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Namaste and good morning. Thank you for that very warm welcome, and congratulations to NRN-America for all of their hard work convening this event. It’s an honor for me to convey to you the warm greetings of Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal and Ambassador Peter Bodde, and to address a group so dedicated to strengthening United States-Nepal relations. Nepal and the United States share a long history of cooperation, and Nepal has many friends and admirers here in the United States. With over 300,000 people of Nepali heritage living in the United States and 15,000 students studying in U.S. schools, those ties are sure to deepen in the years to come.
Last year I had the pleasure of travelling to Nepal, and I was struck by the beauty and richness not only of its landscapes but of its history and culture as well. On past visits, I have been fortunate to visit Pashupatinath, Swayambunath, Boudhanath, Bhaktapur, and saw the Great Himalayas. But I need to return, because I haven’t yet been to Lumbini, Chitwan, or Mustang!
I’m equally struck by what Nepal was able to accomplish in just a few short years: transitioning from a monarchy, ending a civil war, and launching a new democracy.
Nepal has also come a long way in its development: it met its ambitious Millennium Development Goal for reducing the mortality rate of children under five; in just seven years, it drastically reduced the proportion of its people living in extreme poverty — from 53 percent to less than 25 percent. And it’s a major provider of international security: as the sixth largest contributor of United Nations peacekeeping forces, Nepal is helping bring stability to unstable places around the globe. We are working together to help Nepal combat trafficking in persons and increase opportunities for women, particularly women entrepreneurs. And Nepal, despite its economic challenges, remains a gracious host for tens of thousands of refugees.
Nepal’s progress is a remarkable success story. Of course, there is still a long way to go.
One important opportunity and challenge is drafting a constitution. It is no easy task — during our own constitutional negotiations, nearly 230 years ago, the disputes must have seemed endless: how much power each branch of government should have, how to determine proportional representation, how to choose judges, slavery’s role in the new nation, and on and on. Those were not easy issues to resolve, but through free and open debate and, most importantly, compromise, 13 different entities were able to unite as one.
What our founders agreed on then was not perfect – they left some problems unresolved, for later generations to fix. And, over the years, we’ve altered our constitution dozens of times – it has evolved along with the changing circumstances in our society. So while the United States has also had some bumps along the way, our constitution has stood the test of time, and served as the model for democracies around the world.
So we support Nepal in its efforts to create a new, inclusive constitution — one that protects the fundamental rights of all of Nepal’s people and enjoys the widest possible support. Of course, there will be many hard decisions to make, and those decisions can only be made by Nepalis, but I’m optimistic that this process can lead to a constitution that ensures peace and stability, and, consequently, security and growth.
Because Nepal needs growth: it is the second poorest country in South Asia, and 2,000 Nepalis leave the country every day to work abroad – in fact, so many are working abroad that remittances now account for 30% of Nepal’s GDP. A staggering 70% of the population is under the age of 35 and, unfortunately, many of them don’t have the educational or employment opportunities they need.
The United States is ready to help. Due to Nepal’s democratic progress, last December the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) – made Nepal Compact-eligible, and now MCC, the State Department, and USAID, are working with Nepal to develop a Compact. An MCC compact has game-changing potential to deliver much-needed infrastructure and stimulate greater private-sector investment, particularly in Nepal’s hydroelectricity sector. With over 40,000 megawatts of commercially viable hydropower potential, Nepal could electrify not just the homes and businesses of its own people, but also the homes and businesses of people all over South Asia.
Meanwhile, much of South Asia is taking off. Investments are creating jobs and trade and growth. And if the region can improve its economic connectivity, Nepal can harness itself to that growth. Unfortunately, South Asia is still one of the world’s least economically connected regions: intra-regional trade flows are under five percent, and intra-regional investment flows under one percent. Simply put, South Asians are not trading with or investing in each other enough.
Globalization is shrinking distances between countries around the world, but distances between South Asian countries are staying the same. Why? The Asian Development Bank has identified several key challenges that are impeding connectivity: diverse geographic terrain, bureaucratic barriers, a lack of finance, and low institutional capacity.
The United States is working with governments across the region to address these challenges. Many of our assistance programs focus on improving institutions and governance, streamlining trade regulations, and attracting private-sector investment. And last November, Nepal hosted a successful summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, where the central topic was regional connectivity.
The United States and the countries of South Asia all share a vision of a more integrated region in which markets, economies, and people all connect, thrive, and prosper together. To see the benefits of economic integration, just look at how goods and people can move freely throughout the European Union, or how our free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico has boosted commerce among our countries.
Fostering connections – physical infrastructure, regulatory trade architecture, and human and digital connectivity – will create linkages across Central, South, and Southeast Asia. This is not just strategically important for the countries of South Asia, but also for the United States: we know that security and prosperity in South Asia means security and prosperity here.
As I said before: Nepal has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go, and much work to be done. More schools, hospitals, and roads must be built. Regulations that inhibit trade and investment must be removed, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Nepal’s people unleashed.
And connectivity to the rest of South Asia must be increased. This will not be easy. But with the support of the United States and committed diaspora groups like the Non-Resident Nepali Association, it is achievable.
Thank you again for inviting me to address you. Please accept my respectful greetings and congratulations. I wish you a very successful Third General Meeting and many more to come. Dhanyabaad!