Ajaya Dixit, Executive director of ISET-Nepal

9 January 2017
SERIES South Asian Executive Directors 16 items

Ajaya Dixit is the Executive Director of ISET-Nepal a non-governmental and not-for-profit organisation and a think tank. It primarily studies and analyses developmental issues of rapidly changing social and environmental context that demand new insights into the emerging challenges to manage resources for sustainable development.

Annapoorna Ravichander: Could tell us about yourself?

Ajaya Dixit: After obtaining my Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering, I began to teach Water Engineering at the Institute of Engineering in Tribhuvan University. In addition to this, I also began engaging in other areas that were more multi-disciplinary in nature.

However, around the mid-1980s, I came to realise that the technical focus of my work was limiting. All my professional work focused on design, development, operation and management of water systems, but these designs often did not encompass the institutional, social and ecological dimensions of water that are central to determining productivity, acceptability and sustainability. In fact, while the science of water flow and the application of technology were fairly established, these other aspects remained poorly addressed. Thus, gradually, I began to study these social and natural dimensions as well. These other aspects are still poorly addressed.

AR: How did ISET-Nepal come about?

AD: After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Nepal saw rapid changes in its social and political milieus. Meanwhile, climate change emerged as a major global threat during this period and Nepal began to deal with its challenges by, for example, adapting to induced vulnerabilities.

Such changing contexts motivated a group of us to establish the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal (ISET-Nepal) in 2001 with the objective of undertaking interdisciplinary examination of social and ecological changes. At ISET-Nepal, we focus on improving knowledge regarding the changing dynamics of resource use to understand the larger shifting social, economic, political and institutional contexts.

AR: What have been your main challenges as an Executive Director? How you address these? Did you receive any support from, if so from whom?

AD: During the early days, as ISET-Nepal was evolving, we paid little attention to the needs and priorities of different types of audiences in our outreach activities. However, today, we make efforts to engage with a diverse range of decision-makers in the government, lawmakers, development organizations and civil society actors. We also work with university departments, students, local groups, media outlets, other think tanks, teachers and local communities.

We understand that it is critical to understand the imperatives, needs, and incentives of diverse actors if research findings are to deliver changes through public policy actions. Researchers need to build diverse partnerships and alliances to ensure that policies are based on evidence generated through research. We also recognise the need to cross national borders and constructively engage with regional and international counterparts.

Finding ways to work with decision-makers in the government remains a daunting task. Though the world is becoming more complex, officials at the helm of implementing public policy often show little inkling for reflection and iteration – the fundamental basis for conducting any effective research. These agencies try to minimise risks by promoting tested methods generated by in-house expertise rather than through insights from current researches.

Investments in improving ISET-Nepal’s organisational capacity have helped produce high quality research, effective policy engagement and advocacy.

But retaining qualified human capital and ensuring financial sustainability are our two major challenges. In fact, retaining qualified professionals is a major challenge for many research agency and think tanks in Nepal. We find ourselves competing with international NGOs, bilateral donors, and multi-lateral agencies for qualified human resources. This has forced us to be creative: we invest in training a young generation of professionals and provide them with new opportunities. This has helped maintain our staff retention rates.

The changing in-country regulatory context presents another challenge. Any research organisation or think tank must comply with national laws. In Nepal, regulators inquire about the specific contributions that our research has made to meet the country’s development objectives. We re-iterate that our role is to produce knowledge and argue that research findings should be aimed at improving policies and practices –but are not directly responsible for them. But we have a hard time making a case.

Regulators use the same yardstick to judge research organisations as they do to judge a development organisation that, for example, works on building schools or planting saplings. This is like comparing apples and oranges. One of our biggest challenges right now is to change the perceptions of government regulators regarding the importance of critical research and the role it can have on the policy landscape.

AR: This is important in respect to the long-term support that think tanks require from domestic sources -including the State. In your opinion, what is the future of the funding scenario in Nepal? If funders were to discontinue funding, what would be the future of think tanks like yours? Would you be able attract domestic funding?

AD: Nepal’s development is, for the most part, externally funded through bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies. This is also true of resource allocation for research and knowledge production. Funding for research on topics such as climate change vulnerabilities, adaptation, disaster risk reduction, resilience building and many other such critical areas comes from external sources. Most of these calls are packaged within the specific funding architecture of different donors. Recently, and often, there seems to be increasing donor preference towards for-profit private sector development actors and less for home grown think tanks.

AR: Does this also affect what gets funded and what doesn’t?

AD: Yes. We find it very hard to make a case for funding support that helps build capacity towards the assimilation and synthetisation of knowledge. Insights from many on-going projects have remained fragmented and not consolidated into knowledge. They are not available for the larger public policy making community. At the same time, capacity of in-country organisations to conduct independent research and policy outreach remains low.

Still, to ensure the diversity of our sources of funding and to remain engaged with key development actors we do take part in project based proposal calls even though they provide little room for building core funding.

To make matter worse, national investment in knowledge generation is extremely low. We continue to explore possibilities of raising in-country funding for research and knowledge generation, though this terrain is unlikely to change any time soon. Without assured funding, wherever it comes from, it would be difficult to allocate resources for research on emerging challenges such as climate change adaptation, the post globalising world, and inequality, as well as carryout out activities related to innovation on poverty alleviation.

AR: What key lessons have you learned in your role as Executive Director of ISET-Nepal?

AD: As the Executive Director of ISET-Nepal, I have had the benefit to continuously learn from the research we conduct as well as from how the organisation has evolved over the years. I have learned that working to build an institution is very different from trying to achieve a personal milestone as an independent researcher. Building an organisation does not only mean that you must move forward as a team but you also need to build alliances within and outside the country.

Meeting these larger objectives and demonstrating tangible gains will require continuous investments in universities which are where knowledge is principally generation. In Nepal’s context today, universities are heavily politicised, which is seriously compromising critical knowledge production. Because we understand that no country can move forward if its universities do not contribute to high quality research, we have established partnerships with selected university departments in Nepal to help in knowledge generation to whatever extent we can. We partner with university departments to conduct collaborative research, bring out joint publications, and supervise students’ theses and organise conferences for master level graduates for knowledge sharing and networking.

Production of knowledge involves contesting conventional wisdom with new ideas. One must be engaged with the larger research community, learn, reflect, revisit assumptions and bring froth new ideas. Nepal’s continued political transition, particularly in the prevailing partisan national politics and public policy landscape, present challenges in use of research to inform public policy. Though policy makers may recognise the importance of evidence, in the prevailing political climate, evidence from research is hardly used in public policy-making.

Over a longer term, we at ISET-Nepal have had some positive incremental outcomes in terms of influencing policy. But such influences cannot be directly attributed to our work alone as many other actors also contribute to this. Grounded interdisciplinary research, that has geographical diversity, is beneficial for policy processes but they must be weaved effectively and linked with the policymakers’ needs.

Our work also shows that the policy world is not homogenous and influence occurs through a non-linear process that involves forming an opinion, shaping a discourse, and then finally the uptake of evidence. This has been one of my key learnings. But for the most part, convincing policy makers about the importance of research and evidence is a herculean task.

AR: And what about lessons emerging from your experience managing ISET-Nepal? For instance, how has your interaction with your Board members been?

AD: ISET-Nepal’s board is an independent entity. The Board provides strategic and policy directions, monitors compliance to the law and the regulatory requirements. The members are supportive, and provide ideas and opinions on issues faced by the organisation and help with its growth.

AR: How do you plan on choosing a policy issue to work on or a project? Is there a specific agenda or process that you follow?

AD: Our organisational strategy has set broad themes for research. The themes are based on lessons from our past research and Nepal’s needs. We also respond to calls for proposals relating to themes such as climate change, disaster risk reduction, resilience, water and energy. By participating in such different calls, we attempt to remain engaged but not too stretched while looking for opportunities to diversify our portfolio of projects and funding.

We emphasise on the mentoring of young students and young professionals during research and production of knowledge as we believe that this is key to larger positive outcomes.

AR: How has the think tank community changed since ISET-Nepal was founded?  

AD: The number of research organisations and think tanks in Nepal is increasing, which I believe is a positive development. At the same time, we see less interest in generation of critical knowledge and learning. The establishment views efforts at critical knowledge as irritants.  As members of the think tank community we must recognise these trends and work towards meeting the objectives of evidence-based research and use the evidence for effective policy engagement.

I see a much greater need for dialogue, sharing and understanding. The pervasive use of social media presents many opportunities but also many challenges: we seem to be becoming more mechanistic and individualistic. We need more interaction among researchers, particularly of the younger generation if we are to successfully identify solutions for the prevailing problems. The institutions we have created over the decades, to address many social and natural problems, appear unable to adapt to the changing circumstances. The challenges are coming up with new business models. I believe that regular interactions among researchers of South Asia and at the global level are key to meeting some of these objectives.

The emerging complexity and uncertainty with instances of increasing pollution, inequality and poor governance makes our line of work even more challenging. In this complex and uncertain world, the dominance of a singular worldview is a recipe for more conflicts. While identifying ways forward most tend to simplistically paint the world in black and white or to argue that one must choose between A or B. The choice is not only between A and B, however. There is also a C and a D. We need to work toward enriching the policy space with critical but constructive questioning and nurture diversity and pluralistic democracy.