Red lines

My recent posts and tweets on the hot war with Russia and on the cold war between the US and China (let us see what European governments will say and do about that over the coming weeks and months) attracted some attention. Nothing much: a few hundred views over a couple of days (but, yes, growing). Not going viral. No likes so far. Probably because my comments go against majority viewpoints.

It reminds me of a few other things I did in life, about which I never wrote. They wrecked the career I then had: I was a Belgian diplomat from 1997 to 2009, but went against the flow. I will now write about them because it may help the reader to know where I stand.

1. When I was a diplomat in New Delhi (India), I signed off on end user certificates (EUCs) on Belgian sensitive exports to both India as well as Nepal. The exports to Nepal were most sensitive: machineguns. The exports had always been politically sensitive, with ministers resigning over them and, ultimately, led to the regionalization of decisions to export weapons, ammunition and associated dual-use technology and equipment.

I refused to sign EUCs for the delivery of Belgian combined rocket machine gun pods to India, which would then use these to up-armor and re-export British helicopters to Nepal. [India, the UK and – yes – the US publicly criticized Belgian arms exports to Nepal but, privately, encouraged them (their parliaments had blocked them: Belgium was the only source of arms to Nepal then) because they thought China was supporting the insurgents (an accusation for which there was no evidence whatsoever).] If the sale would have gone through, it would have brought the violence to a whole new level. That did not happen, and it was – to a great extent – because of my refusal. I documented my refusal in a confidential cable, which got leaked to the press (I had nothing to do with that). The leak annoyed then Minister Louis Michel, because he was in charge then, and the defense industry around Liège is/was one of this political constituencies. He made a great career at the European level afterwards: first, European Commissioner for Science and Research and then European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Development. From support to gun exports to aid? I always thought of that as very incongruent.

Belgium was, then, the only country supplying arms to Nepal, and the crisis over this sensitive export brought an end to it. I cannot help thinking the end of all arms supplies to Nepal helped bring the end to the insurgency by making it clear to all parties that a military victory on either side was not possible, and that negotiations were the only way forward. These negotiations ultimately led to the 2006 comprehensive peace accord.

2. While in India also, I reported on the discussions which ultimately led to the nuclear deal between India and the US. How and why did I get involved? My knowledge of all things nuclear is at par with that of specialists (my own independent research on quantum physics got me a RI score in the top 30% bracket of RG members), so I was rather good at identifying what fuel cycles were interesting in terms of proliferation of sensitive technology and what efforts are/were needed to counter it.

Back to the deal. I was against it because it was quite obvious this agreement was part of an overall attempt to better arm India against what both India and the US saw as an increasingly expansive China. I only saw a rapidly growing economy, doing what India did not manage: bring its people – all of them – out of abject poverty. I argued this deal would, therefore, create more regional nuclear arms races.

What happened with Iran, which never got such exception or special treatment, in the years that followed, proved me right. Also, this deal predictably brought all talks on international nuclear disarmament to a completely standstill, which continues till this day: if the US starts making exceptions based on perceived regional power balances, then there is no hope for multilateralism anymore.

3. Ultimately, I went on to become Belgium’s chargé d’affaires in Kabul, Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009. I was there when Belgium expanded its military presence as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. It was because there were few other candidates and, maybe, because people within my ministry did prefer someone who would be fully independent (read: not aligned to any political party or particular point of view). I took a career break after two years of service, as the job was quite exhausting. Another two years later, I could return but I did not want to because the head of personnel would not offer me anything interesting (read: an ambassadorship or, at least, a director-level position within the ministry).

I do not regret that decision. I have done well ever since and, seeing my former colleagues, I think I might be a happier person. I have been working as a consultant on systems, IT and organizational projects since 2009, and I am still in that business. However, memories from the past do come back sharply with all of the international turmoil now. I am not sure why I should feel so concerned or emotional about it. I guess I wanted to tell my children a better story, but they are grown up too now and they will make their way. The only advice I can give them is this: stay on the right side of Sun Tzu’s Moral Law. It made me a happy person. Happiness is more important than wealth or power.

If US political leaders – Republican or Democrat – and diplomats and other foreign service staff want to preserve (moral) legitimacy abroad, they should act fast. Anti-US protests in Korea, new or old anti-US peace movements growing stronger in Europe (both independent, as well as left- and right-wing EU MPs counter the NATO discourse strongly and reasonably), in Australia (the anti-AUKUS) and in Africa (here is a CSIS article on that which predates current international developments), are real. Very real. I hope they tilt the current balance. More than that: I hope they finally turn the tide, towards world peace and true security rooted in acceptance of multipolarity (many countries, different systems), stronger multilateralism and true multiculturality again.

Many EU countries will face elections over the coming years, and I do not think the current anti-Russia or anti-China rhetoric strikes a chord with true Europeans. I am not talking about conversion to this or that camp here: that is (probably) futile. Social media campaigns do not make people switch opinion or change their deep-rooted convictions. That will not happen. What has happened, however, is that the symbolism of Pelosi’s visit displayed an American arrogance that does not go down very well here in Europe and, surely, not in Asia. Koreans and Japanese may not like the Chinese but when it comes to sympathy for an Asian neighbor who loses face for no reason whatsoever, I think Asian wisdom wins from modern antagonism. And Europe does look East, if only because of its geography: it has to.

One more personal note: back in March, I went spontaneously to Ukraine to join the volunteer International Legion. That is documented into several news reels, including this one made by one of the most prominent news channels: I am the not-so-anonymous Belgian in the video. I mean it: the US should not have taken over from the EU or NATO here. Yankee, go home! Please.

Post scriptum: Looking back and reflecting on what triggered the hot war with Russia, and the new cold war with China, I have come to the conclusion it is the need of weak leaders to shore up domestic credibility by provoking adversaries. Mr. Zelensky is guilty of that too. It was not right to go to Washington DC in September last year: it was clear he was pushing for Ukraine to join NATO and, in the absence of such membership, to secure a military commitment from the US, which he got (the war in Ukraine is, to a large extent, not a war between Europe and Russia, but a war between Russia, Ukraine and the US). We should remind ourselves of the fact that Mr. Zelensky approval ratings were extremely poor before all this talk about a war started to dominate (barely 30% in December 2021, when the Russian threat was already clear).

To put it bluntly, in the mind of Mr. Putin, this state visit of Zelensky in early September last year, is the symbolic equivalent of Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and its repercussions are of the same nature as the now very frosty relations between the US and China (not a hot war but a cold war that is, possibly, even more damaging to the world economy). It was provocative, and it definitely changed the geopolitical status quo: in just one or two days, Ukraine was part of the Western sphere of influence – politically and militarily.

It was this new alliance between Biden and Zelensky which led to Mr. Putin to build up troops at Ukraine’s borders and, after getting some kind of reassurance from Beijing just before his invasion, to become the war president that he is now. Hence, looking back, one might look at all this as something that could be foreseen: it was written, plain for all to see, in the psychology of Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Putin, and Mr. Biden. When domestic support is low or drops sharply, these leaders turn to war by creating new or reinventing old enemies. It is a sad thing, especially because European leaders – all those calling for further destroying Russia’s economy and antagonizing the Russian people with visa bans and all that – seem to fall into the same trap now. No matter whether or not you trust or distrust China, one thing that stands out about Mr. Xi Jinping is that he does not need an external enemy to appease criticism or look strong in the eyes of his own people.

Mr. Xi Jinping is apparently to go to Riyadh, and part of the discussions are, apparently, on ending the preeminence of the dollar as the preferred international currency for trade. That would not be bad: the US has abused its historical seigniorage rights for much too long now. China could easily sink the dollar by selling its US Treasury debt, which adds up to close to one trillion US$ ($967.8 billion in June, to be precise), but that would leave China a lot poorer too, so the new scheme – a gradual switch rather than an outright dump – sounds more logical and, therefore (one of the advantages of the Chinese system is that, unlike US foreign policy, it is quite predictable), much more likely. 

Is Doomsday thinking on the rise, and is it warranted?

Answering the first question (is Doomsday thinking on the rise?) is difficult. Facebook posts from friends and acquaintances on all kinds of worrying trends (like the melting of glaciers (and of the North Pole itself), changing weather patterns (which resulted in more cyclones and devastating flash floods in recent months here in South Asia), over-fishing, the continuing deforestation of the Amazon forests etcetera) would surely suggest so. But then that is not very objective as a measure, is it? In any case, even if Doomsday thinking would not be on the rise (I note that all generations have indulged in it), perhaps it should be. Let us take a look at the crude facts.

When I was born back in 1969 (by the way, that’s a year which I associate with men landing on the moon, not with Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war, as the currently retiring flower power generation does), the world’s population was only half of what it is now: 3.6 billion, as opposed to an estimated 7.2 billion today. Isn’t it amazing to realize that we, as compared to the previous generation  (I am part of generation X it seems, but I’ll readily admit I had to look that up), have to share the world with twice as many people?

More worryingly (for our children and grandchildren in particular I’d say), the world’s population continues to grow fast, even if the world’s population growth rate has come down from more than 2% per annum then (again, ‘then’ is when  I was born: sorry for my egoistic perspective) to an estimated 1.1% today. Still, it means that my children (I think they’re generation Y or Z – I am not sure actually), when they will have my age (around 2040 that is – so when my generation will be retired), will live in a world trying to take care of not less than 9 billion people.

In fact, that statistic may be optimistic, as it assumes the world’s population growth rate will continue to decline as it is currently doing: it should be around 0.5% per annum only then. Of course, statistics are tricky – especially when they rely on all kinds of assumptions, as is the case here. While it is clear that, at some point of time, the world’s population will have to max out, it is impossible to predict when that will happen, and how. UN figures suggest the world’s population may max out at around 10 billion around the end of this century (2100). As evidenced from the graph below, that assumes a medium-growth scenario only (the orange future line). Still, even such middle-of-the-road scenario (which assumes a classical demographic transition scenario really: advances in medical science bring down the death rate first, while the birth rate declines a few decades later only – with a big population surge in-between as a result) means continued expansion and, hence, many many more mouths to feed indeed.


Ten billion people in 2100? That’s an awful lot. But 2100 is also three generations from now. Hence, we may just shrug our shoulders and think it is not of any concern to us and our children and/or grandchildren really (what letter could we possibly use for the generation after Generation Z anyway?).

A more interesting question, perhaps, is the question of how many people could possibly be fed.

Back in the 18th century, Thomas Malthus (who, besides being a cleric, also was one of the world’s first true ‘political economists’) was of the opinion that “the power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” In other words, Malthus was of the opinion that man would indeed overpopulate Earth and just eat everything and then die in some kind of mass famine or some other kind of man-made catastrophe – like bacteria in a Petri dish running out of nutrients. Well… Sort of. While few would subscribe to such a view nowadays, scientists do suggest that 10 billion people may really be all the Earth can carry – in some kind of sustainable way that is.

Let’s look at the basics. First, real food prices (i.e. the price of food in comparison to the price of other goods) – and nominal food prices as well actually – have come down historically. That has not only helped to sustain the population growth we have been witnessing, but it actually made it possible, as many of those who had children over the past few decades were poor, very poor (I mean not able to pay for much else than food). Moreover, predictions are that food prices will continue to decline over the next decades as agricultural yields will probably continue to rise at a higher rate than the world’s population growth rate. [Recent price hikes are/were temporary only, and have nothing to do with population growth.] So we could say that ‘the world’ has managed to cater to a doubling of the population without any impact on food prices. Moreover, ‘the world’ is likely to continue to support even more people.

Second, while the world’s population has been growing rapidly, the number of hungry or undernourished people has remained stable (around 800 or 900 million). In fact, their number has gone down in all regions of the world – and very notably so in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in Latin-America – except for Africa. Now we all know that Africa is a continent suffering from a deep and complex crisis – much of it with roots in historical wrongs that cannot be corrected – which can surely not be explained by pointing to population growth statistics only. In short, one might actually say that the number of hungry and undernourished people has come down significantly – both in relative (percentage-wise) as well as in absolute numbers – without being factually wrong. Indeed, speaking in general (and we know the limitations of that), many more people have better lives now than twenty years ago (I apologize once again for looking at the world from my own perspective). That’s good news – if only because it also causes population growth to slow down, as parents finally see it makes sense to have less children. [I think the most significant invention of the 20th century was birth control, and Malthus would probably not have written what he wrote if he would have known about it. Indeed, advances in medical science (and in food production) are responsible for the explosive growth of the world’s  population, but so they also made family planning possible.]

In short, food is surely not the issue – not now and, most probably, not for the coming generations either. The real issue is how we can govern ourselves as a species in relation to our environment (could we please stop polluting it and establish some kind of equilibrium situation in regards to the management of our natural resources?) and – equally important if not more – in relation to the marginally different other members of our species (could we please stop murdering each other for religious or political purposes?). Personally, I am not all that optimistic in these regards – but then that’s probably because I live in a beautiful but very troubled country which does not inspire much confidence to me (but then I have to admit I am just a casual western observer of course): Nepal, if anything, has gone backwards on all of the aspects of development: political, economic, ecological, and societal. Indeed, no one really believes in the ‘malleability of society’ here (we just pray that this country will go through its next election in a more or less peaceful manner) – let alone in the capacity of man to steer the world’s destiny.

So what?

Well… Frankly, I don’t know. I am part of that European generation that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was twenty at the time and, as students usually are, very critical – but more of others than of myself I guess. A lot of my views on life in general are influenced by that event and, more importantly, by what happened immediately afterwards: I have the impression that Bush’s strange victory over Al Gore (remember the margin of 537 votes only?) in 2001, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Gulf War II quickly put an end to whatever dreams my generation had in terms of a just new world order. More recent events – like what is going on in Syria right now – have been equally discouraging, if not more (especially because we’re supposed to be the generation ‘in charge’ at the moment).

So, yes, I do think that global warming, over-fishing, environmental degradation etcetera are serious problems. And, yes, I do believe that biodiversity will continue to suffer from us humans expanding our footprint and, in a sense, overpopulating the world indeed. I also believe that mankind will be confronted with more regional crises and disasters, both natural (especially weather-related) as well as man-made (such as the current crisis in the Middle East) – or a combination of both (think of the increased frequency of hurricanes). I am also skeptical (very skeptical actually) as to mankind’s capacity to manage such crises. But so I do not believe in a soon-to-come dinosaur-like extinction of our species because of climate change, disease, a supervolcano eruption or an asteroid crashing into our planet (i.e. extinction through one of the four commonly advanced causes of the mass extinction of dinosaurs (and 70% of all other living species at the time) some 66 million years ago) or, as Malthus predicted it, from generalized hunger. Frankly, I think mankind will be able to produce the resources it needs. So what do I believe then?

I think we will end up having to share our planet with 10 billion others indeed. I also believe that this crowded world will have many good things (even more good things than today, although I cannot imagine the next generation will be able to improve the current mountain-bike designs :-)). However, it will also have its fair share of Big Issues, and I think our/my generation has not done much to make it easier for our children and grandchildren to manage these Big Issues – or even to prepare them for it.

That being said, I also realize that, unlike my parents, my generation has not had to live through a world war or so. I can only hope the world of my children and grandchildren will – at the very least – be as good as mine. Whether or not that will be so will depend on whether or not the generation of our children and grandchildren will turn out to be better managers than ‘my’ generation. That may or may not be the case. In any case, I think the world is much less malleable than we all implicitly assume it to be: a lot of it is probably just pure chaos in my view (and that may be a good thing actually). Hence, they will probably have as much trouble as we have (had?) to find levers for well-intended collective change.

As Gandhi (and others) famously said: if you want to improve the world, you need to start with yourself. So let’s ask ourselves how well we did in that regard and – when pushed on the question of what we did to make this world a better place (as we are obviously) – advice generation Y and Z to consider that question as well.

Nepal and Olympic mountainbiking

Nepal’s delegation to the 2012 Olympic Games consisted of five athletes only:

  1. Two runners (Tilak Ram Tharu and Pramila Rijal): both could participate (in the 100 m sprint event) because they had gained two ‘universality places’ from the International Association of Athletics Federatons (IAAF). As one could expect, they did not make it into the quarterfinals. [I am not saying this to demean their performance (Tilak clocked a time of 10.38 seconds) but just to acknowledge a well-known fact: Olympic competitors who have not made it through the regular qualification events rarely make the podium.]
  2. Two swimmers (Prashidha Jung Shah and Shreya Dhital): both could participate (in the 50 and 100 m freestyle swimming races respectively) because they had also gained two universality places from the International Swimming Federation (FINA). They also did not advance into the quarterfinals.
  3. One shooter (Sneh Rana): she could participate (in the 10 m air rifle event) because Nepal had been given a wild card in shooting. She also did not advance very far.

While there have been times when things were better (Nepal had some more horses – including boxers and weightlifters – in the Olympics a few decades ago), no athlete from Nepal has ever won an Olympic medal. So do Nepal’s MTB riders stand a better chance? And, if so, how can we make the most of this chance?

Mountainbiking was introduced as an Olympic discipline in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. While this is fairly recent as compared to more established Olympic disciplines (such as running and swimming indeed), one cannot say it is something new. Indeed, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) will see the sixth Olympic mountainbike championship races. Olympic mountainbiking is actually a specialty within the more general mountainbiking discipline. More specifically, the International Cycling Union (UCI) refers to it as the ‘Cross-Country Olympic’ (XCO) discipline and its regulations dictate the format of such races: the course of an Olympic format cross-country event must be between 4 and 6 km in length, and the duration of the race is between 1 hour and 30 minutes and 1 hours and 45 minutes. Indeed, riders who need more time are usually being lapped by the faster riders and, hence, are to be taken out of the race according to the UCI regulations (which is what happened to the participants from China and Guam during the 2012 Olympics). In addition, there is also the so-called 80% rule: any rider whose lap time is 80% slower of that of the race leader’s first lap is also to be pulled out of the race. Finally, technical problems may also force a racer out (this is what happened to the French racer Julien Absalon during the 2012 Games, who was one of the favorites for the podium).

How does one get into the Olympic MTB races?

It is very likely that the UCI will use the same qualification system for the Rio 2016 Games as the one it used for the 2012 and 2008 Olympics in London and Beijing respectively. This system is based on a two-year period of qualification, at the end of which 50 men and 30 women get a rider spot. The majority of these 50/30 rider spots are allocated based on the national rankings as tallied by the UCI. These national rankings are, in turn, compiled from the UCI points which the top three individual riders for each nation accumulate over a season as they participate in UCI-sanctioned races.

There are various types of UCI-sanctioned MTB races: world championships, world cups, continental championships (such as the Asian MTB Championship Race which took place in Chengdu in May this year), national championships and – importantly – ‘various other’ (such as one-day MTB marathon races or multi-stage races). However, it is important to note that the race needs to be sanctioned by the UCI – i.e. one has to get the race on the UCI International Calendar – before it will earn the participating riders any points. Without going into too much detail, it is probably useful to note that organizing a UCI-sanctioned race costs a lot of money and takes a lot of effort. That is why Nepal’s so-called National MTB Championship – the 12th edition of which was organized by the Nepal Cycling Association in Pokhara in March this year (in both the Olympic cross-country and downhill disciplines) – is not a UCI-sanctioned race: among other things, it would require the presence of UCI officials, loads of prize money and plenty of other fees and costs – all of which are meticulously spelled out in the so-called ‘UCI financial obligations.’ While Nepal’s Cycling Association has to be applauded for organizing the Nepali national MTB championship races every year (two disciplines are included: XCO and downhill), it is unlikely it will have the financial capacity to make it a UCI-sanctioned event in the very near future. That is probably a reality we should just accept for the time being.

The good news is that Nepal, through the combined efforts of the Nepal Cycling Association and Himalayan Single Track, does actually have a few UCI-registered riders, who actually have been collecting UCI points this year (as well as last year) – even if there are no UCI-sanctioned MTB races in Nepal (or anywhere near to Nepal even). To be precise: Nepal has four MTB riders in the UCI’s official Mountain Bike Ranking (Narayan Gopal Maharjan, Aayman Thing Tamang, Buddhi Bahadur Tamang and Mangal Krishna Lama) and their participation in the 19th Asian MTB Championship in Chengdu last month (11-12 May 2013), which was sponsored by Himalayan Single Track, earned them 26, 16, 14 and 12 UCI points respectively. Hence, as a national team, they gathered 56 points for Nepal (the points for a national team are calculated by summing the points of the three best riders only), which results in Nepal being ranked no. 66 out of the 79 countries which are registered with the International Cycling Union and, hence, which can join UCI-sanctioned races. There are other good racers as well, including Ajay Pandit Chhetri and Rajkumar Shreshta, both regular winners of MTB racers in Nepal and nearby (e.g. in India, Thailand and Bhutan recently) – but so they are not on the UCI list.

In short, there is plenty of potential. The bad news is that being the 66th is good, but not good enough. Indeed, as mentioned above, only 50 men, and only 30 women, can join the Olympic MTB races. In addition, the better ranked national teams can send more racers and, hence, these better ranked teams take rider spots away from those countries which are lower down the ranking. To be precise, for the men, nations ranked 1st through 5th can (and will) send three mountain bikers to the Olympics; the 6th through 13th ranked nations will send two; and, finally, the 14th through 24th nations will send one rider each. So these 24 nations alone will get 42 riders spots (5×3 + 8×2 + 11×1) out of the fifty. For the women, it is a similar system.

Just to put things in perspective: Slovakia’s team, which is currently 24th in the UCI MTB Ranking (and, hence, which would just be good enough to send only one rider to the Olympics under the current system), has 665 UCI points. Again, this is not meant to demean the efforts of all involved but to present the facts and figures: Nepal’s top riders need to race more and finish better. Just to give an indication of the challenge, one should note that the winner in a UCI-sanctioned national championship gets 110 points, i.e. twice the total points of all riders of the Nepali team taken together. Or let’s take Belgium – whose position is somewhat more secure, as its team is currently 14th in the ranking: it has accumulated 1281 points in the 2013 season so far (this has been written on 18 June 2013) and its three riders (Kevin Van Hoovels, Jens Schuermans and Sebastien Carabin) are ranked no. 30, 61 and 68 in the UCI ranking respectively and participate in a UCI-sanctioned race every two or three weeks – with varying results but usually finishing pretty good.

Can Nepal advance to Slovakia’s or Belgium’s level in the short term? Maybe, but my guess is that it is not all that likely. So what can Nepal do if it would not be able to advance to the top 24 countries?

Well… There’s eight spots left out of the above-mentioned fifty, so Nepal could vie for those. Indeed, African, American, Asian and Oceanic nations who did not qualify riders based on their country’s ranking could qualify riders for the 2012 Olympics MTB race based on individual rankings from their respective 2011 Continental Championships. Indeed, the top two ranked men and the top ranked women from each Continental Championship, if not already qualified through their nation’s rankings, could also go to the Olympic Games. In other words, if Nepal’s riders would be able win the 2015 Asian MTB Championship races (first or second position for male riders and/or first position for women riders), they would also be able to go to the 2016 Olympics.

Unfortunately, Nepal’s best rider (a real hero as far as I am concerned, if only because other national racing teams in that race were able to give their champions a lot more financial and logistical support) during that race ended 23th only. He clocked a time of 1 hour and 46 minutes which, again, is good, but not good enough, as it is 20 minutes slower than the time of the winner of that race (Kohei Yamamoto from Japan): this difference amounts to a performance gap of about 20%. So what should be done? In my view, Nepal’s Olympic hopefuls should follow a two-pronged strategy:

  1. Make sure that Nepal’s top racers join more UCI-sanctioned races.
  2. Make sure that Nepal’s top racers in those races finish better by organizing more races at home (i.e. in Nepal).

Let me detail these two complementary lines of attack somewhat further below.

1. Gathering more UCI points

The cheapest way to gather more UCI points is to send Nepal’s top MTB racers to more UCI-sanctioned races. Alternatively, one could also organize one or more UCI-sanctioned races Nepal (first of all the national championship: most national teams gather a fair amount of points in their own national championship races) but, as mentioned above, that costs heaps of money because (a) you need to pay for a UCI team of officials monitoring the race, because (b) prize money will be UCI-regulated (and, hence, fairly high), and because (c) there are other many other fees and costs (calendar fees, registration fees, etcetera) to be paid to the UCI, all on top of the costs of organizing the race itself, which are also fairly considerable in light of the additional technical and organizational conditions.

Unfortunately, there are not that many UCI-sanctioned races in Asia so it is not a matter of just looking across the border. Indeed, while there are hundreds of UCI-sanctioned MTB races in Europe, there are only a handful of UCI-sanctioned races in Asia, and travelling to Europe is obviously not so cheap. There is also the visa issue for Nepali riders, which is probably as big as an obstacle as the money barrier – if not bigger. That being said, it is probably the way to go – if we can find the money that is, and if we can solve the visa issue.

Of course, the disadvantage of this fairly exclusive focus on a top-notch ‘Team Nepal’ is that, well… Let’s be frank, it really doesn’t pay to bet on more than three to five riders, because a country’s UCI ranking (and, hence, its Olympic ranking) is based on the UCI points gathered by its top three riders only. So this approach benefits a few riders only – while of the rest of Nepal’s MTB potential is left untapped.

In addition, one should also bear in mind that other countries which are close to Nepal in the UCI MTB ranking (such as Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, etcetera) will obviously try to do the same in the coming two years (every country nurtures Olympic dreams), and these other countries may find even more money to send some more racers to UCI-sanctioned races thereby increasing their chances to accumulate points more rapidly than Nepal.

2. Doing more races in Nepal itself

The second leg of Nepal’s Olympic MTB strategy should be to ensure that more young riders are competing, and that they are competing more regularly. This can easily be done by organizing more low-cost events in Nepal itself as part of a genuine regular national MTB competition.

Races are relatively simple to organize in Nepal: the Kathmandu Valley is just the ideal ground for doing such stuff, and there is also not much of a fuss about insurance, for example. Another advantage is that people (including the media) are generally very supportive. So it only takes a few individuals to quickly get something together. Indeed, a national championship race – as part of a national championship race series – could be organized every month, instead of every year.

More regular races would ensure there would be constant pressure to perform on the above-mentioned elite ‘Team Nepal’, which is good: the elected ‘Team Nepal’ should indeed feel some ‘heat from below’. In short, the organization of regular low-cost races is, in my view, an essential building block in the competitive MTB racing scene which Nepal’s Olympic Committee and Cycling Association would need to further cultivate.

That being said, it does require some money as well: the prizes need to be attractive in order to ensure that Nepal’s riders will want to join, and train for, these races.

In fact, it should be possible to combine both legs of the above-mentioned strategy in my view: (i) as mentioned above, a regular series of national championship races could be organized, and (ii) the prizes for the top five riders of the series could be the sponsoring of their participation in a UCI-sanctioned race abroad, including but not limited to the Asian Continental Championship races. Such approach would build both upon (a) the current tradition of the annual Nepal National Championship Races (XCO and downhill disciplines), which is organized by the Nepal Cycling Association (but not UCI-sanctioned), as well as (b) the current efforts of Himalayan Single Track – which I admire tremendously – to find the required funds for a fully fledged Nepali Riders Fund consisting of truly elite racers which can bring Nepal where it wants to be: in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

An added advantage of combining both is that a series of national championship races – as opposed to the current one-day event – would allow the Nepal Cycling Association to also build up a national ranking system for riders, under which riders would accumulate national (i.e. non-UCI) racing points over a series of national (i.e. non-UCI sanctioned) events. This would ensure more consistency in the selection procedure for ‘Team Nepal’ (if the national championship race is a one-off event only, the risk of illness, a technical defect or an accident may eliminate riders who wouldn’t be eliminated in a multi-stage approach) and it would also ensure that eligible riders would invest even more in training than they are already doing now – which should improve performance as a whole. Finally, such approach would also allow the concept of teams to be integrated into the local MTB scene here. For example, the various MTB outfits in Kathmandu could each form a team, and a team ranking could be made based on the individual rankings – not unlike the way the UCI ranks nations based on the performance of the individual riders.

Is this approach simplistic? I don’t think so. Why are small countries such as Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Estonia or Slovakia (no. 1, 2, 14, 18 and 24 in the current UCI national MTB ranking) so well represented in the rankings? In my view, it is not only because they are conveniently close to all of those UCI-sanctioned race events (or because these countries happen to be better off economically) but also because there’s a very active local mountainbiking scene, with plenty of very low-cost and low-key MTB racing events which all help to ‘feed into’ the bigger objective, and that is to send a handful of extremely well-trained and generously sponsored national riders to the 2016 Olympics. So Nepal should learn from how they do it in order to increase its chances of success for the 2016 Olympics.

Of course, one should also not forget the Asian Games, but for these the clock is ticking even faster: the next Asian Games are to be held in September 2014 already (in Incheon, South Korea).

Roads and development in Nepal

Much of the donor money which was spent in Nepal after the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was spent on infrastructure. For tourists, the effort to build roads stands out, as many classic trekking routes have lost their charm because of the road-building drive. Indeed, it is not so nice to trek along a dirt road, or to see jeeps on dirt roads nearby bring the locals to the same place as the ancient trail you’re following – but in an hour or so, while you will be walking all day. According to the third Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS-III), which was carried out last year, not less than 94% of the Nepali population in rural areas now has access to a dirt road within 30 minutes. Access to basic health care centers, primary schools and other facilities also confirm a huge improvement since 2005/2006 (i.e. when the second survey (NLSS-II) took place).

The quality of these dirt roads is abominable. I biked along such roads between Trisuli and Gorkha, thereby avoiding the main highway Kathmandu to Pokhara (which I find too dangerous for biking), and then I also cycled further west of Beni and Baglung, in an attempt to cycle to Dhorpatan and then on to Dolpo. In the Indian Himalayas (I’ve biked through Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Ladakh and Kashmir), I would easily cover 100 to 150 km per day. Not here: 50 km per day is a very good average. It’s not the gradient of the slopes: the Manali-Leh road has, most probably, the longest and steepest climbs in the world and, while they’re tough, I don’t mind. It’s the poor quality of the roads. Nepal’s dirt roads are extremely badly constructed: bulldozer roads really – extremely rocky, extremely muddy, or extremely sandy: it is difficult to move on them (the Census reveals that the population qualifies about a third of the roads as vehicle-impassable) and, if you do, it is at the expense of a lot of material wear and tear. Only jeeps, trucks and 4WD buses can go on them, and they break down too. As for me, I had to replace the whole drivetrain after the ride.

But so the roads are there, and they do bring cheap rice and other consumables from the plains. They also bring satellite dishes and TVs, along with other household investment items – but I am mentioning the satellite dishes and TVs in particular because of their cultural impacts. These cultural impacts are not very different from what happened in my home country forty or fifty years ago. My father was the first to buy a black-and-white TV, and the whole neighborhood came to gape at what they presumed to be the American lifestyle. They saw it in color later, which led them to buy their own TV. So that is happening here too (but the black-and-white phase is skipped of course). However, as an economist, I am more interested in the economic effect of these roads – i.e. the effect of the cheap rice and other consumables. What does it do to a village?

Economists tell us that better connectivity – i.e. not only roads but also mobile telephony – integrates markets and reduces transaction costs: roads make it cheaper to ‘export’ or ‘import’ goods and services from one region to another, and the phone makes sure you are not taking too much risk when doing so because price differentials (the price of a bag of rice in the nearest town for example) can be ascertained instantly. There are no surprises any more. Hence, farmers in the hills and mountains can sell their surpluses of rice, wheat or barley – or whatever they are able to sell – and buy cheaper… well… cheaper rice and wheat basically. Huh? How does that work?

It doesn’t. Cheap imports do reduce the incentive to produce food stuffs locally. It is a well-known fact that cheap food imports (e.g. cheap wheat flour) have a negative impact on local food production, changing consumption patterns (who eats manioc in Kinshasa nowadays?) and introducing dependency in the process. Economists do not look at that as a problem. On the contrary, it is part of a process of economic specialization during which countries or regions exploit their comparative or relative advantages vis-à-vis each other. Let me recall the basics of that theory: comparative advantage refers to the ability to produce a particular good or service at a lower marginal and opportunity cost over another. There is no need to have an absolute production advantage. Even if one country (or region) is more efficient in the production of all goods than the other (i.e. if it has an absolute advantage in all goods – which is probably the case in Nepal: whatever product we are considering, it is cheaper to produce it in the plains than in the mountains), both countries or regions will still gain by trading with each other, as long as they have different relative efficiencies. For example, if, using machinery, a worker in one country can produce both shoes and shirts at 6 per hour, and a worker in a country with less machinery can produce either 2 shoes or 4 shirts in an hour, each country can gain from trade because their internal trade-offs between shoes and shirts are different. The less-efficient country has a comparative advantage in shirts, so it finds it more efficient to produce shirts and trade them to the more-efficient country for shoes.

That’s the theory. So what products or services should be produced in the hills and mountain zones? What is their comparative advantage? In practice, the theory of comparative advantages and/or specialization does not work. If anything, it is labor which is being exported. Indeed, most people in the more remote areas are happy to stop cultivating their land, and families push their men and sons (and their able young women as well) to seek some kind of employment in Kathmandu or, even better, somewhere abroad. Yes, the equivalent of the American Dream in Nepal is to become a dish-washer in Dubai, a security guard in Kabul or a nanny in London (of course, women are also being offered more sinister possibilities for employment abroad: trafficking of women is a huge issue in Nepal).

The roads make it easy: your beloved ones can use them to visit you during the weekend when in Kathmandu (it only takes a dreadful journey on bus and/or by jeep), or once or twice a year when abroad.

The statistics don’t lie. The Census data shows that, over the past decade, Nepal’s population has grown from 23.1 to 26.5 million people but that, at the same time, not less than 27 districts (out of a total of 75 districts) recorded negative population growth during the last decade. [The Census uses the same nice economic euphemism: negative growth. Decrease doesn’t sound right I guess.] These 27 districts are all hill and/or mountain districts and, hence, the conclusion is quite straightforward: the newly built roads in the hills and mountain zone make it easy to leave. There are 17 districts with a population of less than 150,000 now, and they account for 6% of the population only (1.6 out of 26.5 million). All of the districts in the mountain zone (except for Sindhupalchok north of Kathmandu valley) have a population of less than 200,000 people. A quarter of the population now lives in a town (defined as a village of more than 20,000 people) or one of the larger municipalities.

The Census also took stock of the above-mentioned phenomenon of seeking employment abroad or in the capital: in one into four households, one or more members of the household are absent or working abroad indeed. The total number of such absentee family members adds up to close to 2 million people, as opposed to about 760,000 only a decade ago (i.e. in 2001). These people are currently the main breadwinners of Nepal – even if they’re not present in the country.

It is an inconvenient fact that economic development is, more often than not, disruptive and, hence, comes at the expensive of huge social-economic costs. Some win, some lose: one can only hope there are more winners than losers. In Nepal, however, the social costs of development seem to be enormous. Grandmothers or uncles and aunts take care of kids, as their father or mother is trying to earn some money for the whole family in Kathmandu or abroad. As they grow older, they will be sent to a private boarding school – if the family can afford it – because that’s the gateway to a job in Kathmandu or abroad. In the worst case, they will only make the army of the unemployed swell even larger. While Nepal’s social fabric has not broken down – as yet – the current political quagmire would seem to indicate that the system may be close to it.

But so what do the locals think of it all? That question is easy to answer. All of the people I met think the new roads are good: they bring development. So who am I to criticize?