The last national census of Nepal recognised 125 separate social groups within the population of 26.6 million people; that is wealth of human diversity. Yet step into any government office or large private company in Kathmandu, and the chances are high that the person sitting behind the desk is a man originating from the hills and belonging to one of three groups: Brahmin, Chhetri, or Newar – the “privileged group”. If there are any staff in the building who belong to the so-called low caste Dalits, they will probably be employed in the most menial positions – especially if they are women.
The social structure of the typical office reflects deeply entrenched hierarchies that, though shaken by Nepal’s 11 year civil conflict, are still alive today. Promoting a workforce that is representative of Nepal’s social diversity is seen by many as an essential part of breaking down social inequalities. It is not difficult to see the moral and democratic argument for this. The counter-argument runs that men of the “privileged group” are invariably the most talented and experienced individuals, so why not employ the best? It is added that it will take years of education and training to bring others – including women – to a similar level. There is some truth in this, given the biased opportunities that have prevailed. Yet as any human resource management specialist will point out, there is plenty of evidence to show that a diverse workforce is more innovative, creative and productive than a broadly homogeneous one.
Workforce diversity in international agencies
Raising the topic of workforce diversity in Nepal is a sensitive matter. It was thus a brave step of some 30 international agencies to conduct, back in 2008, a survey of their Nepalese workforce diversity – and to publish the results. This initiative was coordinated by the Social Inclusion Action Group (SIAG), an ad-hoc group of committed professionals working for a number of these agencies. The results of the survey were stark, but not surprising. A total 65.6% of all staff were found to belong to the hills “privileged” group, whereas they make up only 36.4% of Nepal’s population overall. Highly unrepresented groups were indigenous people of the Terai (the lowland plains of Nepal), and Dalits (who, depending on exact definitions, make up some 11 – 13% of the overall population). On gender, the figures were better: women comprised 29.3% of the Nepali workforce of these agencies, and 25% of senior management – which in the Nepal context, indicates a clear targeting of women professionals for promotion.
The organisations participating in this survey where mainly bilateral government agencies (including SDC, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) and UN organisations. As an NGO, Helvetas-Nepal was not included. However, like SDC, we do monitor our workforce diversity extremely closely, and practice affirmative action.
Our workforce diversity
So how do we shape up in 2014, six years after SIAG published their survey? The answer is “not bad, but could still do better”. In order to make ethnic, caste and geographical distinctions as meaningful as possible, staff are categorised into 13 groups. We currently employ 230 staff – by far the largest staffing of any country programme. The number reflects both the programme size and geographical spread. Hill “privileged groups” still make up 52% of all staff, but we also have a significant number of staff of different groups from the Terai: 20% in all. This is important in that a number of our projects are Terai-based. Furthermore, 11 members of our staff are Hill Dalits (5% of the workforce). On gender, 27% of our staff are women; and women make up 27% of our senior leadership positions.
A lot of thought and careful human resource management is hidden behind these figures. Our recruitment procedures include affirmative actions that give women and individuals from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups a better chance, whilst not leading to their automatic selection; they also have to have the basic competencies for the job. This is not always so difficult to find; for example, we recently recruited an extremely dynamic woman Deputy Country Director.
Commenting on the promising number of women and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds in the team, our Human Resource Management Coordinator, Arunima Kayastha notes, “we need to ensure a suitable working environment and opportunities to build their capacity”. Offers of further training and promotion indeed take the individual’s background and gender into account. At the same time, male “privileged group” members of staff should not feel threatened. In the words of our Country Director, Bharat Pokharel, “The role of champions (especially men) in leadership positions is crucial”. He himself aims to be just such a champion.