Professor Mark Liechty: Winner of the Subedi Prize 2023

The Society is delighted to announce the winner of the first Surya P. Subedi Prize which is awarded to Professor Mark Liechty for his book “What Went Right” (Amazon link), subtitled: “sustainability versus dependence in Nepal’s hydropower development”. The prize was established last year and was offered by Dr. James J. Busuttil to honour the work and distinguished career of his friend and colleague Professor Surya P. Subedi OBE KC DCL LLD, Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds. The prize is give for an outstanding book or article on Nepal in English in any one calendar year

The judges were unanimous in their decision, noting that the book is exceptionally well written as well as diligently researched:  “It tells a story -that of the long and patiently determined career of Odd Hoftun who emerges as a development hero – and holds the interest of a non-specialist. Although its focus is hydropower development (and it is a very valuable contribution to documenting that history), it has much resonance into all sectors of development and beyond.  It would be valuable reading for anyone in any sector seeking to make a sustainable difference in Nepal.”

Mark Liechty is a South Asianist with research specialization in the modern culture and history of Nepal. He is a Professor in the departments of Anthropology and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, USA. His teaching focuses on world history, South Asian colonial history, culture theory, youth culture, and cultures of the body. Liechty’s research has been supported by various organizations including several Fulbright research awards and a recent Fulbright “Senior Specialist” grant for Nepal.

His first three books (Princeton University Press 2003, Martin Chautari Press 2010, School for Advanced Research Press 2012) dealt with aspects of the emergence of a middle-class consumer culture in Kathmandu. His 2017 book on Western countercultural longing and the history of tourism in Nepal (Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourism Encounter in Nepal, University of Chicago Press) won the 2017 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award for Himalayan Literature and the 2019 Edward Bruner Book Prize from the American Anthropological Association.

As part of his application to the prize, Prof Liechty wrote an introduction to his work in What Went Right, which gives a good overview of the book:

What Went Right explores why Nepal’s hydropower sector is one the country’s few development success stories. Unlike almost every other “developing” country, in Nepal local firms design and build complex hydropower facilities using Nepali engineers, contractors, components, and labor. Nepal has largely avoided the trap whereby most poor countries are forced to accept energy infrastructure projects that are foreign designed, funded, and built—typically resulting in debt, dependency, and unsustainability. As a whole, Nepal has no other industrial sector that even comes close to the success of its hydropower industry.

The book examines the history of Nepal’s hydropower sector to ask why it is the conspicuous exception to the rule of Nepal’s woeful underdevelopment. The answer lies in the story of the Butwal Power Company (BPC) and the anti-establishment development logic of its founder, Odd Hoftun, a pioneering Norwegian development worker, missionary, and engineer. From the early 1960s onward, Hoftun insisted that Nepalis should develop technical skills needed to thrive in a modernizing society, a view that eventually led Hoftun to promote hydropower development as the means to literally power Nepal’s industrial future. Counter to prevailing logic, Hoftun insisted that, to the fullest extent possible, hydroelectric design, construction, and equipment should be locally-sourced—even if it was, initially, crude and inefficient. Self-sufficiency and sustainability could only come if every aspect of hydropower development could be done in Nepal, by Nepalis.

Over half a century, Hoftun worked with Nepalis and other foreigners to establish a family of inter-locking companies focused on hydrological design and engineering, equipment manufacturing, deep-mountain tunneling, and project installation. Starting with a tiny 50 kilowatt project in the 1960s and advancing through successively larger and more complex projects, by the 2000s Hoftun’s now independent and Nepali-owned companies, and many subsidiary spin-offs from them, had emerged as the backbone of a robust indigenous hydropower sector able to compete successfully in bidding for projects around Nepal and beyond.

Typically anthropologists and historians engage “development” in order to critique it. Much less often examined are the few bright spots on the global development landscape. The book’s aim is certainly not to hold up Nepal’s hydropower sector as some spotless paragon of development success, but simply to examine how and why it managed to largely overcome the global development odds stacked against it. Nepal’s hydropower experience is a success and one of the few ways that Nepal participates in the global economy aside from as an impoverished exporter of cheap manpower. By focusing on what went right instead of (or in addition to) what went wrong, this book is a useful contribution to ongoing debates over international development, foreign aid, and development philosophy.

This study represents a chance to lay out a particular development vision to examine its strengths and weaknesses. Given that “the BPC model” has arguably borne rich fruit in Nepal’s otherwise relatively barren development landscape, it is high time to bring this vision into vigorous conversation with other development strategies that have proven, repeatedly, to be less productive.


Our congratulations to Prof Liechty on his achievement. We will be organising an event to celebrate his award in the new year.



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