US government priorities in Nepal

Members of the Sitaram Agriculture Group grow profitable fresh vegetables with irrigation water in Nepal. The group received $800 in grants from USAID's Knowledge-based Integrated Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition project. Photo by: Satyam Joshi / USAID / CC BY-ND

The U.S. government’s priorities in Nepal focus on encouraging democracy, enhancing economic prosperity and improving stability and disaster resilience. The embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development mission are working to help the country recover from a pair of earthquakes that hit the country last year as it works to implement a newly adopted constitution.

The fledgling democracy faces a number of key challenges, including having 25 percent of its 29 million people living under the poverty line as of 2010, the most recent World Bank data. Half of the population is under the age of 25.

With relatively slow economic growth and few job opportunities outside of agriculture — only about 17 percent of Nepal’s population has paid work — young people, especially men, are increasingly looking outside the country. The country sees some half a million of its citizens leave each year to work overseas.

Migration provides something of a safety valve for the country: Young people find productive jobs abroad and send remittances back home. More than 30 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product comes from money sent from Nepalese living abroad, the highest rate among countries for which the World Bank publishes data.

The earthquake exacerbated economic challenges, costing the country an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion in damages, a significant portion of its $19.29 billion gross domestic product. The psychosocial toll of nearly 9,000 deaths, more than 16,000 injuries and nearly 800,000 homes completely destroyed or damaged has also been dramatic.

Devex recently sat down with Tristram Perry, the public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Nepal and Andrew Nelson, the mission economist for USAID in Nepal to discuss the U.S. government’s priorities in the country.

Ensuring stability and disaster resilience

Nepal, due to its geography, will continue to face natural disasters. “The difference we can make is by being prepared,” Perry said.

To that end, the U.S. State Department, USAID and the U.S. Department of Defense are working with Nepal to improve preparedness and reduce risks. Those efforts include helping communities recover from the earthquake while also planning ahead for the next one.

The U.S. is also backing efforts to rebuild in a resilient way, working through the local government process. For example, the U.S. has supported a social enterprise that made a mobile app out of new building codes, which require higher standards in hopes of avoiding the kind of collapses that killed so many in the earthquake. The U.S. is also working to train stone masons in how to use traditional materials and technologies, and not just steel rebar, to build resilient buildings.

Many Nepalese have decried the slow pace of aid delivery and rebuilding efforts, in large part due to a slow government response. But Perry said the Nepalese government must lead those efforts, which the U.S. supports.

Enhancing economic prosperity

With about a quarter of the population living in poverty, working to improve economic prosperity is one of the U.S. government’s top priorities. U.S. supported programs center around everything from agriculture, to entrepreneurship to fiscal policy.

Agriculture is a key focus of these economic development efforts. More than two-thirds of the of the Nepalese population works in agriculture, according to the International Labor Organization. Projects aim to improve farming practices as well as help set up agriculture-related businesses that can create jobs and provide better rural opportunities for a growing youth population.

The Knowledge-based Integrated Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition, KISAN, project, part of USAID’s flagship agriculture program Feed the Future, is working with the government to improve food security and increase incomes.

USAID conducted a 2015 landscape analysis to help determine where USAID should focus its efforts on attracting investment, helping smallholder farmers find buyers for their crops and professionalizing farming. They are looking to encourage more mechanization and commercial crops that can be grown in a third growing season, in addition to the traditional crops of rice and corn.

On top of agriculture, the U.S. government is also working to support emerging entrepreneurs,  in part through opening an innovation hub. The U.S. is hoping to use its influence to improve access to capital and professional networks to try to stem the flow of talent leaving the country.

Government regulations and policies at times hold back entrepreneurial group and businesses writ large. For example, Nepal prohibits anyone in the country from making electronic payments. The U.S. believes that helping shore up economic stability and updating regulations will also improve political stability and greater regional integration.

Encouraging democracy

Nepal is a young democracy. The 240-year-old monarchy fell only in 2008 and the country has been trying to navigate a new era since then. The country is still mired by slow social progress, political unrest and question marks over whether a peace agreement with Maoist insurgents will stick.

After several attempts, the Nepalese government secured agreement on a new constitution last year. But work to create a culture of democracy and carry out all the necessary legal and political changes has just begun. The U.S. is providing technical assistance to help ensure that Nepal works to implement the constitution and create as inclusive a democracy as possible.

While the Nepalese government is “making motions in that direction,” it is likely to be a slow process, Perry said. “This is a journey. It’s going to be a while. We are here as a partner that gets it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Coca-Cola Co. financially supported the reporter’s travel to Nepal. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.