When you search the name D.N.S. Dhakal online, you find two very different people.

The first is head of the Bhutan National Democratic Party and a political activist and advocate for Bhutanese refugees.

The second is an expert economist who has taught at Duke and Harvard and has worked for the World Bank, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Development Program.

As you look more closely, you realize they are one and the same.

Since 1992, Dr. Dhakal, the first person from Bhutan to earn a Ph.D., has balanced his work in activism and development. As a senior fellow at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) since 2001, he has helped train more than 500 officials in project appraisal. He has also conducted cost-benefit analysis of projects in more than 20 countries, from Azerbaijan to Ukraine.

Striving for social justice in Bhutan

Dhakal was born in the rural Himalayas to a Lhotsampa farming family, a community of people of Nepali origin that has lived in southern Bhutan since the late 19th century.

More than 100,000 Lhotsampa have fled Bhutan since the 1980s after being marginalized for their language, culture and religion. After spending two decades in UNHCR camps in Nepal, they are being resettled in the U.S., Canada and Europe. More than 80,000 are already in the U.S.

“It was a misunderstanding,” Dhakal said. “When the democracy movement was picking up worldwide, the people of southern Bhutan demanded more cultural rights and the Bhutanese government felt threatened. Once the problem was created, it was difficult to resolve because the government was afraid it would result in instability.”

Dhakal publishes regularly on the refugee crisis and runs a website to urge the Bhutanese government to recognize the resettled refugees as “non-resident Bhutanese” and permit those who are still in the camps to return to Bhutan with “dignity”. He himself does not have a passport and must use a special travel document.

Right now Dhakal is working to build a museum near the refugee camps in Jhapa, Nepal, to document the history of the Lhotsampa. He hopes it will be completed in two years. His inspiration came from a history museum he visited in 2009 during a consulting project in Armenia.

“I saw how meticulously they were keeping track of every piece of paper that documented injustices by the Ottoman Empire,” he said. “Now, almost 100 years later, the EU has issued a statement recognizing the Armenian genocide. We may not get recognition at this point in time, but we’ll work on this peacefully until it comes together.”

Supporting sustainable development

His experience growing up in a rural community in Bhutan gave him a passion not only for social justice, but also for economic development.

He enrolled in the Indian School of Mines after winning a scholarship from the Government of India. After graduating with honors, he became involved with a United Nations University project on soil erosion in the Himalayas.

“There was a myth that the farmers in the hills were responsible for downstream river flooding,” he said. “We found that it wasn’t the farmers, but the big companies that were involved in logging and other commercial interests.”

The experience led him to pursue a one-year program in geo-ecology at the University of Colorado Boulder under the sponsorship of United Nations University. He later enrolled in a doctoral program in mineral economics at the Colorado School of Mines.

For his dissertation, he estimated the economic benefits of hydropower for Bhutan. At the time, Bhutan was exporting some of its hydropower to India and was concerned that India was deriving the lion’s share of benefits.

“We found that the distribution was very fair; it was even benefiting Bhutan more, to some extent,” he said. “As a result, the Bhutanese government came forth to build four major hydropower projects. Today hydroelectricity makes up as much as 20 percent of the national revenue.”

Dhakal came to Duke in 2001, when the Public Finance faculty from Harvard University’s Center for International Development joined the faculty at DCID. He had begun working with the Harvard faculty in 1989 while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“Many actors – from India to Bhutan to Harvard to Duke – helped me transform from village life to where I am today,” he said. “I am very grateful to them.”

Throughout his career, Dhakal has appraised dozens of projects around the world to determine whether they are sustainable and financially viable. Most of his projects are related to environmentally sensitive situations, touching on the proper management of land, water and other natural resources.

Most recently he has been involved in the evaluation of Feed-the-Future projects undertaken by USAID, and was a team leader on the appraisal of a major irrigation project in Tanzania that incorporated financial, economic and environmental analysis.

“We have to give the right prescription that will bring benefit to the country,” he said. “That’s our job.” 

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