Doing diplomacy differently: Bridging the gap between policies and people

Public diplomacy should not just be about promoting culinary delicacies and cultural traditions but also about finding better ways to involve and engage people in foreign affairs.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hold talks in New Delhi. (Photo: Indian Ministry of External Affairs)

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

China’s Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi visited Nepal from March 25 to 27. Despite the criticism that there was no development on the Belt and Road Initiative, the nine agreements signed during Wang’s visit are important and potentially transformative for Nepal. Initiatives such as the Technical Assistance Scheme for China-Aid Feasibility Study of China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway Project and Cooperation Agreement on the Feasibility Study of Nepal-China Power Grid Interconnection can be game-changers for Nepal’s future.

The BRI seems to be moving slowly because of some differences over the implementation modality with Nepal doing the right thing to maximize its negotiation position by insisting on grants or soft loans only.

Also significant was the “catch up” on President Xi Jinping’s promise made during his official visit to Nepal in 2019 with the Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation through which the northern neighbor will provide a grant of RMB 600 million to Nepal.

We are now in 2022 and we can imagine what will be the packages for 2021 and 2022 but also how long it will take for them to become realities.

I feel that there was something missing from the list.

Undertakings that should have raised people’s interest and enthusiasm were instead received by the broader public with almost indifference and even with a pinch of salt.

Perhaps the same can be said about Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s visit to New Delhi. There were some key announcements in the energy sector, solar power and renewable energies and the Pancheshwar Hydropower Project. But there was not much excitement among the general population. One reason, as foreign policy observers have rightly noted, is that there was not much preparation on Nepal’s side, especially given the short notice through which the visit to New Delhi was arranged. Another reason is that people simply don’t care about politics and see the shenanigans between the US, India and China and their positioning for relevance in Nepal with utter disdain and frustration.

It would be much better if the Chinese and Indian Embassies in Kathmandu partnering with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized events to explain the decisions taken during these major visits.

This second point reflects a broader status of disinterest shared by the majority of the people in the civic life of this country, a problem that, as we know, afflicts many other nations. The crisis of politics has failed to re-flame the passion for the common good, locally and nationally. People doubt politicians and are frustrated with politics. This trend also impacts the way people look at the decisions taken in the world of diplomacy.

Thus the three angels mentioned above need to be considered and remedies found not only to better comprehend the disinterest towards these two recent key events of Nepal’s foreign policy but also to generate some excitement. 

Engaging the people

First, we need to ensure that diplomacy gets closer to the people. When we talk about infrastructures and trade, people know that the timing of such projects is extremely long and is beset by complex issues in terms of financing and implementation.

Is there any way to make these plans more realistic and time-bound since the very announcement? What about the millions of details that still need to be sorted out for each of these agreements? What about involving people more in better understanding the implications and benefits of these programs?

State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs of China Wang Yi (L) and Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka during a delegation-level meeting. (Photo: Foreign Ministry)

Answering such questions is the job of public diplomacy that should not just be about promoting the culinary delicacies of a country and its cultural traditions but also about finding better ways to involve and engage people in foreign affairs.

Good governance means effective and efficient utilization of the resources and inclusive decision-making to bridge the gap between policies and people’s aspirations.  It would be much better if the Chinese and Indian Embassies in Kathmandu, partnering with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organized events to explain the decisions taken over these major visits and any future follow-ups.

What about sponsoring sections on the national media, not as propaganda but as a genuine attempt, to help the readers realize the importance of these plans? Then what about holding online and in-person discussions where unbiased and independent journalists can interact with officials about these initiatives?

Diplomatic negotiations often remain confidential. Maybe it is time to make decisions in a more open and transparent way. If policy experts, high ranking officials, who by default live in silos and “balloons,” interact with the people or simply ask for their suggestions, it can really help win people’s confidence.

Likewise, it is important to better manage bilateral relations at lower levels. Apart from embracing a meaningful approach to public diplomacy, we should reflect on what good governance means in the domain of the administration of international relations.

It means finding a way to follow through, formally and informally, the ability to dodge the closing door and manage to find a new entrance for keeping the conversation going on.

A lot depends on mid-ranking officials and their immediate superiors at the ministry level and their peers in the embassies, their willingness and determination to go through the nitty-gritty of every single agreement. Many of them might feel overwhelmed by the scale of work that lies ahead or others might simply just wait for higher levels’ orders that never come.

For sure, civil servants need to be empowered and enabled to carry out their duties at the best of their capacities and find creative ways to keep the ball rolling. Lacking this environment or a predisposition towards taking initiatives, we will only end up with a pile of Memorandum of Understandings and agreements that are in a comatose state because no one really follows them.

We certainly need political leadership from the top, this is indispensable but it is instructive to see that actually there are already several mechanisms in place to sort out Nepal’s cooperation with India and China. But mostly such tools are either stuck or not working or in many cases not active. For example, Sunil KC told Nepal Live Today recently that Nepal-India Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) has not met for a long time.

In this context, allowing more discretion and autonomy to the middle-level officials, who at the end of the day are the ones to do the job, could considerably speed up and improve the patterns of bilateral cooperation.

Third, bilateral cooperation is complicated and technical. Neither during Wang’s visit to Nepal nor during Deuba’s trip to New Delhi, there was a hint of people-to-people foreign diplomacy. Some usual scholarships and other types of cooperation like exchange programs can have a direct impact on people’s lives.

What about building an array of public libraries or theaters or financing urban parks or supporting schools with mini-grants to conduct extra-curricular activities that empower their students? It might take time to sort out the nitty-gritty but it is much easier when the citizens step in to help the decision-makers.

Opinions expressed are personal.