Pre-paid Excellencies

Nepal’s foreign service has been blighted with embarrassing ambassadors. Time to undo that.


Two days before Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal flew to New Delhi for Narendra Modi’s hat trick oath-taking this month, his coalition government abruptly recalled Shankar P Sharma, Nepal’s ambassador to India.

Dahal’s government on 6 June also called back ambassadors to the US and UK, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Malaysia, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Israel. 

The fact that Nepal’s ambassadors are made to play musical chairs every time there is regime change in Kathmandu is proof enough that international diplomacy is just an extension of 'bhagbanda' power sharing. The recalled ambassadors were nominees of the Nepali Congress (NC) when it was in a coalition with the Maoist Centre.

The Maoists switched partners and are now in government with the UML, so five of the eight new ambassadors are UML appointees. None of the eight are career diplomats. Since there are not enough ministerial portfolios, heads of agencies and plum posts in the bureaucracy to reward party loyalists, ambassadorships are coveted gigs. Some are even ‘pre-paid ambassador’ appointments auctioned to the highest bidders. 

But all is not lost. One of the eight was Sushil Pyakurel, former head of the National Human Rights Commission and recipient of the 2010 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. He  refused to accept ambassadorship to South Korea from the UML quota.

In a scathing press note turning down the appointment, Pyakurel exposed the corrosive politicisation of Nepal’s diplomatic service, and how it has undermined our national interest and reputation in the global arena.

Pyakurel heard of his appointment through the media, and questioned the whole selection process and criteria. 

He wrote: ‘I am astounded by the government's practice of not discussing the background, capability, interest and diplomatic skills of a person as well as the political, economic, and social status of the respective country before assigning them the responsibility of representing the nation.’

Pyakurel’s decision set off a tsunami of criticism in Nepal’s cybersphere of past and present government practice of political parties scrambling for plum embassies.

Compared to accomplished past envoys like Bhim Bahadur Pande, Bhekh Bahadur Thapa or Kedar Bhakta Mathema who had access to the highest echelons of governments of their host countries, Nepal’s foreign service has been blighted by embarrassing ambassadors over the years.

Swarnim Wagle took to social media to pledge that his Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) would stop bad practices of the past. But even he seemed unsure his own party would do things differently. 

Wagle wrote: ‘Let’s hope the ambassadors, permanent representatives or special envoys recommended by the RSP possess excellent qualifications, character and moral values reflecting the party’s criteria,’ Let's hope. 

Ambassadors should be suitable for the countries they are appointed to, preferably speaking the language and being familiar with their governance culture. It should be reserved for those with high integrity and who can literally be Nepal’s ‘brand ambassadors’. Alas, ours have not been the sharpest tools in the shed.

The last time we counted, Nepal has had 28 prime ministers in 26 years. With a few notable exceptions, ambassadors appointed by a previous regime tend to be replaced with sidekicks, cronies, relatives, or business partners, usually in a foreign labour recruitment company. 

In previous years, Nepal was reliant on development assistance and our ambassadors needed to be good fundraisers. Now, as the country graduates to lower-middle income status, the purpose of economic diplomacy is shifting to labour, trade, tourism, and liaising with international lending agencies.

Since remittances are the backbone of Nepal’s economy and make up an equivalent of 25% of the GDP, the role of ambassadors is to explore destinations where there are higher-paying jobs, to ensure labour rights safeguards, and to help Nepalis in trouble. 

Nepal’s embassies abroad have promoted the country as a destination, but tourism income makes up less than 5% of Nepal’s foreign currency income every year.

As our investigation shows, Nepalis are increasingly headed to Europe where there is a labour shortage. Because Schengen is difficult to get into, Nepalis are being taken by recruiters to peripheral countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Malta and Cyprus where working conditions and pay are less than they are promised.

Portugal, Romania and Croatia alone now have nearly 100,000 Nepali workers, yet Nepal does not have an embassy in any of these countries to protect workers in case of abuse, exploitation or fraud.

With the rise of India and China, the choice of ambassadors to these two countries are even more critical than before. Yet, we see ad hoc appointees to New Delhi and Beijing who lack stature, contacts and diplomatic skills to navigate the geopolitics of the two darbars.

Why are we not surprised by the choice of new ambassadors by this government? What can we expect when a businessman with ties to a manpower company is the Labour Minister, and a person investigated for allegedly scamming cooperatives is the Home Minister?

Sonia Awale