Managing the consequences of Joanna Lumley’s campaign: Gurkhas and development in Nepal

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Anna Townsend is a military wife and founder of Women Without Roofs – Nepal. She recently completed an MSc in Poverty Reduction and Development Management with IDD. She can be contacted at

In 2004 I accompanied my husband, a British Army Officer serving with the Gurkhas, to live in Kathmandu, Nepal and so began an ongoing passion for all things Nepali. Having set up the charity Women Without Roofs to benefit destitute women, I found myself in the City of London in 2011 at a Charity Dragons’ Den event trying to raise some funds. It was however a propitious evening, not least because the Dragons liked our charity, but also because I was introduced to Jeremy Lefroy, MP for Stafford, who is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Britain and Nepal. So it was that whilst all my fellow students flew off to sunnier climes for their dissertation research, I made the journey to Stafford on the train!

Both Jeremy and I were aware that the decision to allow Gurkhas to settle in the UK following their service in the British Army, famously fought for by Joanna Lumley, had had a negative impact on Nepal. Gurkhas now look towards their future in the UK and therefore no longer send large amounts of money home to Nepal to be invested there. Towns such as Dharan, that I had visited whilst living in Nepal, were once orderly and booming thanks to the influence of the retired Gurkhas resident there. Council services, such as rubbish collections, were introduced and the entire town population benefited.

My research quest therefore became to understand what influence the Gurkhas, now in their new role as a diaspora, could have on Nepal’s development from afar. At no point did I take for granted that Gurkhas should be helping Nepal develop, but I did assume that Gurkhas would want to make a meaningful contribution to Nepal and this assumption was justified by the enthusiasm I met with in focus groups with the Gurkhas and their wives serving in Stafford. I also believed that the British Government, having disadvantaged Nepal by holding on to retired Gurkhas, was morally obliged to help and of course the Nepali government should be doing all it can, though I discovered it wasn’t.

The research identified eight areas in which Gurkhas could aid and assist Nepal to develop. These were, in summary: Advocate and lobby on behalf of Nepal, Increase the value of remittances through charity giving, Invest in a diaspora or public bond, Plan for and participate in disaster response, Build trade links with Nepal, Use sport for development, Involve themselves with the wider development community and finally there were several areas of policy that could be amended to help development.

Diaspora bonds are in vogue with the World Bank right now (Dilip Ratha heads up the research) and are perceived as having great potential for raising development finance. Nepal Rastra Bank (the national bank of Nepal) has tentatively made them available for purchase by its diaspora and I was able to meet and interview their Executive Director of Public Debt whilst visiting Nepal – I made it beyond Stafford eventually! Sadly his answers to my questions about the bond gave me no confidence in the worthiness of the product and it even transpired that the Government could cover any shortfall if the bond did not sell. It seems Nepal’s own Government thinks the country is too unstable to invest in right now and so its treasury is full. I found this staggering.

Gurkhas in the Downing Street garden after new settlement rules were announced, 21 May 2009.

Gurkhas in the Downing Street garden after new settlement rules were announced, 21 May 2009. Photo credit: 10 Downing Street.

Both the suggestions that Gurkhas could be involved in disaster response and use sport for development play to their particular strengths as a diaspora group. Gurkhas serve in the British Army as Logisticians, Signallers (communications specialists) and Engineers, all of which, coupled with their language skills, would make them extremely useful in the wake of a disaster in Nepal; given that the country sits on a major fault line this is more than likely. The Gurkha Major in Aldershot had a keen desire to see Nepal compete on the global sporting stage and he wished to copy the success of Kenya by finding and training great runners from impoverished backgrounds. He hoped this would help Nepalis to feel proud of their nation.

As a military wife I was most encouraged by the compassion yet worldliness of the Gurkha wives. They were aware of the problems of human trafficking in Nepal and were keen to do what they could to raise awareness of the issue in their home villages. My research suggests that it is they who have the most time and enthusiasm for the solutions I recommended and my hope is to continue working with them both in Stafford and in Aldershot where I now live.

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