Nepal and the United States: Fifty Years of Friendship and Looking Ahead

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The Peace Corps has played a special role in behalf of development in Nepal

The Peace Corps has played a special role in behalf of development in Nepal

Nepal and the United States Fifty Years of Friendship and Looking Ahead

Sandy Vogelgesang
U.S. Ambassador

Nepal and the United States are relatively new friends, as nations go. Our official relationship dates back just fifty years.

It was not until April 25, 1947, that formal diplomatic relations were established between the United States and Nepal with the signing of an Agreement of Commerce and Friendship. It is that event which we commemorate as the fiftieth anniversary of U.S.-Nepalese relations.

A wide range of festivities this Spring and Summer — culminating in a Golden Anniversary Reception on U.S. Independence Day this Fourth of July — will help celebrate and reaffirm the strong friendship between our two governments and peoples. As Chief of the U.S. Mission in Nepal, I am proud that we will reflect that friendship not only with the receptions that are traditional for such milestones. As the mother of two young children, I am even prouder that our celebrations will highlight the kinds of events that will, over time, help make a positive difference for my Carolyn and Christopher and their Nepalese counterparts.

Our anniversary celebrations will emphasize events across the Kingdom of Nepal that underscore the shared priorities of our two countries. These will include, inter alia, presentations of medical supplies and equipment to hospitals and small clinics and a large American Studies Collection to Tribhuvan University and launching new programs for the environment, rural electrification and irrigation, and women and children. We want this fiftieth anniversary to reflect the best of what has already distinguished U.S.-Nepalese relations and to strengthen the foundation for our future.

Together, as two independent nations, we have much of which to be proud. You and we have worked together to help Nepal emerge from the isolation of centuries and begin to overcome poverty. To that end, the United States has given well over one billion U.S. dollars of assistance to the Kingdom of Nepal.

American assistance — a combination of bilateral programming by the U.S. mission for the Agency for International Development (USAID/Nepal) and American support for multilateral organizations (from UNICEF to the World Bank) — has, we believe, made a major positive difference for the average citizen of Nepal. Malaria no longer makes much of the terai uninhabitable. Only one percent of Nepal’s citizens could read or write in 1950; now over 75 percent of Nepalese children attend primary school and growing numbers of women attend adult literacy classes. Life expectancy was a mere 28 years in the 1950’s, compared to more than double that figure now.

The government and people of Nepal deserve the most credit for these advances. That said, we Americans — particularly our colleagues with USAID/Nepal which has worked here since 1951 — are proud to have played a role in your achieving progress. And, we share your determination to maintain the momentum for impact!

The Peace Corps has played a special role in behalf of development in Nepal. Indeed, the Kingdom of Nepal was one of the first countries to welcome the American Peace Corps. That program opened in 1962, just one year after President John F. Kennedy launched this innovative outreach to the world and just a few years after the United States posted its first resident ambassador in 1959.

The arrival of that first group of 74 Volunteers occurred coincidentally with a shift of U.S. policy in Nepal. When the Kingdom took an autocratic turn in the late 1950’s and the Panchayat system drove many democrats underground or into exile, the U.S. Government shifted much of its assistance from a government-to-government to a people-to-people focus.

Since the arrival of “Peace Corps I,” more than 4000 Volunteers have come to Nepal and some from that first class are still here! Our Volunteers have worked on village-level projects in health, education, agriculture and small-scale industry. They have also provided the basic staff for teaching English throughout the country. Today Peace Corps Nepal is the largest such program in Asia and one of the largest run by the Peace Corps worldwide.

Enriching bilateral ties through education and culture has been one of the most rewarding parts of our relationship. It was not long after we established diplomatic ties, that the U.S. Information Service (USIS) opened the first American Library on New Road in downtown Kathmandu. It quickly became a center for cultural and media events in Nepal. By 1965, with 8,000 circulating books by American writers, over 100 American periodicals and 1,000 items in the reference collection, the library had become the primary source for information in Nepal about American life.

In 1952, USIS began the first academic exchanges between U.S. and Nepalese universities. Since then, under the Fulbright Program, among others, over 350 Nepalese students and scholars have studied in the United States, while 200 American professors have had the opportunity to work here. Fulbright graduates include Nepal’s current Foreign Minister, Dr. Prakash Chandra Lohani, and National Planning Commission Vice Chairman Dr. Mangal Siddhi Manandhar. Others — including Nepal’s former Prime Ministers Man Mohan Adhikari and Sher Bahadur Deuba, Daman Nath Dhungana, Kapil Shrestha and Kedar Mathema — have traveled to the United States under USIS’ International Visitor Program.

After the present King, His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, acceded to the throne in 1972, he took steps to involve Nepal more deeply in world affairs and began to consider steps to liberalize Nepal’s own politics. For example, in 1978, he dispatched a contingent of Nepalese troops to serve with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. That Nepalese commitment to the United Nations, particularly international peacekeeping, is one that the United States applauds. Your soldiers have fought bravely around the world in behalf of peace.

1990 marked a major turning point in both Nepalese history and in our bilateral relations. The people of Nepal toppled the Panchayat system and established a new, multi-party democracy. With democracy sweeping the world, the United States responded in Nepal as it had elsewhere, providing essential support to the committee which drafted Nepal’s new democratic constitution, developing aid projects to strengthen the Parliament, the courts and local governments, and offering support for Nepal’s first multi-party elections in thirty years.

At the same time, USAID/Nepal geared up its support for Nepal’s transition to a viable market economy. It assisted in the privatization of state-owned enterprises, helped open markets to private competition and supported Nepal’s efforts to attract foreign investment. USAID also lent its hand to the critical task of tax reform and to the establishment of the first indigenous organization exclusively devoted to stronger U.S.-Nepal trade and investment ties — the Nepal-USA Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Major progress is underway across Nepal in areas where the U.S. shares your concerns and supports your commitment. But, much more must be done. I refer, for example, to protection of the environment — from deforestation in rural areas and the strain on natural resources caused by overpopulation and poverty, to cleaning up the air, water and garbage in Kathmandu. I refer to the need for the government to reach the needy of the nation at the grass-roots level so that villagers can count on access to decent health care or trained teachers in village schools.

I refer as well to the extraordinary women of Nepal. Many of them still live on the margin, without voice or choice. They tell me that Nepalese women, like American women, want nothing more — and nothing less — than to be equal partners with men, for the sake of their family, their community, and their country.

Now, seven years after the restoration of Nepal’s democracy and six years into Nepal’s economic reform program, we stand at a potentially critical crossroad in our relationship. Nepal is finding its place in the world, and in the subcontinent. It has developed good relations with its two large neighbors, China and India. Kathmandu is the headquarters for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which is rapidly developing into a world-class organization. Nepal is finding growing common ground with India regarding the development of its trade and water resources and other matters.

Perhaps most significant is the role that Nepal is playing in promoting a bold proposal for sub-regional cooperation in the development of the Ganges-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin. Nepal’s proposal for more cooperation in South Asia has the potential to change the northeastern quadrant of the subcontinent from the “poverty quadrangle” into the “growth quadrangle.”

Indeed, that initiative has begun to focus international attention on the scale and significance of the resources of this basin. According to statistics gathered by the Government of Nepal, the Ganges-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin now carries about 214 million cubic hectometers of water to the sea annually with the capacity to generate 162,000 megawatts of electricity. Sold off at current market rates, that capacity, once fully developed, could generate an estimated annual income for states of the region of up to 80 billion U.S. dollars per year. The total income that could be generated from Himalayan water resources could equal more than half the value of all oil exports from the Persian Gulf. Moreover, in contrast to oil, the power generated from this source would be, for states of this region, clean, secure and inexhaustible.

Such hydropower would also represent only part of the benefits of multilateral development of this basin. In addition, there would be benefits in the form of irrigation, flood control and transportation, which, while difficult to quantify, typically represent forty percent or more of the annual benefits of multi-purpose water resource projects. In other words, the value of annual downstream or indirect benefits from such projects could run in the same range as the direct benefits from generating hydropower — i.e., into the tens of billions of U.S. dollars every year.

Such potential has caught the eye of U.S. business and the U.S. Government. In March, my Mission had the privilege of hosting the first trade mission to Nepal of U.S. companies based in India. Six of the fifteen companies that originally signed up for that mission are now considering investments in Nepal.

I have also had the pleasure, during my tenure as Ambassador, of seeing U.S. companies start the first entirely private hydropower project in Nepal on the Upper Bhote Koshi River. Before I leave, I hope to lay the basis for other similar projects, whose value for Nepal could run into the billions of dollars.

We are, in short, entering what may be an extraordinary new era for the U.S.-Nepalese relationship. For the first time, we have the opportunity to act on our common interest in seeing the full development of the potential of this region.

By establishing a rule of law and commitment to democracy, by liberalizing its economy, and by increasing its economic integration with its SAARC partners and the broader global community, Nepal has already taken many of the most critical steps to make this possible. If the leaders and people of Nepal can marshal the requisite political will, there need be no limit on prospects for economic takeoff on “the roof of the world.”

We Americans are, by nature, optimists. We thus look forward with confidence, on the fiftieth anniversary of U.S.-Nepalese relations, to using the positive potential of this new era in our relationship to achieve major progress over the next half century.

Our two nations can realize the dream that most fundamentally animates our friendship. It is the dream of democracy — that one day, here and everywhere, your children and mine, and those thereafter, will live in peace and prosperity. Let us, therefore, on this anniversary, resolve to keep that dream alive, let us live that dream, and let us make that precious dream a shining reality!

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