Promises to keep ICIMOD

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), based in Kathmandu, has been around for nearly a decade, and remains the only one of its kind worldwide. However, for some reasons of its own making and some not, the Centre has not been able to make a dent in the world of development studies and applied research.

In an effort to revive ICIMOD, its Board met in Berne last June and decided to revamp the structure and change the personnel. Acting on the advice of a three-member review panel, the Board decided, among other things, to change its own composition and thus reduce the influence of government representatives, recruit the Centre´s core staff according to international criteria,"decentralise" ICIMOD´s functioning in the region, and correct the existing over-representation of Nepali staff.

As Rudolf Hoegger, the Swiss historian and Chairman of the Board said then, the Centre´s future strategy should comprise of three elements, "Quality, Quantity and Stability."

The complaint ICIMOD-watchers have had over the years is that all three attributes are lacking in ICIMOD´s functioning and output. The next couple of years will show whether the regional member States, on the one hand, and the donors, on the other, will allow the Centre to function as an independent entity, and whether the Centre´s new leadership (the term of present Director E.F.Tacke runs out in mid-1993) and staff will be up to the challenge thrown to them.

Mountain research was not a new discipline that suddenly came to being with ICIMOD (pronounced "ee-see-mod", rather than "ikkimod"). Within the region, as far back as 1936, Indian scientist S.D. Pant had published a classic entitled Social Economy of the Himalayas. Numerous scientists all over the world have, over the past half century, contributed to understanding the economic and ecological processes that are unique to the mountains. Institutions that have been particularly involved in mountain research include the [Soviet Academy of Sciences], the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) of France, the International Mountain Society, as well as urn versifies and re search institutes in South Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Despite the high volume of mountain-related academic activity, focal point was lacking, and an important meeting of mountain scientists in Munich in 1974 under the aegis of the German Foundation for International Dev elopment led, ultimately, to the establishment of ICIMOD in December 1983. The Centre´s inception also derived impetus from the work of UNESCO´s Man and Biosphere Programme, which had highlighted the requirements for ecologically and economically sound mountain area development. (See "ICIMOD Searches for Its SourHimal May 1987)

The Centre´s inauguration was a week-long jamboree featuring the high priests of mountain studies — Gisbert Glaser, Corneille Jest, Jack D. Ives, A.D.Moddie, John Lall and Nepal´s own Harka B. Gurung. The keynote addres s was given by MauriceF. Strong, presently Secretary-General of the United Nations* Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) to be held in Brazil this June. Strong was prescient in warning of the pitfalls that lay ahead for aregional organisation in a politically volatile South Asia. All international institutes, he said, faced the dangers of over-politicisation and bureaucratisation,andICIMODmight prove not to be an exception .The staff, he worried, might "be too inwardly focused on the operation of the organization itself and too little on the basic objectives for which (ICIMOD) was created," He added, "Professional, technical, and operation competence must be the prime criteria for recruiting and rewarding personnel." ICIMOD´s task was to provide "enlightened leadership´ ´ and to resist the temptatio n of setting itself apart from other institutions.


No sooner had it been set up than the Centre came up against the rough world of regional realities. Though the intentions of its founders were honourable, they had not anticipated the intensity of India´s suspicions towards any international institution that might propose to work along its "sensitive" northern frontier.

India´s apprehensions grew with the appointment of Colin Rosser, a 62-year-old British sociologist, as ICIMOD´s first Director. It is not clear what exactly India had against Rosser, but he had apparently been asked to leave in the 1960s by the Indian Government when he had been working in Calcutta as a Ford Foundation official. Rosser´s links to the region goes back to his service in the British Gurkhas during World War II and, subsequently, his field work on the Neware in settlements east of Kathmandu.

As long as T.N. Khoshoo, a mild-mannered botanist known to be close to Indira Gandhi was India´s representative on the ICIMOD Board, the Centre had reasonably cordial relations with India. But when Rajiv Gandhi´s strong man, T.N. Seshan, then Secretary for Forests and Environment, replaced Khoshoo in December 1985, relations went sour. Seshan made it a point to display his dislike for Rosser, and to be rather abrasive at Board meetings.

It so happened once that ICIMOD held a meeting in Himachal Pradesh without Seshan´s knowledge and without permission from the Central Government. Rosser was present at the meeting, held in Shimla. New Delhi decided there and then to make things difficult for ICIMOD. Henceforth, Rosser was to be denied entry visas. As one of Seshan´s last acts as Secretary for Forests and Environment (he went onto become Rajiv Gandhi´s Cabinet Secretary, and subsequently India´s Election Commissioner), he dashed off letters to all of India´s northern States forbidding any ICIMOD activity without prior approval of the Central Government. As an ICIMOD review document put it, making indirect reference to India, "…in one case (there has been) a virtual prohibition on the establishment of direct collaborative links with national institutions (which is) to be regretted."

With the departure of Seshan, and time as the great healer, relations between the Centre and the Indian Government improved slightly, although due to the present restructuring hiatus at ICIMOD, it remains to be seen what the relationship has in store. But perhaps the experience of a Chandigarh-based ecologist provides a hint: in 1986, he was warned by an Indian Administrative Service colleague "not to touch ICIMOD with a barge pole." In February this year, when he renewed his enquiries about job prospects at the Centre, he was told that ICIMOD was now considered "clean".

The recent appointment of Mukul Sanwal as India´s Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Environment is welcomed by ICIMOD´s well-wishers. An ICIMOD document prepared for the Berne meeting identified him as an "acting Board member". Sanwal is well-regarded as a broad-minded professional interested in mountain development, and the hope is that he will look at ICIMOD´s case on its merits.

There is no doubt, of course, that ICIMOD needs India´s support much more than India needs ICIMOD. New Delhi is quite capable of conducting mountain development research through its numerous educational and action-research institutions, including the Govind Ballabh Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, established in AImora in 1988, some say as an answer to ICIMOD.

It might, however, be unwise for New Delhi to continue to ignore ICIMOD, whose access to worldwide information and expertise is impressive. If it were to receive India´s unstinted support, ICIMOD could grow into an organisation whose work, ultimately, would benefit the Indian hill peasant as much as anyone else.

With .the rising aspirations of the hill communities in the Indian Himalaya, the Indian Government also needs to open itself to the advantages that it can reap from regional interaction on mountain development issues. The recent changes in global power politics and adjustments in India´s own geo-political outlook, too, might make New Delhi´s bureaucrats less wary of ICIMOD.

It is easy to criticise ICIMOD for this or that failing, but it is true that the output of an institution lite the Centre tends to be more cerebral than tangible. Over the years, the Centre has provided the only permanent forum of its kind in all South Asia, where researchers from all the regional countries are able to discuss common concerns. ICIMOD´s strength lies in "human resources development," and its senior fellowships have brought both regional and overseas professionals to its "campus´ ´in Lailitpur. More than 60 staff members from nations other than Nepal have attended ICIMOD´ s programmes and returned to resume important professional work at home. The links and associations thus made through the aeg is of the Centre are obviously of great value for mountain development as well as for regional understanding.

Through workshops and consultative meetings, ICIMOD has influenced decision-makers, particularly in Nepal, to include the mountain perspective into the formulation and implementation of programmes. The Centre´s research and development programmes, witli, varying degrees of success, have led to a better understanding of issues related to fanning systems, natural resources, planning, population and employment, infrastructure and technology, and environmental management in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region. The Centre has held training programmes in diverse fields such as district energy planning and management, "mountain risk engineering", computer applications, data processing and documentation.

An overall critique of the Centre´s functioning is to be found in the report of a "Quinquennial Review Panel," which studied five years´ of ICIMOD´s functioning, its programmes and administration. Although the review was submitted to ICIMOD´s Board in early 1991, its conclusions remain valid because the changes mandated by ICIMOD´s Board have not yet been fully effected. (It seems that difficulties in making lump-sum payments to departing staff have delayed the process of retrenchment and restructuring. For more information on ICIMOD´s transition, see "ICIMOD Tries a Change," Himal Sep/Oct 1991.)

While largely supportive of ICIMOD´s goals and the need for enhanced funding from donors to ensure its stability and growth, the panel found many large and small problems with ICIMOD´s programmes and management. It virtually warned the Centre that if it does not correct its path and "transform itself in to available international center for mountain environment and development at the global level, other new initiatives are likely to draw funds away."

In terms of internal functioning, the panel members felt that the distribution of responsibilities was "perplexing" and suggested that administrative staff not be given authority over technical programmes. "Administrative procedures should be subordinate to program objectives," they noted; adding that the management´s overwhelming control over allocations gave it power out of proportion with its role. "The strong centralised leadership of the original Director left little scope for participatory process in programming," and there is "an unfortunate distance between the professional program staff, the administration and the leadership," the panel stated.

The review also found a high degree of rank and status consciousness which seemed to displace "concentrated concern for program productivity." I detected little " spirit" and "little sense of excitement among many of the staff."

The panel reprimands ICIMOD for hiring carried out "on the basis of personal contact and individual qualifications," but adds that even the present staff should be capable of doing much more productive work "with effective leadership and adequate financial support."

ICIMOD´s record for gender-sensitivity has been abysmal, and the panel was also quick to point this out as well. The Board has never had a female member, and women in the professional categories are concentrated away from substantive work areas. As with most international agencies, the secretarial help is almost entirely female.


The most visible output of ICIMOD has been its publications. Over eight years, till the end of 1991, the Centre had brought out 16 occasional papers, 15 workshop reports, 4 proceedings, 6 books, one manual and 53 discussion papers. The quality of the content tend to fluctuate significantly.

To begin with, the publications of ICIMOD are too Nepal-focused—10 of the 16 occasional papers deal with Nepal alone. Until recently, there was no set procedure for peer review and screening before publication. In one instance, an ICIMOD paper which promised a review of integrated development projects in Nepal turned out to be a mere list. Later, it was discovered that a similar paper had been submitted in 19S1 to UNDP. Early on, the only review of a draft text was the Director´s reading it for "objectional" material that might create problems with member Governments.

The review panel´s suggestion was that ICIMOD have its publication drafts scrutinised by "an external Panel of readers acting anonymously." Bruno Messerli, a prominent Italian professor, whose independent comments are included in the panel´s report, found that there Was no clear differentiation between publications meant for the scientific community and those for decision-makers and workers at the community level. There was also confusion over whether publication s were meant for internal or external use.

ICIMOD was to be a place where scientists could collaborate and reach for a synthesis of ideas. Unfortunately, ICIMOD professionals have not collaborated well, and most publications have been individual efforts. While outside scholars occasionally address the Centre staff, rarely are talks organised in which staff members share information with one another regarding their work.

When ICIMOD was established, it was expected that the Centre would publish, either by itself or in collaboration with other research centers, an academic journal or at the very least a bulletin on mountain matters for a global readership. The only ICIMOD periodical so far has been a bi-annual newsletter on the Centre´s own activities.


Between 1985 and 1990, ICIMOD spent a total of U$ 113 million, with Switzerland and West Germ any providing about US 6 million of that amount During the same period, the regional countries were able to come up with only about half a million dollars. Funding for special projects, totalling U$ 4.3 million, was provided by the European Community, the Asian Development Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Ford Foundation and others.According to projections contained in an ICIMOD document, the Centre´s financial requirements are slated to increase steadily over the next decade. For an organisation which spent approximately U$ 3 million in 1991, it is projected that ICIMOD will require U$ 7 million in 1995 and US 14 million in 2000.

The work atmosphere in ICIMOD is hampered by stilted formality, a sense of hierarchy, and a lack of openness. There is palpable distrust among sections of the staff and little sense of camaraderie. There is also an unfortunate and unwarranted defensiveness when it comes to criticism. Staff members fret and fume when something negative appears in the press, but profess their inability to respond— a result of the rigidly top-down nature of the organisation. Some professionals are frustrated by their inability to reply to what they feel is unfounded criticism of the Centre or of themselves.

Part of the problem with the atmosphere at ICIMOD is the nature of the organisation, straddling as it does a region with super-sensitive governments. This leads the Director to exercise tight control over what goes out in ICIMOD´s name. But part of the problem has been the Director himself.

The Centre has had two Directors so far, coming from opposite backgrounds. Rosser was an academician, a professor at the University College in London. He was an enthusiastic man of ideas but, according to a former colleague, lacked "persistence". He was also inordinately influenced by back-room tattle, it is said. Rosser.´s role was undermined by his "Indian problem", which greatly hurt the organisation as a whole.

When Rosser´s term was up, the Director´s post was advertised and persons eminently qualified to lead the organisation applied from all over, including such top names as Robert Rhodes and Jack D. Ives. India proposed the name of R.V. Singh, a well-regarded forestry expert. The Board by-passed them all to choose E-R Tacke, an agro-economist working at the Asian Development Bank in Manila, it is said, for 15 years. By all accounts, while Tacke has been able to barely maintain ICIMOD´s administration, he lacks leadership and has been unable to energise the institution intellectually.

The next Director, who will inherit a "new and improved" ICIMOD, will hopefully be an activist and a visionary. Right at the start of ICIMOD, it was unfortunate that "donor politics" and regional suspicions sidelined individuals who might have provided the leadership that ICIMOD needed then, and does even today.

The new Director, of course, will only be as successful as the Board allows him/her to be. Due to UNESCO´s influence at ICIMOD´s founding, the structure given to the Centre was that of an UNesque inter-governmental organisation rather than an international institute. The power of government-appointed Board members was paramount, and initiatives could be killed at the displeasure of any one Board member.

From the beginning, the Board was packed with Government bureaucrats rather than independent professionals. As the review panel noted, "Board members are often administrators with no´ professional specialisation in fields relevant to ICIMOD." The suggestion of the panel was that the Board be dissolved and in its place two bodies be formed a Board of Trustees and a Support Group of donors. The Board of Trustees was to comprise of "highly qualified professionals elected in their personal capacities."

In Berne, the old Board stopped short of fully effecting the panel´s recommendation by deciding that the Board of Trustees would have 15 members, of whom eight would be representatives of member Governments of the region, and seven independent professionals.


What is ICIMOD? A research institution? An implementing agency? A think tank? At the moment, because it lacks a conceptual base, what the Center does overall is merely a collection of what each member of the staff does. A theme and a direction is not yet clear. The review panel´s recommendation was that ICIMOD "steer more and row less." To overcome "the danger of spreading commonplace knowledge," it suggested that ICIMOD decemtalise its work and internationalise the hiring of its professional staff. The panel was of the view that ICIMOD should establish contact with institutions in regional countries and work cooperatively, rather than trying to exist exclusively and control all work from the headquarters.

ICIMOD is still searching for its soul, and for the good of the population of the Himalayan region, hopefully it will locate it soon. A lot has changed in the world arena since the Centre was set up. Nepal and Bangladesh are both experimenting with democracy and are more open societies. Across the´ expanse of South Asia, there has been a rise of grassroots activism. While old geo-political problems continue to fester, in all the countries of the Himalaya Hindu-Kush region, there are individuals of ability who have been brought together by ICIMOD, SAARC and other collaborative efforts. Today, there is a core group of professionals across South Asia in contact with each other and ready to form the nucleus of an intellectual movement. In the middle of all this, it is still possible for the Centre to emerge as an intellectual hub of the region.

ICIMOD´s groundwork is complete and the structure is up. The organisation might have been ahead of its time when it was created, but times now seem to have caught up. Only three things are required: the regional countries, particularly India, must give a revamped ICIMOD the opportunity to prove itself; the donors must guarantee financial support beyond the turn of the century; and ICIMOD itself must work harder to earn its name.

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