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Tibet's Economic Development: Thoughts From My Accidental Walk Down Wall Street

posted Mar 23, 2011, 5:16 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Tsewang Namgyal
(Tibetan version attached as PDF below)
After graduating from Tibetan Children’s Village in 1992 I immigrated to the United States, among one thousand other Tibetan refugees under the special resettlement program. Prior to my departure I sought an audience with our family Lama. After some initial small talks, He told me, with real confidence, that compassion for others is both a good in itself, and also in one's own self-interest. I had of course heard these sentiments before, but somehow His confidence and warmth added much to this meaning. However, soon after I landed in the United States it was making money that was the forefront of my attention. With the assistance of my Aunt I quickly got a job as a dish washer to begin my American dream. While working at the restaurant I met a fellow dish washer who was an army veteran. He shared with me the various opportunities that the military offered. After a quick analysis on the opportunity I enlisted. Upon completion of my army training I went to college to study to become a medical doctor.

In college, the words of my Lama and the wisdom of the Buddhist teachings became increasingly more attractive and I expressed to my Lama my interest to become a monk. For some reason, He indicated this was not a good choice for me. Following my graduation, I was offered a job at a Bank in New York City and life took a different turn. This new experience of working in the financial industry exposed me to a realm that I hardly knew existed. I quickly began to appreciate the wisdom of the modern economy and the sharp insights of Adam Smith. Within a year I felt that the world of finance is where I could be best able in the future to serve our community by sharing my experience. After working a couple of years in the financial sector I went on to get an MBA and then continued my work in the banking world. My work has mainly involved in analyzing, structuring, financing and monitoring of large scale projects in the electric power, mining and oil/gas projects. Here I would like to humbly share some random THOUGHTS from my limited experience in case it would be of some use.

(a) Debt is not bad. In recent months much of America's financial crises are rightly blamed on excessive loans. In our Tibetan community, especially in the past, debt is considered to be negative. I believe it is important that we view debt like the way we look at fire. Like fire, debt can be good or bad depending on how we use it. Personally, if it would not have been the opportunity to take student loans I would not have been able to complete my education. If it had not been for mortgage I would not have been able to buy my house. The same applies for entrepreneurs wanting to start a firm. In summary, I feel we should always have a clear action plan to repay back loans, but should not be afraid to take calculated risks. Debt in short helps level the playing field especially for individuals or firms who are not well capitalized.

 (b) Capitalism is not equivalent to greed or lack of compassion.
To put it simply, capitalism is just an economic system that advocates private ownership as compared to state or public ownership. We should be mindful that it is individuals who are greedy or compassionate. In the world of capitalism, we have both crooks like Bernard Madoff and philanthropists/innovators like Bill Gates. Just as sometimes the beautiful Buddhist teachings of "emptiness" is misinterpreted as meaning "nothingness" sometimes there is a similar misunderstanding of capitalism in our community.

Granted history has shown that capitalism without appropriate regulations could be disastrous to the economy, culture and environment. However, it has also shown that the system exposes the negativities and provides the flexibility to change from within. More importantly this system has proved to be the most successful in empowering individuals, encouraging innovation and creating wealth. I believe it is critical we develop a more objective view on this system as we formulate policies for Tibet's future.

(c) Tibet related political organizations have a unique opportunity to encourage good investments and discourage bad investors. In college, I had an opportunity to form one of the first Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) chapters and serve on the Board when the organization was formally incorporated. Through SFT, I had an opportunity to appreciate the immense dedication of Tibetans and supporters in the political realm. In addition, I believe all the support groups have played a crucial role in bringing Tibet to the world's attention. However, reflecting on my own experience I have realized that sometimes in the past my political passions prevented me from discerning good versus bad business projects in Tibet.

I humbly believe that a more effective way would be for political organizations to identify a single existing experienced consulting firm that can grade projects based on its developmental, environmental and social impact. Relying on the opinion of such a firm, the political organizations can focus on their core competency and not waste valuable time trying to understand the complexities of some of these ventures. They would also have the opportunity to avoid unnecessary confrontation and possibly scare away socially conscious investors from entering Tibet. The benefit to investors is that they can share their objectives to a single qualified organization and not waste valuable resources on public relations.

(d) It is important we provide appropriate incentives to attract talented individuals to sustainably develop Tibet irrespective of their background. It is also important we do not prejudice people who are driven more by financial incentives. If our loved one is sick we look for the most experienced doctor irrespective of who they are. I believe for Tibet's economic development it is important if Tibetans in Tibet learn from the best.

(e) Non-profit development organizations have played a crucial role in empowering Tibetans at the grass root level. I believe their continual encouragement in these areas especially in providing technical training, higher education and improvement in health is critical. Talking to friends in Tibet, I often hear that the social ills of gambling, prostitution and alcoholism are eating away our society. From a strict economic standpoint this is disastrous for Tibet's economic development. An educated and healthy population is critical for a strong Tibetan economy.

In addition, I believe individuals can take small (but important steps) during their visits to Tibet by volunteering with the development organizations or working directly with Tibetans. This can be done by helping Tibetan businesses in Tibet during vacations through value-added services such as assisting in developing menus for restaurants to target the taste of fellow tourists; providing simple sales tips; making small investments and teaching English. If hundreds and thousands of people make such efforts, it could have a multiplier effect, as the ones that are empowered will naturally help those who need assistance. In summary, I believe non profit organizations and volunteers can play a very important role in the growth of the private sector.

(f) We need to encourage Tibetan entrepreneurs who create good jobs to focus on their business. It is important we do not distract these individuals from their work with political and other things. Having said that I do not mean to discourage donations and also note it would depend by case by case basis but I feel we need to revaluate our priorities. My point here is that jobs created by the private sector, I believe, are the most important in creating a sustainable society as it does not depend on subsidies. We need to view money as bricks. Companies are like houses. We need the people who know how to build the houses use it. If we take away their bricks or distract them from their work they will not be able to build the houses. Unfortunately, today we do not even have few Tibetan owned and managed large businesses that can compete with international firms.

(g) The focus of business entities should be profits. Unless we make it okay for Tibetan firms to have this goal it will be difficult for them to compete. Sometimes I believe due to our current difficult political situation some of our entrepreneurs feel guilty if they appear profit oriented. A Tibetan friend from Tibet shared with me his first hand observation how a once successful Tibetan business person tried to make his venture less focused on profits but to benefit society. He quickly lost his market share and I believe is currently having a challenging time. I would like to note that having profits as one’s goal does not mean overlooking ones employees, community, environment and social responsibilities. This also does not mean using raw materials that are illegal or unethical. Here my main point is that a business will survive only if it makes profit. If it fails, there is no chance at all to generate its side benefits.

(h) History has shown that political and spiritual freedom does not necessarily lead to economic empowerment. Tibet prior to 1959 was a free country and spiritually highly developed. Economically as we all know it was very poor.

Even today we can learn from the lessons from such countries like Cambodia. The Buddhist country has a long history, nice people, beautiful scenery, politically free and the region is "blessed" by rich natural resources. However, Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Transparency International ranks Cambodia 160 out of 180 on its 2008 world corruption index. In the future if we do have a political breakthrough (whether it is genuine autonomy or independence) it would be one of the worst disservice to His Holiness, TGIE officials and all who have worked hard for Tibet if we become like Cambodia.

(i) It is critical that we focus more of our attention on Tibet's economic development. As we all know economic breakthrough cannot happen overnight in contrast to political breakthroughs. It takes years for the populace to learn/develop expertise, build appropriate institutions, create the right environment to be conducive for business (such as intolerance for corruption and protection of intellectual rights) and economically empower the population. An economically empowered Tibetan population is beneficial to all stakeholders.

Here I would like to take the opportunity to recommend few experts in the financial and management field that I found interesting: Michael E. Porter (his work on strategy), Daniel Yergin (his book The Prize : The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power ), Eliyaho M. Goldratt (his book The Goal) and Roger Fisher (his book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In). In addition, I would like to recommend the documentary film - The Burning Season. This is a fascinating documentary of a young entrepreneur, Dorjee Sun, in his efforts to use market forces to reduce global warming.

A few months ago we had an opportunity to meet our family Lama during his visit to upstate New York. I did not share with him my American experience but did wonder what life would have been if He did consent on me becoming a monk. I do hope eventually in the future to have the opportunity to attend a long extended teaching from our wise teachers. Reflecting on my now 17 years in this great country I feel fortunate by this accidental journey in the financial world. I am aware that there is much left for me to learn but hope sharing these thoughts would help in a small way bring more focus on Tibet's economy.

In conclusion, I would like to share here a short story that my eigth grade history teacher told us. The story was about a king who had ordered all of his subjects to replenish an empty milk reservoir. Each person was ordered to bring a bucket of milk on the same moonless night and pour it into the reservoir. The next morning when the king went to inspect the reservoir he saw only water instead of milk. In the dark of the night, his subjects had brought buckets of water instead of milk thinking that their single bucket would not make a difference. This story made me realize the importance of individual responsibility. I believe if we all make effort with the right motivation we will be able to develop a future economically healthy Tibet.

The author is an MBA graduate from the Thunderbird School of Management and currently works in the Investment Banking field in New York City. Besides his regular work, Tsewang has traveled extensively throughout the three provinces of Tibet and provided consulting and voluntary services to a number of Tibetan organizations. He can be reached at

Published on on February 13, 2009