Nov 23, 2015- The US Ambassador to Nepal Alaina Teplitz believes that the supplies crunch Nepal is currently facing has further complicated the humanitarian situation and the reconstruction works post earthquake, in which the US has taken a lead in a number of areas. The US, the new US envoy said, has been talking to the Indian government about post-earthquake issues and is anxious to get into the recovery phase to help the people who have been affected by the natural disaster. In her first interview to the Nepali media since she took office last month, Ambassador Teplitz told Akhilesh Upadhyay and Sudheer Sharma that the ties between Nepal and the US were ‘incredibly strong’. When asked to explain the US position on the perception in some quarters in Nepal that it views us through the Indian prism, she asserted that the US has an independent perspective on what is going on in Nepal.
US foreign policy objective in Nepal is to promote political and economic development, decrease our dependence on humanitarian assistance, and increase our ability to make positive contributions to regional security. Does this policy still stand today?
Yes, these are still our objectives in Nepal: encouraging prosperity, further development of democracy and stability. The earthquake earlier this year, has been a cataclysmic event in so many ways. We are concerned, obviously, that there might be some reverses as a result of the quake in terms of economic issues. In terms of stability, I think if Nepal goes in the path of democracy, speaking of the historical context, the constitution really is a critical milestone.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1947, Nepal-US ties have strengthened over the years with high-level visits and establishment of Fulbright program and Peace Corps Nepal in the 1960s. How do you see the larger political dimension of these ties in recent times?
Our ties remain incredibly strong. We have had the visit by the USAID administrator, various under Secretaries of states, many members of our military, among others, on an ongoing basis. This is just the symbol of the routine, strong partnership. Peace Corps Nepal left for a while and now they are back so we are really pleased with that. It’s just a sign of responding to what we think our joint interests are.
So we are largely moving in the right direction?
Yes, in terms of our partnership we are moving in the right direction. These are dynamic things. We have to look at what the needs are today as opposed to 50 years ago when we might have had a different rhythm.
Nepal is facing a humanitarian crisis at the moment. There is a severe shortage of medicines, fuel, daily commodities, which have not only hampered our regular development works but also affected the reconstruction process. What are your thoughts?
I have to agree with you that there has been a huge impact on reconstruction, and I look at our own programmes that are not moving along as fast as we would like, and some in fact are moving very slowly. Clearly, the lack of supplies has impeded the ability to deliver the supplies and goods to people in some of the more remote earthquake-impacted areas and this is not a good thing. Our statement on November 5 made it clear that we worry and that there is a looming crisis, so we need all to be vigilant about finding a way through it, so that we do not have a second humanitarian crisis on our hands, and that a meaningful dialogue was the way to get there.
What is the US position on our new constitution?
After the constitution was promulgated, we welcomed it and noted the milestone. This constitution, looking at this in an historical context, is a huge milestone for Nepal and it is really the source of rights for Nepalis and we believe it should reflect the aspirations of all Nepalis. At this point, implementation of the constitution is an enormous task facing the government, and it would have been for any government if they were in a similar position. Again, we are ready to provide support to focus on the implementation of the constitution but that is going to be very critical to make some of the greater democratic aspirations that are out there real. So the constitution is a critically important step forward.
You mentioned that the constitution is a milestone for Nepal. Can you elaborate the basis for your assertion?
Well, the democratic election has happened several times but the Constituent Assembly election in 2008 and 2013 are important and constitution is a document that helps govern everybody; it sets the ground rule. In the US, we established our constitution in 1787 and have used that ever since, with some adjustments, to determine how we are going to interact as a society, with one another and how our states interact with our federal government. It has been the source document for every decision and piece of legislation that has gone forward to regulate our country. So in the Nepal context, the constitution is critically important for establishing that baseline for everybody and for guaranteeing the rights of society. That said, there are a lot of legislations that will have to come from that and that will take some time to develop.
Since the constitution came out, there has been a strong divergence of opinion, especially between Kathmandu and New Delhi. India has reacted, among other things, with the blockade, which has led to a humanitarian crisis in Nepal. Where does the US stand on this?
Again going back to the November 5 statement, looking at the volatility in the border region and the lack of stability, lack of progress on the democratic front, we have encouraged everybody involved to seek a way to find a solution. And as we have consistently said, peaceful, democratic solutions are going to deliver a lasting prosperous country. We have certainly supported the rights of people to express themselves in a peaceful way. Giving space for dialogue is critically important, parties and the agitating groups have to be able to come to the table and discuss, have genuine conversation, trust and goodwill. And that is how the outcome is going to be achieved, so we continue to call on everyone involved to be looking for solutions.
Talking about the emerging humanitarian crisis, a medical shipment bound for Kathmandu was burned by the protesters.
Whether it is burning medical consignments or causing schools to be closed–we do not see that as a productive way to have a genuine political dialogue.
Can you elaborate on the looming humanitarian crisis and what type of scenario do you see unfolding in the coming days?
In the aftermath of the earthquake, almost 800,000 homes were lost, people lost not just their shelter but their livelihoods along with that, institutions such as the schools, police stations, and district headquarters, all were gone. So our first response was to provide immediate relief and to ensure that these people have a little bit of shelter above their head and some food on their plate. So through other organisations, like the UN, we sought to help meet that need. Now we are at the phase where we had hoped that most of the temporary shelters would become permanent constructions; that the tin walls would become real walls. But we are not seeing that happen. And the scarcity of supplies is obviously impeding some of this. We also have not been silent about the need for the overarching authority to help coordinate and decentralise donor assistance and provide direction and that remains critical.
The legislation for the National Reconstruction Authority is something we would like to see passed. It is not just the shortages at the border but there is also a need for this kind of overarching leadership and that is something that would enhance our ability to respond as well. And again, we have not slowed down in looking for ways to provide support, whether it has been training individuals to enhancing their skill sets, making them better aware of the environment, or tooling or giving some of our existing programmes, such as those that are involved in health and nutrition,
to be focusing on more specific needs of the earthquake-impacted areas, we continue to do all this.
So with the looming humanitarian crisis we are just not being able to move on to the next necessary phase of rebuilding for those people who have been severely impacted.
The US was one of the first countries to respond after the earthquake in terms of sending rescue missions. But now we get a sense that the donor community is not very happy with our progress and lack of legislation on reconstruction. What would you like to see in the near future from our end?
Well, passing the Reconstruction Bill that would provide an overarching authority will be an excellent step forward. As you pointed out there are many donors and there are many line ministries that are involved in helping to manage and prioritise the needs that the donors are responding to. But there are too many people involved; the single authority can help fast track approvals and permits for example or do deconfliction among ministries, I think would be a real help. The reconstruction effort is not just one little project that is complete and all of a sudden it’s over. It’s long term, multidisciplinary, it crosses many sectors, so having that kind of central authority I think is really going to be essential.
So how do you see the US role in all this—as a very important bilateral donor, as the leader of the Western world, and also leading large multilateral donors on the ground?
Going back to the beginning of our discussion and our long history of partnership, as an ambassador here, I see us as being a leader in that effort. We put forward $130 million last year, much of it expanded to address the needs of the earthquake victims and that is the only beginning of what we pledge and what we plan to fulfil. We were fortunate to have existing mature assistance programmes here that we could immediately shift to target the disaster impacted areas. And now we are looking at how we grow these existing programmes to meet the identified needs. Ultimately, we are responsible to the needs that are identified by the government and the people. So we will continue to be a leader, we are a major donor bilaterally and as you pointed out through multilateral institutions as well. For example, we have provided a lot of money to the World Bank in the housing sector, so we are going tocontinue to be in the forefront of that.
Are you happy with the state of affairs in Nepal in regards to reconstruction?
We have two impediments to reconstruction. One is the shortages of reconstruction materials due to slowdowns in the border and the second is the need for the coordination body. We have not been shy or silent in saying that the coordinating bodies will be a critical ingredient to taking on the long-term efforts.
So as the reconstruction work is two-dimensional, we need a steady flow of supplies that mostly comes through the Indian border and also the government that is ready to take on the responsibility. So what has been you communication with New Delhi and Kathmandu in this regard?
We have certainly spoken to leaders here about the need to move ahead quickly and think about not just the coordination angle, but how to fast track things like the building codes legislation needs to established, approvals, project permits that are necessary to be able to execute a project. We have talked with all of the other donors to express not only the need for coordination so that we are not duplicating efforts but that we are also well targeted. And the joint interest in seeing Nepal comeback from the earthquake and continue on the trajectory that hopefully leads to the vision of prosperity.
How about your communication with India?
We have been talking to the Indian government as we have been talking to other governments about post-earthquake issues and I again think that our donor aspirations are heading towards the same direction, which is to move on and get into the recovery phase and to do what needs to be done for the people who have been impacted.
There is also this perception here that because New Delhi and Washington are strategic partners on larger regional affairs, the US perhaps lets New Delhi take the lead when it comes to Nepal and stays shy of stating the humanitarian crisis faced by the people of this country is because of the Indian blockade.
After 70 years of close relationship with Nepal, you can give us credit for having an independent perspective on what is going on here. The US is interested in seeing a prosperous South Asia and to see more economic integration as we see that as a win-win situation for the people of South Asia, including Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. All of us will have something to gain out of this idea of shared prosperity. That said, nobody is dictating our foreign policy. We are looking at it through our own lens and what we need to do so, given our partnership with Nepal in order to be responsive to the identified humanitarian needs.
The first humanitarian disaster that took place was the earthquake and during that period the major members of the international community showed convergence. But for these current political disturbances and blockade, do you see any convergence among the major players in the international arena to resolve the problem?
From last several weeks many countries including the US have issued statements about the situation in Nepal, the UN has spoken about it as well. There is a consistent thread in this; the situation at the border is not helping anyone. It is contributing to a humanitarian crisis and the long-term consequences are somewhat unknown. But you can guess that it is going to have a devastating economic impact and other things that we cannot even think about that this could be feeding into. And all of the statements are calling on parties to get together to resolve the crisis as it is helping no one. And as you say it’s a political issue, so there needs to be political space to resolve these issues. The way to fix it is to have those political conversations and come to those political agreements that are going to satisfy the unmet aspirations.
So is the US working closely with New Delhi and Beijing for regional cooperation, not only in reconstruction but beyond?
We have got ongoing dialogues with India, China and all of the countries in South Asia and, again, with other donors. So yes, we are talking about all of these issues with all of our other partners in the region; we are talking to the Nepal government, other non-governmental organisations, political parties and everybody who has a stake in these issues.
Talking about the larger cooperation, especially bilateral, would you like to talk about the defence ties between Nepal and the US?
We spoke a lot about development assistance, but part of our partnership is a strong military-to-military relationship. Naturally, we are quite proud of the role we have played in helping the Nepal Army improve its disaster response capability. We saw how great a return on that investment we received after the earthquake, so we are continuing that partnership. We have also invested very heavily in the leadership capabilities of the Nepal Army, which again gives it ability to respond. And then we have also had a relationship to support the peacekeeping operation activities of the military here, another area which we can be proud of. Nepal is one of the largest contributors to peacekeeping troops, an enormous contribution for international peace and stability. And I think Nepal Army, rightly so, are capable and very professional, so our ability to support that helps us achieve our larger objectives globally as it is not just in Nepal we would like to see stability and economic prosperity.
What are the other priorities for the US in Nepal?
We talked a lot about democracy and the constitution being the milestone. Prior to the constitution, it was to support democratic evolution and the transition after the peace accords and implementing those accords. Now the constitution has been promulgated, so we would like to provide assistance for constitutional implementation. We are here to help by lending our knowledge and expertise so implementing the constitution has to be a major emphasis and we stand ready to be partners. That said, economic prosperity is something that goes hand in hand and to help Nepal create an investment-friendly environment is also critical. That means not only helping develop regulatory or legal framework that helps welcome investors but also helping to provide human capital the investors will look for.
The US has been very involved lately in the development of young entrepreneurs and the US sees private sector as the growth engine. Any particular programmes for Nepal?
This is a timely question as this is the Global Entrepreneurship Week [Nov 16-22]. And yes, we do see the private sector as the economic growth engine and that young people can be contributors. In terms of private sector growth, one thing that might be of an interest is our discussion for compact under the Millennium Challenge Corporation. We have been working on the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact (agreement) and its goal is to provide assistance to Nepal that will help establish regulatory frameworks, provide legal and technical assistance so that it creates an investor-friendly environment. Then let the private sector take off where it has the comparative advantage and build a plant or a factory.
One aspect of US-Nepal ties which perhaps was not envisioned in the 1940s and 50s, but has come a long way now is that the US attracts a huge number of Nepali students. What impact do you think this will have in our ties in the long run?
It is a great opportunity for Nepali students to receive an excellent education and our hope, of course, is that those Nepali students come back to Nepal and find ways to contribute here, stay connected to the US in order to bring in ideas and to stay in tune with what is happening in the world.
How does the US view its role in Nepal–as a core member of the West or wants to be seen an independent entity?
The US considers itself to be part of the Pacific Rim community. We have been looking very seriously into how to integrate in South Asia, South East Asia and Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor concept. So we really see ourselves as a member of many communities depending on how you define it. Even if we are not a direct geographic neighbour that does not mean that we do not have
mutual interests that can be met by working together. Our 70 years of partnership is not just all about being a good friend; we see opportunities for the US here in an economically prosperous Nepal, and Nepal that is more integrated into the South Asian region. We have very intensely focused on Asia and the Asian region not just with China in the Far East for example or India inSouth Asia, but with all the nations.
What will be your area of personal interest during your tenure here?
As a woman, though not the first female ambassador the US has sent to Nepal, I do have a special interest—one that I think I share with a number of prominent Nepalis, including President Bhandari—in gender issues and ensuring that progress is made not only to empower women politically and help meet their aspirations but also to address issues of gender-based violence and human trafficking issues that most immediately impacts women in this country. And perhaps, I have a unique opportunity to make a difference in that area. This has been a long standing US policy and an area of interest here for the US government. So perhaps I can give it a special perspective and emphasis.
Courtesy- The Kathmandu Post, 23 Nov 2015.