The result of the US election was splashed all across the Nepali mediascape from Monday night, first on social media, and then on mainstream media. No sooner had the American media called the presidential results than the Nepali Twitter sphere let out a collective sigh of relief. “The world can sleep in peace now. Phew”, tweeted Subina Shrestha, an award-winning journalist, on Saturday.
Hundreds of others in Nepal, like others worldwide, updated their status with President Donald J Trump’s signature line: “You are fired!”
Populism and politics
Nepali politicians sent out congratulatory notes early Sunday morning, mostly as a formality, although some included critical messages. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli congratulated Joseph R Biden Jr and Kamala Harris on their victory and said he hoped to work with the new administration in the US.
That said, PM Oli’s performance so far hews closer to how the current US president, Donald J Trump, has performed in the US. Like Trump, Oli ridicules dissenters, believes Covid-19 is like the flu, criticises the media, and has deemed the issues around civil rights an agenda framed and fueled by outsiders.
Oli, who opposed the idea of federalism, rose to power by peddling a nationalistic view against India to become the first elected prime minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. Among his many head-scratching decisions have been his labeling the Covid-19 a type of flu and suggesting that the rhino be renamed the ‘gaida’–as it is found only in Nepal. It will thus be interesting to see how PM Oli furthers Nepal-US relations in the days to come, especially since as PM, he has not been able to pass the USD 500 million US assistance Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, which was ironically opposed by his own party leaders because of their nationalistic views.
Biden’s victory reverberated throughout the world and signaled a newfound hope for liberalism. The reaction on social media to the US election can be seen as a testament to the frustration and disappointment with the current US leadership. In Nepal, the results also gave an opportunity to the opposition leaders to criticise the executive here. “The US election results have once again led world politics toward liberal democracy, cooperation, and multilateralism. Surely, this will also inspire the taming of conservative, jingoistic, and self-absorbed leaders and governments at home and abroad,” tweeted Nepali Congress leader Gagan Thapa.
When Trump succeeded Nobel Prize winner president Barack Obama, Trump took a hardline position on some key global issues, including those related to climate change, refugees, immigrants, and reproductive health, among others. But he will be leaving the White House in two-and-a-half months. Once Biden takes charge, the change in leadership will make a difference in countries all across the world, say experts.
Nepal is no exception. The Trump administration, for example, has had a direct impact on family-planning programmes in Nepal. The new US administration will also deal differently with Nepal, which although poor, has adopted liberal values and is known as a beacon in South Asia when it comes to LGBTQI rights. It has legalised abortion–interestingly, through an American programme.
Subhash Shrestha, acting director general at the Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN), said that after Trump became president, several health organizations involved in family-planning and safe-abortion programmes, were either deprived of US funds or saw ongoing programmes discontinued. His own office had to lay off 130 staffers working in 11 districts. Marie Stopes International (MSI) was similarly affected.
“Since we advocate for family planning and safe abortions, we weren’t eligible to apply for a grant, and our ongoing programmes were also discontinued after President Trump came to power,” said acting DG Shrestha. “But now, we are hopeful about resuming our stalled family planning programmes.”
In 2015, FPAN and MSI had jointly signed up for family-planning and safe-abortion related programmes that were to be granted USD 10 million. Under the deal, FPAN would be able to mobilize USD 5.5 million, while MSI would be able to use the remaining USD 4.5 million. The programmes were supposed to continue until March of 2019, but the organizations were forced to suspend them in September of 2018 because of the US government’s global gag rule.
The rule hobbled family-planning programmes across the world that were dependent on US help. In Nepal, FPAN and MSI had been operating programmes in 11 districts each. Among those districts, FPAN had started family planning related programmes in four districts–Panchthar, Bhojpur, Bara, and Rasuwa–for the first time. “But we cannot continue our programmes, and our clients have been deprived of our services. After Trump came to power, we were not eligible to sign contracts for funds with donors like USAID and FHI 360,” said Shrestha.
Donald Trump enforced the global gag rule shortly after taking charge of the White House. The rule places fund restrictions on non-governmental organizations working to provide safe abortion services, abortion information, and referrals for abortion. It also prohibits support to organizations advocating for the legalization and liberalization of safe-abortion services and undermines their chances of getting funds from US global health assistance programmes.
Pro-family institutions worldwide had faced similar fund cuts when George W Bush came to power. According to research, FPAN lost USD 100,000 annually in US funding and USD 400,000 for USAID-funded contraceptive programmes, and it was forced to lay off 60 clinical staff through the end of the Bush administration.
Vulnerable Nepalis in the US
The Trump administration was bad news for Nepalis in the US too–for it had planned to scrap the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted to some 9,000 Nepalis who were granted the status after the 2015 earthquakes.
In April 2018, the Trump administration said it would end the protected immigration status the US had granted to Nepalis with the TPS designation, making them vulnerable to deportation. Their stay in the US was only extended following a court intervention.
Immigrants were also adversely affected after the Trump administration pulled the US out of UN migrant and refugee pacts, citing security reasons. Trump’s travel ban on Muslims and on those from poor countries and the scaling down of the diversity visa programme are but a few of decisions the current administration took that has impacted immigrants from the third world.
The lure of the American green card and citizenship is so powerful that Nepalis are known to pay millions of rupees to agents and undertake perilous months-long journeys through dangerous Colombian jungles to get to the US. But under the current administration, it has been exceedingly difficult for Nepalis to get their family members to the US.
“The change of guard will definitely bring a change in policies. We can hope for a reversal of the many conservative policies regarding the travel ban, immigrantion laws, and refugees. The Democrats will allow families to reunite, and offer asylum and shelter to those in need,” said rights defender Dr Gopal Krishna Siwakoti.
He says that the Trump administration set the wrong precedents on civil rights and humanitarian issues, which the new administration should reform.
Climate change and its impacts on Nepal
The Trump administration’s actions on climate issues have had wide-ranging impacts worldwide. Because of Trump, the US will officially leave the Paris Agreement on Nov 4. He had announced that he would abandon the pact three years ago, but that decoupling happened just recently owing to the long process of formalising the exit. The climate pact has been widely hailed as an extremely important accomplishment in averting climate catastrophes. The Trump administration has also refused to pay its share of the $100 billion annual Green Climate Fund (GCF). The fund was supposed to be provided by the developed countries. With the US out of the pact, the fund target may fall short by billions of dollars. Earlier, President Obama had pledged USD 3 billion and delivered USD 1 billion of the promised fund, before Trump stopped the payments.
But this week, even as the ballots were being counted, Biden took to Twitter to reiterate his election promise on climate change. “… the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will join it,” he tweeted.
Biden’s climate plan is promising: he has pledged to invest USD 1.7 trillion towards environmental recovery and will set the US on track to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Do these goals mean anything for Nepal? “I have my doubts,” said Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed expert. “We have to look at our position on the global stage. If we look at how our domestic policy, plans, and institutions have been developed to address our problems, we are not in a position to benefit from any global mechanism, no matter if they are meant for countries like ours. All you have to do is look at President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s speech at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 24) in Poland. She said that our mountains contribute to cooling global warming, a claim that PM Oli later repeated in an interview with the BBC World Service.”
That speech by the head of the state and the interview by the country’s executive head were glaringly inaccurate and erroneous. “The speech shows the level of our understanding about the climate. Nepal can obtain a GCF fund, but it has to have a viable plan and the competence and institutional mechanism to maintain fiduciary transparency, or else no matter how good the plan, Nepal will not be able to benefit from the global fund,” said Upadhya.
Nepal’s climate crisis is deepening by the year. The National Climate Change Impact Survey 2016, prepared by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), has detailed changes in Nepal’s climate patterns. For instance, 100 percent of households in the mountain region have perceived an increase in droughts, landslides, avalanches, and disease/insect prevalence. In the hilly region, 74.29 percent of total households reported that they observed changes in water sources, and 84.47 percent observed a decrease in the amount of surface water. Furthermore, mass migration has begun in the high Himalayas, with sources of water drying up. For instance, in Dhye, of Upper Mustang, Nepal’s border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, to survive, scores of households have started to migrate to lower lands. And Panchthar and Terhathum districts witnessed droughts in the middle of the monsoon for two consecutive years from 2017. These are but a few examples of the impacts of climate change.
Nepal can benefit from the GCF fund in its fight against climate-induced crises. However, Nepal has not prioritised climate issues at all. The National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) to climate change and the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) Process are two major documents that it has prepared with the support of experts of foreign agencies. But to access the GCF fund, Nepal will have to prepare a plan on its own, which is not going to happen anytime soon. Thus the US’s rejoining the Paris Agreement will not mean much to Nepal unless it first develops the capacity to create its own climate plan and execute it.