U.S.-Nepal Relations: Leveraging Operational Efficiencies to Achieve Our Objectives
Nepal, that mythical Shangri-La nestled in the Himalayas, has long captured the hearts and imaginations of Americans. In the 70 years since the United States established formal relations with the erstwhile hermit kingdom, Nepal has seen dramatic socio-economic progress—often stemming from its partnership with the United States. But in many ways, it still remains under-developed, fragile and vulnerable. As the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu celebrated the 70th anniversary of our partnership in 2017, we pursued a dozen month-long campaigns around today’s policy objectives to highlight our historical collaboration and leverage this retrospective to draw attention to the need for further progress. Combining diplomatic engagements and public events targeted at thought leaders and policy leaders, our campaigns moved forward our shared U.S.-Nepali priorities. As the U.S. government revisits its approach to the Indo-Pacific region and new Nepali leaders form what promises to be the country’s first multi-year government in decades, we now face a unique opportunity to advance our mutual objectives of a stable, prosperous Nepal that is a robust partner of the United States.
Coming at the same time as potential adjustments to foreign affairs budgets and staffing, Embassy Kathmandu is reorganizing how we do business to improve our effectiveness, find efficiencies and enhance our focus on an agenda that delivers results. Rather than organize ourselves by the agency that pays our salary, we have structured our unified U.S. government team according to what each unit is doing. Our interagency Integrated Country Strategy (ICS) Teams—co-chaired by section chiefs from separate agencies and physically co-located within the chancery—have designed common strategies for how the U.S. Embassy intends to pursue major objectives and coordinate approaches, as well as explicitly identifying those nice-to-pursue efforts that limited staffing or resources require relegating to the back burner. Through action plans, each ICS Team identifies strategic, impactful and tangible targets to achieve each year—institutionalizing best practices from our 70th anniversary campaigns to sustain meaningful progress toward our goals. As the stakes and challenges facing U.S. diplomacy continue to grow, Embassy Kathmandu is using the strategic opportunity that current U.S.-Nepal relations offer to develop a proof of concept for how a 21st century embassy can organize our people and operations to maximum effect.
Despite 70 Years of Progress, Notable Vulnerabilities Remain
When the United States became only the second country to recognize an independent Nepal in 1947, the country was an impoverished monarchy largely closed to the outside world. In 1960, life expectancy was only 35 years, and only 8 percent of women were literate. By 1990, life expectancy was still just 54 years, 140 kids under age five died out of every 1,000 live births and only 65 percent of people had access to improved water sources. In 2000, GDP per capita was only $230, and only 67 percent of kids completed elementary school. Just 12 years ago, the country was mired in a protracted Maoist insurgent conflict.
Despite those challenges, there has been great progress. Over the past two decades, child mortality, extreme poverty and population growth have been cut in half, and life expectancy has increased to 69 years. Primary school completion has become universal, and over 90 percent of people have access to improved water sources. GDP has more than tripled since 2000. Today the country has enjoyed more than a decade of peace, has a new democratic constitution and, for the first time since 1990, has a new democratically elected government that offers the possibility of political stability with its potential to remain in place for several years. Much of Nepal’s progress over the past few decades—particularly in relation to development indicators—can be attributed to the strategically focused, close and sustained U.S. engagement.
While such political and developmental progress has fundamentally transformed Nepal in an incredibly short period of time, the country remains fragile. Corruption and decades of governments lasting barely one year impeded progress, and interparty struggles left leaders focused on the form of government while they neglected the substance of governance. The result is one of the poorest countries in Asia on a per-capita basis, where social grievances stemming from the Maoist insurgency and historical discrimination have been allowed to fester as power struggles deprived the people of a peace dividend. Inadequate border security renders Nepal vulnerable to malign actors seeking transit options or a conducive environment from which to plot their next step. To the north, an increasingly imposing China deploys its political sway and ample funds under the Belt and Road moniker to secure Nepal’s acquiescence as Beijing expands its market access and, potentially, its control of Nepal’s debts.
Indeed, Nepal’s vulnerability to external shocks, regional incursions and domestic grievances threatens stability and prospects for a vibrant and regionally integrated economy. Particularly in light of U.S. strategic perspectives on the Indo-Pacific region, American diplomatic, development and defense collaboration has greater potential to positively advance shared U.S. and Nepali interests today than perhaps any other time in our seven-decade-long partnership. The potential five-year tenure of the new government offers a window of opportunity for sustained progress and positive results from an engaged United States. As resource levels shift, achieving these results will require greater efficiencies and focus.
Our 70th Anniversary: Honing a Model for Results-Focused Engagement
Throughout 2017, Embassy Kathmandu used the 70th anniversary of U.S.-Nepal relations as a platform for a coordinated, impact-focused Mission-wide push to advance U.S. goals in Nepal. The dozen month-long campaigns around strategic objectives combined public outreach to create public demand for reforms with targeted interventions with decision makers to catalyze their action on the reform issues. Monthly campaigns focused on themes ranging from disaster risk reduction to countering trafficking in persons (TIP) to transparent and accountable governance. Each month featured a public lecture by U.S. government (USG) exchange alumni, op-eds bylined by the U.S. Ambassador with a specific call to action, public outreach events and complementary social media postings.
For example, for November’s energy campaign, a U.S. speaker engaged Nepali officials on the role of the nascent power regulator and electricity market structure to enhance the impact of the recently signed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) electricity sector compact. Both the Ambassador’s op-ed and the Fulbright lecture that month focused on harnessing Nepal’s hydropower potential and pressed authorities to strategically develop water resources. Similarly, the Chargé opened August’s prosperity and entrepreneurship campaign by meeting the new Agriculture Minister and encouraging the Government of Nepal to finalize a long-delayed Agribusiness Promotion Bill. Ministry leaders explained that the bill was not a priority. However, through close engagement by the U.S. Mission with Nepali ministry leaders throughout the month—including the launch of a new agriculture project, another op-ed, social media posts and a hands-on event that linked Nepali business leaders across the supply chain—we convinced the Agriculture Secretary of the importance of unleashing the agribusiness sector. As he was departing the final event of that month’s campaign, the Secretary shared his “a-ha” moment with the Chargé by stating, “This is why the Agribusiness Promotion Bill is so important—it is now the Ministry’s top legislative priority.”
Due in large part to our 70th anniversary campaign activities, the U.S. Embassy catalyzed significant movement. Ratification of the Palermo TIP Protocol is on the Cabinet’s agenda. The National Planning Commission is considering adopting USAID’s farm productivity and market linkages model in the Nepalese government’s own agriculture efforts. And a USG exchange alumnus in Nepal’s Parliament drove passage of a long-stalled bill establishing a Disaster Management Authority.
Sustaining Impactful Engagement
Prior to the 70th anniversary, the Embassy’s ICS goal-focused, interagency working groups had crafted Mission-wide strategies laying out how our unified USG team viewed, prioritized and sought to engage on our top objectives: human trafficking, energy, transitional justice, entrepreneurship, etc. The approach brought together all USG actors engaged on each issue to analyze the situation, agree on a common strategy to address it, share details on relevant efforts, deconflict efforts and complement one another to allow the totality of USG engagement in major priority areas to achieve more than the sum of its parts. Moreover, by charging the teams with defining the strategies and determining how they would pursue major milestones, the approach ensured that teams bought into the objectives and strategies which they created themselves. This collaborative approach allowed Embassy Kathmandu to go into our 70th anniversary year with a plan and a record of strong interagency synergies. Lessons learned from our 70th anniversary campaign, combined with the effects of the hiring freeze and discussion of reduced assistance budgets, however, highlighted for us that further efficiency gains were needed if we are going to be able to tangibly advance our goals. Talk of redesigning how the U.S. State Department operates further opened the door for us to think creatively and offer a proof of concept on how our U.S. Embassies can work more effectively.
We formalized our working groups into ICS Teams, each co-chaired by the section chiefs from different agencies most involved in each ICS goal area. Armed with our interagency strategies, we tasked each team to devise an action plan for 2018 identifying the three-to-five most meaningful—yet achievable—targets the Embassy would aim to achieve over the year. Teams identified both ongoing and special efforts that component offices would lead in order to achieve each target. With this process coinciding with the Embassy’s Public Diplomacy Implementation Plan (PDIP) development, the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) facilitated a planning session allocating each team a defined number of “playing cards” representing the total number of PD programs—big events, visiting Speaker programs, op-eds, media efforts, etc.—that the Public Affairs Section (PAS) could handle in support of the action plans. The result is a consolidated Embassy engagement calendar for 2018 that operationalizes the various action plans, sets an ambitious yet digestible pace for efforts for each campaign and allows teams to plan their campaign periods around other predictable busy periods such as program reviews, required reports and Employee Evaluation Reports (EER) season. More important, it forces teams to maintain momentum on our broader agenda of what we are trying to achieve in Nepal without getting sidelined by the press of day-to-day demands.
The final step in our transformation in how we pursue U.S. foreign policy in Nepal was to enable teams to work together more smartly. Rather than having offices located in the Embassy by agency, we are moving offices focused on similar issues to be adjacent to one another. While Pol/Econ officers will retain their secure workspace when needed, most of the time that section’s American and Nepali staff will sit alongside USAID’s Democracy and Governance staff. Department of Justice colleagues working on rule-of-law efforts will sit among them. USAID’s economic growth office staff will sit with the Pol/Econ Section’s economic-focused staff, along with MCC and the Regional Environmental Office. Rather than waiting for weekly meetings or relying on e-mails, the proximity of teams will create multiple “casual collisions” of colleagues throughout the day whereby information can be shared more easily and in real time.
Until State and USAID IT operating platforms can better collaborate, all State Department users with regular interagency interactions have been given accounts on the Foreign Affairs Network, which must be used for all documents designed for interagency coordination. This Google platform allows multiple authors to work on documents simultaneously, dramatically reducing clearance time. It will also allow staff to work together on products during group discussions once the Embassy’s planned WiFi system is deployed. Several collaboration spaces with laptop access, whiteboards and more brainstorming-conducive layouts are being established to foster more productive group work that does not have to be revisited once staff members return to their desks.
Ultimately, U.S. Embassies exist to advance our nation’s interests. But far too often, core diplomatic work is overcome by the press of day-to-day demands and teams can lose sight of broader strategic objectives. Discussions are deferred until the next regularly scheduled meeting, and those with whom we work most closely are seldom those we sit closest to. Embassy Kathmandu’s successes stemming from our interagency 70th anniversary campaigns inspire our optimistic view that our model of having formal ICS Teams sitting together and collaborating in real time will succeed in making us more effective in advancing the shared interests of the United States and Nepal. As resource levels shift, demands on our embassies continue to grow, and our staff maintains a culture of high achievement regardless of the personal cost. Working smarter through efficiency gains appears to be the best means to meet demands and take care of our people. Our efforts to date show promise, and we are hopeful that, once completed, our collaboration reforms will not only allow Embassy Kathmandu to seize the current window of opportunity presented by dynamics in Nepal to more tangibly advance U.S. objectives, but also will provide a proof of concept of how to organize U.S. Embassies and our work better to achieve greater results.
United States Ambassador to the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal
& Michael C. Gonzales
Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy - Kathmandu, Nepal