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Is Nepal really a ‘yam between two boulders’?

Is Nepal really a ‘yam between two boulders’?

As Nepal is soon going to approach the milestone of graduating from the list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), there is an urgency to develop a comprehensive foreign policy that goes beyond the traditional approach of the so-called “yam between two boulders”.

Frankly speaking, I always struggled to understand the intrinsic meaning of the reasoning behind it.

Why should a nation like Nepal that, objectively speaking, is not a tiny geographical spot on the global map, reduce itself to a binary thinking that is dictated by an over reference towards India and China?

Perhaps in the past, this thinking could have been justified.

In the realm of geopolitics and international relations, there is no room for naïveté and it is impossible for a country like Nepal not to take into consideration the strategic interest of its two gigantic neighbors.

But this isn’t the last time that Nepal forged its own strategic interests beyond those of China, India or the United States of America.

But what would take for Nepal to be able to formulate a future forward, confident foreign policy?

The spirit of amity and cooperation with all the nations is a key pillar of the country’s foreign policy.

Together with the successful (though not fully completed) transition from the civil conflict, and the creation of a federal democracy, this internationalist attitude, should represent the “north star” of Nepal’s foreign policy.

Moreover, Nepal’s incredible diversity in cultures and traditions, magnificent landscapes and cordial nature of its people could also help its ways to project itself to the world.

But how to concretely leverage these sacrosanct principles and unique endowed features of the country rhetoric?

Nepal will soon do away with the “least” developed nation label that, from the marketing and branding point of view, has been disastrous, especially if you want to bring in international investors.

This development will require a reset in the way foreign policy is framed because, between now and the next few years, Nepal will have a unique opportunity to rebrand itself and not only in terms of being an attractive investment destination.

Perhaps, reminding ourselves that foreign policy is a mirror of national politics and the way of governing a nation, could be a way to start a reflection on the links between national and foreign policies.

If national politics changes for the better and becomes more transparent and effective, then the foreign policy of the nation can, consequently, also get more strategic and ambitious so that, finally, Nepal could get rid of “yam between two boulders” thinking.

Foreign policy should be instrumental in this phase of national development but a lot will depend on how politicians perform and behave at home.

The country is trying to turn from being a net recipient of international aid to being a net recipient of foreign investments.

A vision, albeit not yet perfect, is being formulated in this regard.

There is an overarching aspiration to attract business even though, for this to happen, it might mean doing away with some convenient “double standards” like the existing limitations in the shares that a foreign investor can own.

In addition, being successful at attracting investments won’t only depend on running a successful summit or in putting in place better rules that incentivise investors.

Instead, what will count will be creating a favorable investor climate thanks to better policies that enhance good governance in the realm of the economy, including serious interventions in the fight against cartels and corruption.

In addition, unless the country manages its delivery of services better, especially in the field of education and health, it will hardly succeed at becoming an investors’ magnet.

For example, there have been discussions about Nepal becoming a medical or educational hub.

Knowing the quality of the expertise and knowhow within the country, I am confident that it is possible.

There are already enough best practices and the more the country attracts back its citizens who had decided to emigrate in places like Australia and the USA, the better.

It would be even conceivable to imagine, in the near future, “Nepal Educational Expos” around the world with the best national educational institutions attracting students, starting from continents that the country has never, so far, even remotely imagined engaging with.

But can Nepal become such a hub without the right foundations?

Fixing its foundations, improving its education system at the grassroots and raising the current level of public education would be instrumental in promoting a “whole of nation” approach rather than few best practices amid a sea of mediocrity or worse.

What about starting to think about the first ever investment-focused mission of a Nepali Prime Minister to emerging nations in Central Asia or even to Africa and Latin America?

An official state delegation could discuss bilateral cooperation, including investments and the selling of some of the country’s unique proposition, tourism and of course its education and health institutions.

A substantial effort at enhancing good governance would, consequently, also be instrumental in propelling a foreign policy capable of shaping a new narrative.

The story of a country with many imperfections and unsolved challenges but also a nation that is ambitious and attempting at building a more just and developed society that can attract high human capital investments rather than low-cost manufacturing.

Good governance could also enable and facilitate innovative policy and contributions that Nepal can offer to the world, all ideas that its diplomacy could amplify and promote.

If you read the speeches of every single Prime Minister in the international forums, it is always the same leitmotif, starting from the usual (though correct) story that the country is among the most at risk of climate warming.

It is not that Nepal must stop bringing forward its legitimate grievances but it can do this differently with practical propositions, from adaptation to climate financing.

These are just some examples where Nepal could contribute not as a “bagger” but as promoter of solutions to some of the key global challenges.

But we need a non-partisan foreign policy vision of at least five years, a very pragmatic document that does not waste time in pleasing the neighborhood or other super powers but rather is purposefully fit to serve the nation’s new development aspirations.

Formulating this vision document will compel the policy-makers to truly align national priorities with its foreign policy ones.

This would help Nepal start thinking and not only in terms of foreign policy, from the perspective of being a middle-income nation even if it is, at the moment, just an aspiring one.

But it remains essential to fix the governance first.

The nation needs to really turn its mediocre at the best governance into a “good” one so that it can be in a position to truly assert its own interests, no matter what others might expect from it.

This is a real chance for Nepal to reach the point of thinking beyond what its powerful neighbors want and need from it.

Otherwise, we will continue to read about this absurd but sadly true story that Nepal is just a “yam between two boulders”.

The author is the co-founder of ENGAGE and The Good Leadership. Views are personal