“Nepal should make decisions for Nepal’s good”

Out-going US Ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry speaks to Nepali Times about his four-year tenure which was marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, the rancorous debate about the US-backed MCC project, and American support for human rights, press freedom and democracy. Excerpts:

Nepali Times: What were your expectations about your second tour of duty in Nepal, and were they met?

Ambassador Randy Berry: My hope in becoming US Ambassador to Nepal was simple: to deepen the friendship between the United States and Nepal. Although our countries might be far apart geographically, we share democratic values and aspirations for a better world, one that respects human rights, is well educated, healthy, combats corruption, fights climate change, and has inclusive economic growth.

Each day that I’ve been here, I’ve worked on advancing these principles. We’ve partnered extensively with the Nepali government through USAID, which has promoted good governance, sustainable economic growth, health, nutrition, and education programs.

We’ve supported civil society in advancing human rights – including the rights of women and girls and the LGBTQI+ community. We’ve helped build resilience to climate change and both of our countries have furthered our commitments to abating the climate crisis and strengthening our democracies.

The MCC-Nepal grant will mean more jobs, roads, and reliable electricity for Nepalis in the coming years. And we continue to strengthen people-to-people ties. We send over 100 Nepalis to the United States on exchange programs for leaders and professionals yearly, and Nepal ranks 12th worldwide for the number of undergraduate and graduate students studying in the United States each year.

So, when I came as US Ambassador my hope was to deepen the US-Nepal relationship and I’m lucky to see that happening every day.

The last four years were largely overshadowed by the Covid crisis. What would your analysis be of the way both our countries handled the pandemic?

Nepal did remarkably well. The government took swift action against Covid-19 in the beginning. Almost immediately, the US government partnered with the Ministry of Health to support Nepal’s response to the pandemic. Through USAID and our Department of Defense, we provided oxygen tanks, breathing devises, PPE, testing kits, and other supplies that continue today. To date, we’ve spent over Rs16 billion on Covid assistance in Nepal, excluding vaccines.

One of the things I’m most proud of, of course, is we were able to donate 13 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to Nepal, including 8,385,200 pediatric doses. Notably, Nepal has a much higher vaccination rate than my own country today.

That must not have been easy -- to secure the doses for Nepal when there was so much demand from other countries under the COVAX arrangement.

When President Biden announced that the United States intended to be a world supplier of Covid-19 vaccines, they had already been at work with experts to figure out how they were going to get the greatest number of vaccines to the countries with the greatest need. Through our partnership with COVAX alliance, particularly UNICEF as the delivery partner, we’ve been able to do just that. COVAX helps us deliver the vaccines, so they get to the places that need them the most.

The other thorny issue during your time here was the MCC, which you mentioned earlier in this interview. Would there be anything you'd have done differently to make the ratification process smoother?

I would have addressed the disinformation right away.  Our assumption was that the absurd claims against MCC would be seen for what they were – lies promulgated by someone with an interest in preventing a program based on accountability, democracy and transparency from moving forward.  This disinformation delayed the program for years, which just meant delays in providing jobs, reliable roads and sustainable energy to the people of Nepal.

But in the complicated multi-polar geopolitics of the region, didn't the MCC force Nepal to take sides to the detriment of its relations with an immediate neighbour? 

Nepal should be making decisions for the good of Nepal -- not for the good of any other country. With the ratification of MCC, the Government of Nepal made a sovereign decision based on what it believed was good for the country. Initially, the government had wanted to participate in the program because it had seen it work so well in other countries. The Nepali government then helped design the program itself in a way that it thought would best serve its people.

In an op-ed you wrote for Nepali Times two years ago, you defended America's outspokenness about human rights and democracy in other countries, even when things are not that rosy back home. But wouldn't it be true to say that lecturing other countries rings a bit hollow these days?

What I said then is what I’ll say now: Americans are outspoken on human rights, not because we think we are perfect but because we know we are not. We don’t sweep our problems under the rug. We actively talk about human rights in our own country, including deep-seated racism and gender discrimination that Americans experience every day. But our problems don’t disqualify us from talking about human rights; if anything, they give us greater opportunity to do so with humility and honesty. 

From what you have seen in Nepal this time around, how would you assess the chances for socio-economic progress for this country in the coming years? 

There is a window of opportunity for Nepal right now. Prime Minister Deuba has made ambitious commitments to combat the effects of climate change and to further democracy in the country. Those things attract investors which will help grow the economy in a sustainable and inclusive way.

For the US government’s part, I’m proud to say we’ve supported Nepal’s sustainable economic growth with an array of programs, from USAID’s long-running development assistance, to the MCC grant, to supporting private entities through investments from the US International Development Finance Corporation. We’ve also started the first American Chamber of Commerce here in Nepal for US businesses. All of this activity signals that Nepal has the chance to make lasting economic progress.

And lastly, what would be some of the enduring memories of Nepal that you will take with you?

Nepal is an incredible place with vast landscapes, tall mountains and incredible culture, but it is the people that I’ve met during my time here that have changed my life. Nepalis’ kindness, generosity and hospitality are unmatched, and for that I am grateful. I will take that with me everywhere I go.