Oped

People-to-people ties

  • Nepal-US govt-to-govt relationship is great, but our people-to-people connections provide depth to the relationship
- ALAINA B TEPLITZ

Apr 30, 2017-

This week marks the 70th anniversary of US-Nepal diplomatic relations. For decades, our two countries have worked together toward one common goal: to encourage a more democratic, prosperous and stable Nepal. As we look on these 70 years, we see that this partnership has been fruitful not only in what our governments have been able to achieve, but more importantly, in what our relationship has facilitated our people in achieving.

Since 1947, the United States has proudly partnered with Nepal in its democratic journey and in fostering sustainable development. When we established relations, the Kingdom of Nepal was largely closed to the outside world and poverty was rampant. In 1960, life expectancy was 35 years and per capita income was the equivalent of $50 in today’s dollars. By 1970, only 40 percent of children were enrolled in primary school. Just 11 years ago, the country was mired in a protracted armed conflict.  

But today, Nepal has marked 10 years of peace, is implementing a new democratic constitution and has held two peaceful Constituent Assembly elections. The first local elections in two decades are just weeks away. The incidence of extreme poverty has been cut in half since 2003. Life expectancy has increased to 69 years and primary school enrollment now exceeds 95 percent. Per capita GDP has more than tripled since 2000. As the largest health sector donor for decades, the US has played a significant role in improving maternal and child health and nutrition. In just the last five years, mortality among newborns decreased by 36 percent, and mortality of children under age five went down by 28 percent. This progress--even though there is much more to do--is simply incredible.

When we think of the U.S.-Nepal relationship, indeed, our governments’ engagements have contributed to a significant portion of these achievements.  But it is the enduring personal bonds between our people that provide the depth to, and sustain, our relationship. Our governments serve as catalysts, and need to continue to collaborate to create the enabling environment in which civil society, business people and the person on the street can thrive, innovate and create a prosperous future.

Countless examples

We have many examples of such successes. The Peace Corps is one of the most visible examples of our people-to-people relationships. Nepal was one of the first countries to welcome Peace Corps Volunteers, with the first group arriving in 1962. Since then, almost 4,000 volunteers have served in Nepal. Our governments provide the opportunity for these placements.  But it has been through the open arms of communities, personal commitments of volunteers, late night conversations and hard work side by side that has touched and transformed the lives of thousands of Nepalis and Americans. The more than 50 Peace Corps Volunteers working in Nepal today focus on improving the food security of rural small-holding farm families. In the last year alone, they have collaborated with the members of their adopted communities to train 1,739 farmers on fruit and nut tree propagation, worked with 640 farmers to implement highly productive organic gardens, and instructed 1,189 farmers on soil conservation and improvement methods.  

Just as bright young Americans make the long journey to live and learn in Nepal, our active educational advising efforts support Nepalis to pursue educational opportunities and professional development in the United States. US government exchanges, such as the Fulbright (more than 1,200 number in 64 years) and Humphrey programs, pursue shorter-term, more-focused training and are dwarfed by the nearly 10,000 Nepalis currently enrolled in American universities. While there, they enrich the lives of American friends and colleagues as ambassadors of Nepal. Upon completion, graduates return home armed with experience, knowledge and lasting networks gained in America that they will draw on for years as they contribute to Nepal’s growth and development.

These academic experiences have also contributed to the development of research and technical exchanges, such as the exchange between the Pratiman-Neema Memorial Health Institute in Bhairawaha and the University of New Mexico in the United States. In 2015, research students from both institutions worked together to collect and analyse water samples from the Danda River that flows through the Rupandehi district.  Through this joint research, they were able to evaluate and understand the health and environmental impacts that water pollution is having on the local community. During the development of the Comprehensive Peace Accord, the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame University sent Nepali peace-builders and negotiators to the US to learn about peace-building approaches. Renowned peace expert Prof John Paul Lederach made countless trips to Nepal during the process. Over the past two decades, the New York-based Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust saved more than 50 historic buildings and launched major preservation campaigns. By bringing American architects, scholars, and conservationists, KVPT collaborates with community groups, local specialists, and educational institutions to promote and preserve Nepal’s unique cultural heritage. 

Not all of our people-to-people connections require an airline ticket. Right here in Nepal, each year 50 inspiring young women and men are chosen from throughout the country for the US Embassy’s Youth Council, where they spend 12 months working on civic engagement projects that aim to solve problems in their communities. Embassy staff and partner non-governmental organisations coach Youth Council members to imagine and create solutions to local challenges. Facilitated by the embassy, these young Nepali leaders have contributed to Nepal’s success, for example, by creating a smart phone app to provide real time market prices to rural farmers in remote areas across Nepal. Another Youth Council-designed app simplifies the complicated construction requirements for families to rebuild seismically safe homes. Building on the work of Teach for Nepal--an organisation based on Teach for America--another Youth Council team developed a mentoring program and education fair for students in a remote community who have limited access to information about educational and professional options.

Our strong official relationship has also helped pave the way for increasingly vibrant economic ties emerging between American and Nepali companies. Diplomatic advocacy on business environment reforms and bilateral engagements like this month’s Trade and Investment Framework dialogue help set the stage to facilitate business linkages, particularly through Nepali-Americans investing in Nepal. As a result, IT companies started by Nepali Americans wanting to contribute to Nepal’s success now employ hundreds and provide vital IT services to dozens of American companies. A former employee of Disney Animation now employs Nepalis in Kathmandu to help create Hollywood films. Others have found unique niche products made in Nepal to export to the US. In the coming weeks and months, I hope that more Nepali entrepreneurs will utilize the recently-launched Nepal trade preferences program that grants duty free access to certain products made in Nepal to the US market. America’s only single-country trade preference program offers a channel for Nepali businesses and foreign investors to increase sales and generate jobs, but governments alone will not turn this opportunity into a reality without the people of Nepal and the US seizing on its potential.  

Dreaming new ways

The future is founded on innovation.  And together, the US and Nepal have fostered groundbreaking research that led to dramatic improvements in the lives of people worldwide. USAID’s early partnership with the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology contributed to a world-class eye care and research organization-- founded by the passionate Nepali Dr. Sanduk Ruit--that continues to both innovate and provide local services, especially among poor communities. In 2005, USAID-supported research in Nepal discovered that applying chlorhexidine gel to newborn babies’ umbilical cords cut infant deaths by 23 percent. The approach has since been scaled up nationwide--driven in part by Female Community Health Volunteers, another US-Nepali governmental inspiration--and has become a global best practice for countries with high neonatal mortality rates. As a result, Nepal’s newborn death rate, which had long been stagnant, has plummeted by 36 percent in just the last five years. Outpacing comparison countries, this success has inspired other countries in the region and around the world to adopt this simple yet effective solution to prevent infection and protect the lives of countless babies.

These achievements inspire me to envision what can be achieved when Americans and Nepalis are invested in each other’s futures. As we embark on the next 70 years of the US-Nepal relationship, I can only dream of new ways our people will collaborate--whether in concluding Nepal’s democratic political transition through inclusive and broadly-supported elections, ensuring sustainable livelihoods and quality health and education services country-wide, deepening our trade and investment interconnectivity, or discovering innovations that further serve our global community. The sky and our imaginations are the only limits.

Teplitz is US Ambassador to Nepal

Published: 30-04-2017 08:11

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