator. With failing exports, sluggish investment, and massive unemployment, our economic situation isn't faring much better. Still, we may look fairly attractive in culture, heritage and biodiversity.

Some positive images do make it through the gloom and doom in the news accounts: pashmina, coffee, cricketers, artists, rugs, elephant polo, gifted physicians, golf enthusiasts, skilled IT and media professionals, and cardamom.

Some attributes shine in the wider field of media culture. A popular thrash metal band from Argentina calls itself "Nepal," perhaps for our mystique. Gforge, a French company, just released "Nepal 10.0", a software coding program, possibly for our resilience. A similar project with the "Nepal" brand (symbolising "stability") by a US firm disappeared a few years back, when our mountains began to bleed.

There are other attributes that we could recover (the Buddha is one) or build, and most importantly, live up to. These ought also to be reflected in popular media reporting. Increasingly our national media adopts western agendas, so it should also review its style. The government and businesses must manage a versatile public information system so journalists get an array of story ideas.

Dharma Adhikari is a visiting faculty member at the Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research (IACER) in Kathmandu

Published in Nepali Times, Jan. 11, 2008, p. 13.