Is development a new channel for youth activism?

And other questions from Nepal

Is development a new channel for youth activism? And other questions from Nepal

19 April 2023, by Phoenix Kenney

I first met N* in the office of the NGO he founded in 2020. He explained the frustration he and many of other young people felt at that time due to social restrictions and the spread of misinformation during the COVID pandemic. Now, in early 2023, we find ourselves sitting on green velvet cushions in a circle on the floor.


“You know about the Panchayat System from the 1960s, right?” It was clear speaking to N that the history of youth activism in Nepal matters to their work now.


In 1960, political power was consolidated under Nepal’s Rana monarchy and party-based politics were made illegal. Through underground networks, partisan ideals found their way into student unions in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University. As Snellinger (2010) writes in her PhD dissertation, ‘student politics came to represent the struggle for democracy’ and the legacy of student activism under the Panchayat system ‘has most definitely framed [youth] political character’ (p. 13).


Conflict between monarchy, democracy, and communism erupted in 1990 during the Jana Andolan, or People’s Movement led by the two leading (yet still illegal) political parties: the Nepali Congress and communist United Left Front. Marches, strikes (bandha), and traffic stoppages (chakka jam) were some of the movement’s main tactics and O’Neill (2016) explains that ‘student unions were a convenient place to find recruits’ for these activities (p. 1082). Though democracy was restored in 1990, continued disappointment with national politics and ‘failed development’ despite significant foreign aid are two potential reasons for the onset of the ten-year long People’s War led by the rising Maoist party (Leve, 2007). Like during the Jana Andolan, the Maoists relied on student involvement and schools became ‘fertile grounds’ for recruitment (Eck, 2007, p. 21); however, as the civil war was fought mostly in rural Nepal, Zharkevich (2009) defines ‘a new mode of being young in Nepal’ wherein socio-political transformation came from the countryside rather than the capital led by youth who did not have formal education or political training (p. 74).


Post-conflict, and post-Jana Andolan II in 2006, Nepal embarked on a peace-making process through which the role of youth was mainstreamed. Youth representatives were included in the drafting of the 2007 interim constitution and the 2010 National Youth Policy. The Ministry of Education with UNICEF support initiated elements of peace education in the national curriculum ‘in order to create a culture of peace and an understanding of human rights’ (Smith, 2013). This approach aligned with neoliberal development discourse first evident in Nepal in the second half of the 20th century, through which education was seen as not only a means for societal change but personal growth and increasing opportunity for young people as individuals (Baxter, 2018).


2015 then marks a turning point in both national and youth development; on April 25th, a major earthquake struck the country, one many people say Nepal had been waiting for based on its geotectonics. Drawing on social media data and international literature, I argued in my master’s dissertation young people played a crucial role in earthquake response and recovery. This heightened sense of ‘youth power’ was nationally recognized by late 2015 in the promulgation of a new constitution, a revised National Youth Policy (NYP), and the Youth Vision-2025, a strategic plan to uphold promises made in the NYP. These documents collectively refer to youth as the ‘backbone of the nation’ and outline the ways in which young people can be integrated in national sustainable development.


Last month, I was invited to attend a consultation meeting organized by one of my partner organizations to discuss the implementation of the NYP and Youth Vision-2025. It is in spaces like these that I begin to wonder how youth activism is having to change to be taken seriously in modern Nepal. Even with my limited Nepali language skills, I could sense frustration in the room. As then reported in an article online, youth activists were demanding more from the poorly implemented policies, in particular calling for more inclusion of marginalized youth. While it appears youth have become integrated in Nepal’s political structure and there are now platforms centered around ‘youth voice’, young people still feel they aren’t being heard, encouraging them to look to other means.


Since the 2010s, a huge number of NGOs have been founded and led by youth for youth. Compared to the violence of 20th and early 21st century youth activism (Shrestha & Jenkins, 2019), development-based activism takes a more passive or ‘civil’ approach. Instead of invoking action through raising dissent, youth NGOs are raising awareness through educational campaigns that aim to empower young people to demand their rights and challenge norms of discrimination in Nepali society, such as caste and patriarchy. This isn’t to say that not all young people working in the development sector consider themselves activists and not all activists have turned to development to achieve their socio-political goals.


Walking in Maitighar, a neighborhood in southern Kathmandu frequently disrupted by political demonstrations, B* reflects he hasn’t participated in any protests in the last few years. This is a sentiment I have heard from other members in the youth development organizations I’ve partnered with to conduct my research. Now, days are spent in meetings on Zoom, writing meeting minutes, applying to funding, completing budget reports, editing videos, and posting photos to their social media channels. Organizations who claim ‘advocacy’ in their mission statements more often develop and deliver ‘projects’ rather than conduct policy advocacy. Trainings, forums, conferences, and other ‘interaction sessions’ are held almost every day throughout Kathmandu, co-organized by youth-led NGOs and funded by big name INGOs, like VSO, UNDP, PLAN International, and Save the Children.


Are these changing approaches evidence of ‘slacktivism’, a term credited to Malcolm Gladwell (2010) that suggests the reinvention and consequent weakening of modern social activism? As I speak to young people in Kathmandu, I hear stories their stories of waking up at 5am, taking the bus two hours to campus, sitting for three-hour exams, attending organization board meetings in the afternoon, attending to family responsibilities, completing homework, and talking to their girlfriends until late in the night. Perhaps, there is simply no time to protest. And perhaps, there feels there is no point: many young people dream of going abroad for higher education because they don’t believe they can get a quality education in Nepal and even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to find jobs with respectable salaries. Why protest in this country when all anyone wants to do is get out?


Or, are changing tools in youth activism evidence of youth perceptivity and adaptability? Development might provide a certain mechanism for platforming youth voices and attending to their priority issues. Where the NYP and Youth Vision-2025 fail, perhaps youth NGOs can fill the gap, a proposition commonly put forth by the development community that explains the original need and continued reliance on I/NGOs in weak political contexts (Roka, 2012). Development dollars readily flow into Nepal and as N*, the founder and now advisor of one such youth organization, explained, many organizations just follow that flow, leading project after project whether or not they are connected to a central mission. N made it clear to me that their organization holds strong to their core values of advocacy; the funding they receive must support them in their action, not the other way around.


Baxter, K. D. (2018). Living the Neoliberal Global Schooling Project: An Ethnography of Childhood and Everyday Choices in Nepal. University of Edinburgh.

Eck, K. (2007). Recruiting Rebels: Indoctrination and Political Education in Nepal. 36th Annual Conference on South Asia and the 2nd Annual Himalayan Policy Research Conference.

Gladwell, M. (2010, September 27). Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker.

Leve, L. G. (2007). Failed Development and Rural Revolution in Nepal: Rethinking Subaltern Consciousness and Women’s Empowerment. Anthropological Quarterly, 80(1), 127–172.

Nepal Live. (2023, January 18). युथ भिजन२०२५ मा यौनिक अल्पसंख्यकका मुद्दाहरु समेट्न माग. Nepallive.Com.

O’Neill, T. (2016). Student union ‘political anti-politics’ in post-conflict Nepal. Journal of Youth Studies, 19(8), 1077–1092.

Roka, K. B. (2012). Are NGOs making a difference? A community approach to measuring non-government organizations (NGOs) effectiveness in Nepal [PhD Thesis, Pennsylvania State University College of Agricultural Sciences].

Shrestha, R., & Jenkins, B. (2019). Understanding Youth Political Violence in Nepal. Millennial Asia, 10(1), 56–75.

Smith, M. (2013). Peace, human rights and civic education in Nepal: Multi-stakeholder collaboration in post-conflict curriculum reform. In M. Sinclair (Ed.), Learning to Live Together: Education for Conflict Resolution, Responsible Citizenship, Human Rights and Humanitarian Norms (pp. 90–100). Project Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC).

Snellinger, A. (2010). Transfiguration of the Political: Nepali Student Activism and the Politics of Acculturation [PhD Thesis, Cornell University].

Zharkevich, I. (2009). A New Way of Being Young in Nepal: The Idea of Maoist Youth and Dreams of a New Man. Studies in Nepali History and Society, 14(1), 67–105.

banner picture credits: Youth Advocacy Nepal