Reflecting together over the past decade

Dear friends and well-wishers of ICIMOD,

2020 was a year like no other as all nations and peoples around the globe struggled with the global COVID-19 pandemic. As an institution, ICIMOD has demonstrated its resilience and adaptability, focusing our work on the uniqueness of the pandemic impacts for the people and environments in the HKH mountains while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our staff.

This report begins with a focus on the COVID-19 impacts and policy responses in the Hindu Kush Himalaya paper we researched and released mid-year and key messages from that paper are presented throughout the report, highlighting our response to this shock within the region. The stories in the report are organized around our seven strategic results, represent a depth and breadth of our work, and are milestones that signify progress towards our long term goals. One significant marker of this progress was the Ministerial Mountain Summit which resulted in a landmark declaration signed by ministers of all eight HKH counties and which marked the start of my tenure as Director General.

While 2020 was a watershed year because of the pandemic, it was also a watershed year for ICIMOD as an institution because of the transition in leadership after the departure of former Director General Dr David Molden and former Deputy Director General Dr Eklabya Sharma. I have benefited greatly from the counsel of these two dedicated leaders through my transition in the role of Director General which I took up only in the last quarter of 2020. To give a full picture of the year in 2020, I’ll share below snippets of conversations I’ve had with Dr David Molden and Dr Eklabya Sharma on the past years’ challenges and achievements.

Pema Gyamtsho

You had led the institution through the very challenging period as the COVID pandemic first hit, what did ICIMOD do to manage?

David Molden

At the start of the year, ICIMOD had a full schedule planned with ample field visits, workshops, partner engagement, and outreach events. Dr Eklabya Sharma and I were planning a trip to London and Scotland to present about the HKH in preparation for COP 26. In January and February, we were hearing worrisome signals about the COVID spread, but we all hoped the impact would be minimal. However, when the disease started to spread globally the situation quickly changed.

ICIMOD management quickly decided to postpone events involving travel, and to set up systems where staff could work virtually. Our staff were able to quickly adapt and had their systems in place for remote work when we closed the ICIMOD campus in response to the Government of Nepal recommendations. In those initial days of the pandemic when so much was still unknown, our staff responded with clear commitment to our work, rapidly adjusting their work and home lives.

A Covid Task Force was formed to deal with institutional and individual issues. They put together communications and protocols for staff to follow and to keep staff connected and morale up, I led an all staff meeting each Monday.

Pema Gyamtsho

our COVID Task Force continued through 2020 and into 2021 and had put together a phase-wise back to office plan that we had started implementing as I joined in October.

David Molden

Early on as we adjusted to work from home, staff recognized that a lot of good work could be done remotely, and that it is possible to connect with partners outside of ICIMOD remotely. Advantages included the opportunity for more participation in events by partners, and different and new ways of communication. While we postponed many events, we also reconceptualized others. Still field visits especially to remote areas suffered. In spite of that we were able to reach out to some partners working directly with communities.

An important task of our Board of Governors last year was the selection of the new Director General. Because of COVID, that process was delayed a bit, so I agreed to stay longer than planned as I wanted to support a smooth transition. Ultimately the DG selection was held virtually in a special meeting of the Board of Governors in February, and the process went quite well. The Selection Committee of the Board and the Board itself are to be thanked for the extra effort, and time spent online to make the selection possible. Although we had hoped that our regular meeting of the Board of Governors, chaired by China, could be held in person, the situation didn’t allow for that, and the Board of Governors meeting was held virtually on 18 September 2020. In that meeting, we were happy to welcome new members, including independent Board member Dr Camilla Toulmin, Board member from India, Mr CK Mishra, and Board member from Pakistan, Mr Omar Hamid Khan. Significantly, the Board of Governors meeting saw the endorsement of a new funding strategy for the regional member countries by representing a clear indication of increased ownership of the institution by our member countries.

Pema Gyamtsho

I feel privileged to have been selected by the Board of Governors to lead ICIMOD as its new Director General, especially at this time when the countries in the region have demonstrated their deepened commitment to the institution and its mission through the new funding strategy.

Besides responding to the pandemic, ICIMOD was continuing to make progress on its work. What are the achievements of note?

David Molden

Yes, it’s important to not let the pandemic overshadow a tremendously important achievement for ICIMOD, which was the Ministerial Mountain Summit. This was an important culmination of the assessment process led by our HIMAP initiative, which had other significant milestones in the HKH Assessment and the HKH Call to Action. The ICIMOD BOG recommended having the Ministerial Summit to start a process of more intense engagement between countries at a policy level, based on science. To prepare, each Board member assigned a task force member to prepare for the meeting. This High-level Task Force prepared the program, drafted a declaration, and communicated with their respective Minister. The declaration was shared with each Minister for approval, and all Ministers agreed on the text before the meeting. Importantly, the declaration recognized the HKH Assessment and the HKH Call for Action, and called for more collaboration around mountains, the hosting of a biannual Ministerial Summit and an Annual Science Policy Forum, and to take note of other efforts in regional cooperation like the Alpine Convention or Arctic Council.

Because we recognized that in fact virtual meetings do have advantages, especially in terms of the time commitment of busy Ministers, we decided to have a virtual Ministerial Summit, and Ministers agreed. Signatures on the declaration were received before the meeting, and during the meeting Ministers had a chance to express their views and express support. At the meeting itself, I also handed the DG position to Pema Gyamtsho.

Pema Gyamtsho

Thank you, Dr David Molden, not just for the role you played in that landmark event, but for the leadership you provided to ICIMOD for so many years. Stepping into the shoes of such a well-loved Director General means that I have had my work cut out for me. Thankfully, I also had the close support of (former) Deputy Director General Dr Eklabya Sharma throughout all of 2020 and I spoke with him also to reflect on ICIMOD’s challenges and achievements in 2021.

This pandemic was a massive shock globally, but also in specific ways for our HKH mountain communities. How did ICIMOD respond?

Eklabya Sharma

Yes, recognizing that COVID-19 was a huge shock to everyone, and that urgent responses were needed especially for mountain people, ICIMOD shifted gears to the preparation of a COVID-19 Impacts and Policy Responses in the HKH document focusing on mountain issues. A cross section of ICIMOD staff from across very different subject expertise areas worked on the paper and other ICIMOD staff and many partners had input and a chance to review and make recommendations on the report.

We released the report in August and promoted uptake of the paper’s key messages through media and policy webinars. We argued in the paper that the extraordinary circumstances created by COVID-19 provide immense opportunity to build back better and for stronger regional cooperation among the eight countries of the HKH. In the paper, we covered impacts, risks and vulnerabilities, short-term, medium-term and long-term actions and policy responses across economic, food and nutrition security, social, gender, environmental, climate action and resilience dimensions significant to the HKH along with implications for regional and international cooperation. Most importantly, the paper and our work throughout this period in response to the pandemic has focused on creating opportunities for an inclusive, green recovery that points us towards more prosperity for the region. While that has been the focus of our work throughout, the tremendous shock of the pandemic offers an important set of opportunities that we must use to ensure that the people in our HKH mountains are not left behind and that the unique biodiversity available across our mountain environments are preserved.

Pema Gyamtsho

given the resurgence of the pandemic, we are finding that the policy paper remains relevant and we have continued to focus on how we can facilitate a recovery that is green and inclusive, including work with micro, small and medium mountain enterprises, which have been hit heavily by the pandemic. While the pandemic would have clearly impacted ICIMOD operations and the policy paper was important, it’s clear from the institution’s ability to host the significant Ministerial Mountain Summit in October, that programmatic work continued through the year. Are there achievements you can highlight?

Eklabya Sharma

Despite the tremendous challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, as an institution, we were able to quickly adapt and readjust. Through March, we were able to pursue our plans normally, working with partners and with policy makers.

But from March, we did have to recalibrate and our field activities were all stopped. We were able to capitalize on virtual platforms and over the year organised a total of seventy-nine events (networking, meetings, capacity building, experience sharing etc.) out of which sixty-three were virtual. Forty events were directly capacity building related to both individual and institutional reaching to nine hundred individuals with 30% female participation. As we adjusted to the unfolding situation across the region, many of our colleagues took to research and writing. Thus, we were able to produce seventy peer reviewed papers and more than six hundred general publications beside other communication products.

Pema Gyamtsho

While we’re proud of the achievements we’ve been able to make this past year, we also recognize the tremendous impact of this ongoing global pandemic on the region. As I write this, we face a second wave here in the region and mourn the loss of so many who have suffered the medical effects of the virus including Dr Rita Sharma, beloved wife of Dr Eklabya Sharma, and Dr Ranbeer Singh Rawal, Director of the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment & Sustainable Development.

Writing from June 2021, I am also happy to note that we were able to welcome our new Deputy Director General, Dr Izabella Koziell who joined us on the first of this month. We’re energized to fulfill the commitments we’ve made in this Medium Term Action Plan which extends through 2022.

Annual report 2020