Gagan Thapa is a current member of the House of Representatives in the Federal Parliament of Nepal and former Minister of Health and Population. As a youth leader, Thapa was at the forefront of the 2006 pro-democracy movement in Nepal that culminated in the establishment of a federal democratic republic. As minister, he has pushed for universal, high-quality health care in Nepal.
Harvard Political Review: Let’s start with geopolitics. Historically, Nepal has been close to India politically, economically, and even culturally. But in recent years, China has been increasing its presence not just in Nepal, but across South Asia. How is Nepal dealing with this rising Indo-China strategic rivalry in the region? Do you see any opportunities or challenges for Nepal?
Gagan Thapa: It is undeniable that Nepal has had a level of proximity with New Delhi historically. For example, New Delhi was overtly involved in the 1951, 1990, and 2006 pro-democracy movements in Nepal. The presence of China in Nepal, however, has been widely misunderstood as a new phenomenon. During the decades of 1960s through 1990s, India and China actually competed in providing economic and technical support for infrastructure development in Nepal. Of course, with the rise in China’s ability and ambition, we should not be surprised that the scope and level of Chinese engagements in Nepal are increasing.
Nepal is cognizant of the undergoing shift in the global balance of power toward Asia. We are also aware that, for all their disagreements, the economic interdependence between China and India is stronger now than ever. We strongly feel that this is an opportune time for our economic progress. The challenge for us, however, is to build adequate capacity in our institutions that will allow us to reap the benefits of this situation where our two neighbors … are becoming important global players.
HPR: China is an authoritarian state that has shown spectacular economic development in the past few decades, whereas democratic India’s development and poverty reduction has not been as impressive. As a country located between India and China, how big of a challenge does Nepali democracy face from the idea of authoritarian growth?
GT: I do not think economic growth at the expense of freedom and democracy is palatable to the Nepali people. This is partly because of our historical experience. From 1960 to 1990, Nepal experienced authoritarian rule under the then-monarchy. This is the same time period when Nepal suffered from sluggish economic growth. Moreover, Nepal also has a vibrant civil society and critical intelligentsia that have a strong faith in democracy. Perhaps due [to] our numerous struggles for democracy, I feel like Nepali society in general leans more toward freedom than order.
But I would not say that we are completely immune to the challenges to democracy. I think no society ever is. I am particularly worried that the global wave of populism might manifest itself in Nepal in the form of illiberal democracy. I find ourselves vulnerable to a slide into illiberal democracy in the name of religion and nationalism, given our history as a Hindu monarchy. To stave off this danger, we should focus on building strong and inclusive institutions that deliver shared prosperity. Nepali society is dynamic and open, but much work is needed in creating institutions that channel our dynamism.
HPR: Nepal has been lauded by international organizations like the World Health Organization for its achievements in the sector of public health. What lessons do Nepal’s experience in public health hold for other countries in the emerging world?
GT: Nepal embraced an approach that combined a willingness to learn from global knowledge with an ability to innovate locally. From the get-go, we were not reluctant to implement what had been learned in other parts of the world. But we also put a strong emphasis on local innovations. The Female Community Health Volunteers program was one such innovation. The program was started in 1998 with an objective to increase the efficacy of community-based health interventions. In retrospect, the FCHV program also contributed to rural women empowerment in addition to achieving its intended goal.
The government, international donors, private sector, and households all contributed from their own level. As a result, we have been able to ensure an access to basic health services to a great majority of our population. Inspired by this success, we have now guaranteed a free access to basic health services in our constitution. In my time as minister of health and population, I tried to shift the discourse on public health from quantity to quality. Among other things, we were able to create a legal framework that ensures both universality and quality in health care.
HPR: Will you comment on the role of the international community in helping an emerging country like Nepal achieve its developmental goals?
GT: One of the first things I realized as a minister was that the international community is not a monolithic unit. Like any other group, it consists of members with diverse preferences for policies and approaches. While it might not come as obvious to an outside observer, I found that the mindset of the members of the international community was more competitive than collaborative. And I don’t want to put all the blame on them for this. I think the government actually has a crucial role to play in this regard. Before creating space for the international community to contribute, the government should set clear goals for the country. A partnership between the international community and government cannot deliver best results if the government lacks a clear sense of direction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Image Credit: ICIMOD Kathmandu / Unsplash