Interview |‘Genuine partnership and collaboration are hallmarks of Nepal-Finland relations:’ Riina-Riikka Heikka, Finnish ambassador to Nepal

‘We see the value and meaning of investing in education and in women and girls both politically and economically because of our own experience and our own commitment.’

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 7 min.

Kathmandu: Nepal-Finland relations go back to the 1950s, with diplomatic relations between the two countries starting on September 21, 1974. Since then a lot has happened between the two countries in terms of co-operations and exchanges. Nepal Live Today caught up with Riina-Riikka Heikka, the Finnish ambassador to Nepal, to discuss various aspects of the 49th year of Nepal-Finland diplomatic relations. 

Nepal-Finland diplomatic relations reached its 49th year this September. How do you assess the evolution of the relations between the two countries?

Nepal and Finland have maintained very close collaborations since they started diplomatic relations in 1974. There has been genuine partnership and collaboration between the two countries where the focus has been on development cooperation.  Finland’s focus areas in development cooperation today are education, gender equality as well as water and sanitation, climate resilience and livelihoods. But we started with forestry.  We are a country with thousands of lakes and a lot of forests. Thus, in a way, it was natural for us to start with that sector.

At the moment, we work in education and water and sanitation, climate resilience and livelihoods, and gender equality and social inclusion.   These partnership programs have been a joint journey of the government of Nepal and the government of Finland. We have jointly planned our work together taking into account the needs of the communities. We are pragmatic and we are striving for solutions. We really value collaboration and partnership. These have been the hallmarks of the Nepal-Finland relations.  It’s about doing and learning together and striving for results. I am happy to share with you that both Nepal and Finland have been working according to this spirit.

Can you enumerate some of the areas in which Finnish assistance has contributed to Nepal’s development in the last 49 years?

 There are some very concrete examples to show in this regard. First, like I said, water and sanitation has been close to our heart. A matter to celebrate for Nepal and Finland on this front is that over two million Nepali people have access to clean water because of the work we have jointly conducted with Nepal. That is one remarkable example. Apart from supporting quality education and teacher training with the government of Nepal, we have built hand washing facilities and toilets in schools. We have also focused on bringing skills and economic empowerment to women.  These initiatives have contributed to the fact that the literacy rate has increased in Nepal. When we talk about the education sector, it is natural for us to lay special emphasis on it because Finland is the example of the country that prospered due to investment in education. We believe that Nepal too can prosper with proper investment in education.

We have been working in extremely remote areas in Nepal. So, we have concentrated very much on work in Sudur Paschim and Karnali and we are seeing the results of our work there. People in remote areas have been building their communities in a very resilient way. We do know and realize that Nepal is very prone to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.  Therefore, this area requires attention. As such, we have worked to improve the capabilities to respond to increased disaster risks.  And we are partnering with the Finnish Meteorological Institute.   Finnish Meteorological Institute and the Nepali Department of Meteorology and Hydrology collaborate and work together for forecasting, preparedness and sharing and disseminating information and research on impacts of climate change and disaster risks, to improve capabilities and have data  for analysis and planning. It is about preparedness so that the people can learn about the threats and can mitigate the risks. The other area we work on has been on reducing arsenic in drinking water, groundwater problems being mostly an issue in Tarai .

Earlier you mentioned climate change impacts and your work on Nepal. How has Finland been affected by climate change? Or has it been affected at all?

Actually, climate change has impacted us all around the whole globe, which is why we need global action to tackle climate change impacts.  In the case of Finland, we have had warmer summers and also warmer winters, which is completely different from how it was a decade ago or two decades ago.  We have had less ice and less snow in southern parts of the country. I remember that during my childhood I saw more snow and more ice. So the impact of climate change has come to our doorstep too. We also have started to witness weather extremes such as heatwaves, heavy rains and droughts, many uncertainties that have impacted among other things our crops and productivity.  If we, a Nordic country, up north of the globe, are feeling such impacts we can imagine what may be happening elsewhere in the world.

Climate change is  interlinked with biodiversity and it is of utmost importance to address these both challenges through global action. Biodiversity is about keeping our flora, fauna and whole ecosystem rich and diverse. We work with Nepal on climate change because we are in it together.

‘Climate change has impacted us all around the whole globe, which is why we need global action to tackle climate change impacts.’   

At the moment we are very much focused on implementing our current country program for development cooperation in Nepal for years 2021-2024. Climate resilience is one key factor in our work. This requires long term commitment and work. One area I would also wish to highlight is  disaster risk management which is also related to climate change and which we are working on as well, with different partners.

The number of Nepali people going to study in Finland is increasing.  What impressions do the Finnish people in general have about Nepal? How do they perceive our country?

 We Finnish are outdoor, nature loving people. So many Finns know Nepal and the Himalayas. This respect and interest in nature is something that we share. It’s kind of a dream for many Finnish to come here and experience the country and its beautiful landscape. There is something very tempting and mystical in Nepal that is completely different from Finland because we do not have the mountains back home. We have thousands of lakes and a lot of forests instead. 

I would also say that because Nepal has been one of the major partners in our development cooperation, people in Finland have knowledge about this beautiful country and the development cooperation Finland has been committed to. Finnish civil society organizations working here with their local partners and other partners tell a lot of positive stories of Nepal in Finland, which resonates with  many. We tell the stories to the Finns about the work we are doing in Nepal, for example on our efforts on gender equality and school education–which have been the key drivers of the prosperity of Finland.  We see the value and meaning of investing in education and in women and girls both politically and economically because of our own experience and our own commitment.  Finland’s recently published Development Policy Results Report highlights Nepal within the area of development cooperation and it brings out concrete examples of our work.  

So what will be the future initiatives to solidify the Nepal-Finland relations in the days to come?

At the moment we are guided by our country program to Nepal for years 2021-2024 with the focus on education, water, sanitation, climate resilience and gender equality. The planning for our future work after this time period will be done together with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Helsinki. At the moment we are fully implementing the country program and its long-term focus areas.  I also see the possibility of diversifying our collaboration on the economic front as Nepal will be graduating from the LDC status by 2026.

A lot of Nepali students go to Finland for studies. How does your office here facilitate the process?

Indeed more Nepali students are showing their interest to study in Finland. But as a government we don’t have direct scholarships. So, it is much up to the interested individuals themselves to look into the possibilities that different institutions such as colleges and universities offer. We provide general information through the website of the ministry and through our website in the embassy.  We also participate in relevant events with the aim to distribute information. For example, we were in the ‘Study in Europe’ fair organized by the Delegation of the European Union to Nepal in April through which we provided information to the Nepali students who wanted to pursue their higher education in Finland. 

You have been the ambassador of Finland to Nepal for a year now. You have also been traveling to various parts of the country and interacting with people. What are your impressions?

Before I took office here in Kathmandu as the Finnish ambassador to Nepal, I had been working in development cooperation and the human rights field and I had already visited Nepal. So it was wonderful to be posted in Nepal because I knew that we  have a great cooperation portfolio here guided by a great team at the embassy. Professionally it was really a driving factor for me to know that I am going to a place with which we have such a good portfolio and such good collaboration. On a more personal level, the beauty of nature and the majestic mountains and the Himalayas of this country, the whole atmosphere and the depth of this country and the people were already deeply embedded in my memories since I had come here on my field visits.

As ambassador, I have had the privilege to travel around the country and our project areas, especially in Sudurpaschim and Karnali. This has been in many ways the highlight of my stay. Interacting with local communities and people—women, youth and children especially—learning from them and learning from our collaboration has left a very strong memory lane. The people of this country make the difference.

Traveling in the country and meeting with local people have really been highlights for me. And the snow-capped Himalayas take my breath away every time.’

Their resilience, their commitment and energy, their lovely spirit and kindness. This I will always treasure. Together with the amazing cultural richness and the snow-capped Himalayas, which really take my breath away every time.