Home after my first time as leader of my department’s Nepal field class, and its been great. Leading a group of two dozen Masters students from around the world to visit first Kathmandu then rural Dhading district, with excellent teams of staff from Sheffield and from Nepal, makes for a challenging but deeply rewarding experience.
Nepal is a great place to take a field class oriented towards equipping Masters graduates with skills for research and for taking actions to make things better in development situations. Nepal remains a relatively poor country facing fundamental challenges for the livelihoods and well being of its people; yet it is also changing fast and with many examples of creative, proactive initiatives engaging communities to work together for collective improvement.
The country’s dramatic terrain is part of the story of those challenges; but the class also get to enjoy its beauty – beauty which, through tourism, could help in enabling more and more diverse livelihoods, as well as providing extensive potential for hydroelectric development.
Perhaps most significant for the students’ experience, though, is the openness and hospitality of the people we work with in Nepal. It never ceases to amaze me how effortlessly villagers take in their stride a group of 4 students from around the world with a Nepali colleague – and occasionally a member of academic staff in tow – showing up to talk about their lives and experiences. Rush mats get spread out on the front porch, tea is offered, and all settle into the strange social situation of a multilingual international interview.
We were able to visit examples of some of those creative initiatives, with partner NGOs Green Tara and Focus Nepal. Green Tara took us to Daxinkali where a long term project focused around reproductive health has not only seen improvements in key relevant indicators; still more compelling was the ways in which modes of engagement around reproductive health had enabled processes of female empowerment and cooperation, leading to development of women’s collective capacity to effect much broader changes. This was just one of the many things done for us by Green Tara, whose contribution to the field class cannot be over-stated.
Focus Nepal took us to an initiative on our route out from Kathmandu to Dhadingbesi, where we were met by the farmers participating in another long term initiative. Through equipping farmers with new knowledge, based on Integrated Pest Management but extending to sustainable intensification and the establishment of new crops, land has been brought back into productivity and the collective has been able to produce enough harvest to open up new routes to market, enabling the initiative then to spread up the valley.
The core of the field class though is the students’ research with communities and stakeholders on the slopes of Siddalekh, in Dhading district. Groups of students pursued research projects, each group with a common topic developed themselves, with each student pursuing a specific question within that topic. This year’s projects covered mental health, reproductive health, mobile technology and migration. Over just five days, they not only gathered and analysed data but developed that analysis to the point of being able to present key findings.
On our final day in the field area, we ran a dissemination event with guests including representatives of local women’s networks and community forestry groups, as well as a range of key people from the District capital of Dhadingbesi, including the Assistant Chief Executive of the District.
The event was held at Shreeban, which has been the field class residential centre since the class began in 2013. It is an excellent location for us, a real haven with sufficient accommodation, good food and very hospitable and relaxed staff. The dining room was converted into a presentation space. However, uncertainty pervaded the students final preparations of their presentations. A very dramatic thunderstorm two days earlier had knocked out the electricity supply to Shreeban and although restored earlier that day it had remained intermittent. So, students prepared not only powerpoint slides, but also backups of flipchart paper with key points in Nepalese. As the event started the electricity was indeed off, and the first group did a great job of presenting clearly without the prop of the slides. During their presentation though, the power came back and the rest of the groups had slides to talk to. Each presentation was re-presented in Nepalese by the group’s Nepali colleague.
From the short time in the field and the difficulties of finally preparing their presentations, the students did an incredible job of presenting compelling findings and credible policy recommendations which were well received by the audience.
Its quite something to be lead of such a team. Great colleagues from Sheffield – Julie Balen from ScHARR and Johan Oldekop from Geography, as well as invaluable additional support from Bhimsen Devkota from Tribhuvan University.
A great team of Nepali staff – drivers of the 4x4s that got us around the field; Rajes and Dipak whose local knowledge, empathy and commitment means the students could find respondents; and our fantastic team of Nepali researchers. Pratima, Rama, Sabina, Ganga, Shiwani, led by Pratiksha Basnet are instrumental to the field class, enabled student groups to communicate with local residents across language barriers as key members of the team also contributing to data interpretation and analysis – as well as to the friendship and collaboration which underpins the groups’ work.
Then the students. This time 24 students from the department’s range of International Development Masters programmes joined us, representing 10 different nationalities from 5 different continents. That the department’s Masters programmes is able to attract such excellent students is both foundational to the strength of the programmes, and a matter of pride for the department. They were thrown together into small groups of students from across nations – some groups with no students for whom English is a first language – working on an intensive few days of qualitative field research working with a Nepali colleague to interview local people in Dhading district. All of the groups, and the class as a whole, worked with dedication, intelligence, patience and cooperation to achieve great results and, together, to make a fantastic experience involving learning on so many levels.
Early during the period in Dhading, Julie, most of this year’s students and myself were guests of honour at the opening of a nearby village water scheme, funded by donations gathered by the University of Sheffield Friends of Nepal group – there’s an account of this here.