Professor Receives Prestigious U.S. Fulbright Award to Explore the ‘Big Questions of Democracy and Development in Nepal’
May 25, 2023
Political Science and International Affairs Professor Richard Bownas, Ph.D., first traveled from his hometown in the United Kingdom to Nepal when he was 20 years old in 1997. After volunteering in Nepalese classrooms for two years, Bownas eventually co-founded an organization that helped train volunteers like himself.
His experience left a lasting impression on him, shaping his career to this day. When Bownas was living in Nepal, the landlocked country in South Asia had just begun involvement in a civil war that would shift the country from a monarchy to a democracy – a huge cultural change.
“It was a real education [for me] because there was a Maoist insurgence happening, and some of the friends I made were really interested in that. They were attracted to that ideology,” Bownas said. “I also made friends from lower castes since there is a caste system in South Asia. So, they sometimes couldn’t go into the house where I was staying because the owner of the house was of higher caste. I saw all these interesting, troubling kinds of things."
The experience ignited Bownas’ interest in social sciences, global development and inequality. Most importantly, though, it gave him a personal connection to Nepal. Rather than keeping that to himself, Bownas will be focusing his work and research around the Nepalese Civil War traveling to the country from January to July 2024 to conduct an oral history project. He’s able to do this through a U.S. Fulbright award.
Since 1946, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 400,000 participants from over 160 countries – chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential – with the opportunity to exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to challenges facing our communities and our world. The program is considered one of the most widely recognized and prestigious scholarships in the world.
Bownas’ research will explore people’s perspectives on the country’s shift to a democracy that first piqued his interest in Nepal’s political landscape nearly two decades ago.
“I’m going to be speaking to around 100 senior citizens in Nepal about their experience with democratic institutions in their local areas,” Bownas said. “I’ll be visiting many villages and rural areas because most Nepali people live in rural areas. I want to see whether Nepal becoming a democracy made a real difference to their lives at the local level.”
Witnessing world history as it unfolded during that first visit, Bownas realized there isn’t a lot of testimony written down or recorded about the governmental shift.
“I think I’m just about the only western political scientist who focuses on Nepal,” Bownas said, who joined the faculty in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at University of Northern Colorado in 2010.
“There are a lot of anthropologists studying Nepal because of the rich cultures [there]. So, they study the smaller cultures in the Himalayan Mountains who still stick to traditional beliefs and still have rare languages that are vanishing. But there are not many social scientists studying the big questions of democracy and development in Nepal.”
Bownas plans to transcribe the answers he gathers and publish them in Nepali and English language publications or academic work. The types of questions he’ll ask the locals will focus on political parties. For example, how do people get projects done in their villages, do they trust local officials and how have things changed over time?
"It’s a really interesting case study for a political science and social scientist of development, or maybe you could say failed development because it’s one of those places that has kind of fallen behind in terms of modernization and industrialization even though there is a lot of aid going to Nepal,” Bownas said. “Different governments have gone in with different strategies, but they often don’t seem to work.”
Bownas is grateful he’ll be able to share Nepali experiences and shine light on their history. He believes the stories he uncovers will allow that history to be shared from one generation to the next and will enhance a better understanding of the past.
“Oral history has often been associated with the experiences of marginalized persons, such as African Americans in the United States, and it is this tradition of trying to memorialize marginalized experiences that this project is modeled on, “ Bownas said.
Bownas earned his Ph.D in Government from Cornell University, where he researched the politics of NGOs and transnational activists in India, focusing on the introduction of genetically modified crops into the country. He earned a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Cambridge University and a master's in Development Management from the London School of Economics.
– written by Sydney Kern