“It is now or never to devolve power to local governments”

Swiss Ambassador Elisabeth von Capeller Oswald is on her second diplomatic stint in Nepal after also serving as assistant director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Bern. She spoke to Nepali Times last week about Switzerland’s changing focus in Nepal’s development over the decades. Excerpt:  

Nepali Times: This is your second tenure in Nepal. How has Nepal changed?

Ambassador von Capeller Oswald: I am very happy to come back here, and I have seen many positive changes. Nepal was a rural society but now through mobility, it is more of a rural-urban society. The places that you had to walk for days to reach are now reachable in a few hours. In the past, the young wanted to be government officers, now they want to have their own enterprises. It’s much more diversified, self exploratory and self determined. That is a huge change.

Then, of course, the political system has changed a lot. Not everybody agrees with it but that is a part of federalism. People are closer to service delivery and elected representatives are closer to the people. The politics is more dynamic and engaging.

What is still there is discrimination. Probably it’s not as strong in some regions as it was, but maybe it’s more subtle and not so visible.

You mention how mobility has changed Nepal. Your government has worked a lot on building trail bridges. Has that priority changed?

I think Switzerland was among the first countries to understand that roads are needed for economic and social development. The Jiri road benefited the people there. The Swiss Embassy has provided technical expertise in this area, later collaborating with the government for knowledge transfer. We want to stop building roads now because the competence lies with local governments.

Read also: Bridge builders, Sonia Awale


Nepal’s migration economy has had a huge impact. What has been your embassy’s involvement?

I remember 10 years ago the government refused to accept migration as a fact. Now it is fully understood that it is a reality and it needs to be addressed. A lot depends on migrants who contribute to the development of this country. Our aim is to support positive migration but also to help the government mitigate the negative aspects.

The Migration Information Centres we have set up are the best initiative in our 30 years of development cooperation. They have helped people learn of the risks of migration, and their rights, and helped them to contact the right people in case of emergencies. We also give skills training to help them earn better, and to inform them about the cultural context of where they are going. We also have financial-literacy trainings. And what I appreciate is psycho-social counselling for victims and family members. Some of the women migrants really suffer because their family think they are not ‘honourable’ any more.

Read also: The lottery of migration, Editorial

The Swiss embassy has been working a lot on gender and social inclusion. What can Nepal do to achieve better inclusivity?

Let me start by telling you that I am the first woman to head this office in 60 years. Even in Switzerland we are not where we want to be. It is a long process, it entails powerful people letting go, and for others to take over. Swiss laws are not as complex as Nepal’s, but we do have different languages, cultures and religions. It is about diversity.

I would say this country has very progressive election laws: the President and Vice President need to be of different genders, and so do the mayors and deputy mayors. I think that is fantastic, exceptional and will have an impact on gender and inclusion. Compulsory Dalit representation at the local level will have a powerful effect too.

We have always said the root causes of the conflict were exclusion and poverty. It is important that those excluded due to gender or caste gain from development, including in the workforce. It is now our duty to support elected women and representatives of marginalised groups.

Read also: Nepal's great income divide, Ramesh Kumar

Nepal has recently become a federation while Switzerland has been one for a long time. What would you say are the ingredients that make devolution work?

We have different contexts and histories, but the principle is the same: services are delivered where the people are, by elected persons. Last week I was in Karnali and I met many committed mayors, deputy mayors and also ward level members. They really want to understand the people and deliver the services. For me, this is what makes federalism work; that is its secret.

It is now or never. All citizens, and we as development partners, have to contribute if this is going to be a success story. Development partners will be decisive in power sharing at the local level. Do we still implement through the central agency with provincial representatives, or do we now implement and collaborate at the local level? I do not yet see a full change in approach by the donors. We have clearly adapted all our programs to the local level.

The Swiss embassy is also very involved in transitional justice. How do you gauge progress in that arena?

I was first here in 2006, and a lot has happened since then: the peace accord, the Maoist integration, an earthquake, the Constitution and the election at three levels. It’s a lot for a country to go through in a short time, and shows the country is able to deal with difficult situations.

Having said that, we also believe it’s the right time to finalise the peace process. We support a Nepali-led process which is victim-centric. It is not just about justice but also about people who have the right to know what happened to their loved ones, about compensation and memorials. It is also about rule of law, because if impunity prevails it will have an impact on the economic environment. The economy can only be strong in an environment with a strong rule of law.

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