Samantha Power, first as a journalist and then as a senior official with the American government, visited many tragic places, especially the countries torn by civil wars, international conflicts, famine and natural disasters and the collapse of the economy. She will find Nepal, the country she is visiting, as a sort of respite from her busy international touring of catastrophic places.
It is true that Nepal is facing some serious structural issues including the concerning fact that the federal government is proving itself unable to collect enough revenues to meet all the needs. Linked to this, we are finally coming to grasp the reality that the economy, mostly controlled by an oligopoly of trading families, despite seeing some indicators that many EU countries would envy, is too dependent on imports. Yet it is undeniable that the country has been a success story for the way it has emerged and transitioned from the civil conflict.
At the same time Nepal is a symbolic case of what I call the “good governance conundrum”, a nation that could perform much better than what it does because of a still weak policy and accountability practices and standards.
The USAID, the agency Samantha Power leads, is the biggest bilateral partner to Nepal. Aid, , the three-letter word, always carries too many expectations and a number of disappointments in its execution. Still while it is almost inevitable it creates some sort of dependency on the recipient country, aid has been useful to Nepal.
With the visit of Power to Nepal, there will be a lot of expectations about new commitments from the United States of America, especially when just a few days ago visiting American Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland announced that the US will invest over $1 billion in Nepal over the next five years.
Probably Samantha Power will bring more clarifications about this commitment especially in terms of understanding if this amount will top the already very considerable portfolio of grants administered by USAID through its latest country strategy for Nepal.
Expectations in Nepal
So in this piece I will offer some ideas on what to expect from the administrator of USAID, the first, let’s not forget, to be granted a cabinet rank in the administration.
At the same time, I do hope that Samantha Power will also focus on good governance and the implementation of a type of rule of law that is as effective and transparent as just and driven by democratic values.
Let’s start with the announcements she might make once here.
First about possible new visits to Nepal by the highest echelon of the Biden administration. In this regard, it should not be surprising if Power will announce a visit of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken but she could go even beyond that. In December some national media had hinted at the possibility that even Vice President Kamala Harris could make it to Nepal on a possible but not announced yet tour of South Asia.
Yet the real big deal, (yes a big deal) would only come if Power will announce a visit of President Joe Biden, a possibility that, as per now, is extremely remote but not entirely impossible considering that the US president is expected to visit India in September for the G20 Summit hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Going beyond this type of announcements, let’s now delve on what more concrete “presents” the USAID administrator might bring to Nepal.
Let me first tell you a story.
Some years ago, well before the pandemic, I had seen by chance the then head of the public affairs department being driven out from the Jawalakhel zoo. He was accompanied by a senior Department of State official that at the time was visiting, something that had been publicly announced by the American Embassy.
Considering that the zoo is supposed to move sooner or later to Bhaktapur, at the time I immediately thought that a location so central and so pretty could be the perfect venue for a future American University of Kathmandu. Perhaps, the same, for tactical and geopolitical reasons, could also be branded as the American University of South Asia or, even better, the American University in the Himalayas.
What is your take on this?
The officials at the Chinese Embassy in Baluwatar, and probably also thousands of education consultancies, might be extremely disappointed from this hypothetical development. But the truth is that many of them have already lost a considerable share of their business since the time many colleges started getting affiliated with a number of international universities—all of these of modest ranking but still able to offer an international degree.
Certainly, an announcement of this type would also create huge political turbulence, perhaps even bigger than those of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and yet a first-class higher education institution would benefit thousands of students.
A less controversial idea, certainly less ambitious but still significant from the symbolic point of view, could be the one to equip the Fulbright Commission with the capacity to act as a funding facility to support cutting edge research in the country.
Through competitive application processes, colleges and universities they are affiliated with could set up consortia and bid for funding. For example, even Tribhuvan University, that certainly can be defined as a “complex” institution, has its outliers and people capable of and willing to do well.
Likewise, public colleges can count on a number of committed teachers and they could be put in a position to work together with private colleges in order to get precious funding for research and new high standards teaching programs. If the Commission could not do the job due to limitations in its mandate, then, well, USAID could do it. This type of bilateral aid could be a game changer for the higher education system and probably, despite some ruckus at the beginning, something that everyone would be happy with.
Another idea could be the establishment of an Institute of American Studies like many already existing around the world, including, for example the one at the University of Sydney, formally the United States Study Center. Many will end up considering it as a sort of Trojan Horse of American diplomacy but actually the center could promote, in addition to international relations, a discourse on democracy and human rights.
Even if its research staff would act independently and would be free to promote more critical and dissident views (after all free speech is big in the US), still, such a proposal would hardly pass and would be welcome. Less controversially, another proposition would see the creation of a research center focused on American contemporary culture, from literature to movies to paintings and other forms of art. While a center focused on geopolitics from an American perspective would get a lot of pushbacks, a cultural institute would be simply fine and be a huge success. After all, China already has its Confucius Institute at TU and a big cultural center in Maharajgunj that, almost ironically, is very close to the premises of the American Embassy.
Now setting aside such types of very symbolically but still politically important undertakings, the health sector, an area where USAID certainly has expertise, needs a lot of support. This is where Power could make some big announcements. After all, both India and China have been very active on this domain and the citizens of the capital are grateful for that.
Moreover, many more are looking forward to the end of the expansion works of the Civil Service Hospital in New Baneshwor that remains a great present to Nepal by the people of China.
I almost bet that the announcement will come in the area of new support to startups in the economy. After all, the federal government just announced some new policies to boost the sector and an incubator or accelerator supported by American dollars could be actually very helpful for the myriad of frustrated budding entrepreneurs. Another area, something I would actually dream of, would be the establishment of a Martin Luther King Institute, a center focused on promoting the legacy of Dr King.
Imagine a center supporting human rights, democracy and “national service”, a term used in the US for volunteerism. Such an institution should not be seen negatively. It won’t get into the mess of geopolitics and international relations and would “only” advance a national discourse on values that are already enshrined in the Nepali Constitution, principles that are well accepted by all the political forces.
Less ambitious, but it would still make my day, would be a new line of funding by USAID on civic engagement that, through volunteerism, becomes a turbo charger of personal leadership and social inclusion.
Now enough with such daydreaming!
Promoting good governance
Let me now turn to the issues of good governance. Whatever new program or initiative will be announced by Samantha Power, I really hope that, while she will engage the political leaders and also the youths of the nation, she will really highlight the importance of effective and just governance, a governance that relies on and gets its strengths from the citizen’s agency and power.
The visit of Samantha Power might bring some new opportunities for Nepal. But she should highlight the centrality of good governance in building a prosperous Nepal.
Accountability and personal responsibility are the cornerstones of any successful and thriving democracies and Nepal aspires to be one. Any major announcements that will come with Power’s visit should be doubled down by a commitment of the United States to help the democratic institutions of the country and not just through more money because aid alone won’t work. Democracy, as many have said, is a messy system and Americans know it better than others.
Yet Power can bring a genuine commitment to support indigenous solutions and ways to help democratic institutions at all levels to take root and deliver for the people of this nation. Controversies will arise, no doubt, especially those driven by the fear of a new attempt by the Americans to exert their hegemonic influence in the region.
But let’s be pragmatic. While it is true that American foreign policy often only paid lip service to the values it proclaims to uphold so vigorously, the Biden administration should be fairly assessed in its intentions for the country and be seen for what it is, a very friendly and reliable partner of Nepal.
Let’s not forget that there is no one in the whole American administration better than Samantha Power that can convey the message that the prosperity and development of Nepal are truly at the heart of American foreign policy. And considering her understanding of and her personal experiences of the world, she might be the one able to offer some good advice on solving the “good governance conundrum” in very candid but effective ways.
Views expressed are personal.