Kul Chandra Gautam needs no introduction. He served as the UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. He has been consistently advocating for peace, equality and development for Nepal and elsewhere. His book, Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist Mayhem and Mega Earthquake,published in 2018, was a critique on Maoist insurgency in Nepal. The second book Global Citizen from Gulmi: My Journey from the Hills of Nepal to the Halls of United Nations recounts his journey from a remote village in Nepal, lacking schools, roads and electricity, to the highest ranks of UNICEF. The same book has now been published in Nepali version as Atmakatha. In this context, Nepal Live Today approached him to discuss various aspects mentioned in his memoir and Nepal’s political and development prospects and challenges.
Now that your biography is published in Nepali, how would you recall your momentous journey from a small village of Gulmi district in western Nepal to the Halls of the United Nations?
As I look back at my trajectory from the hills of western Nepal to the halls of the United Nations and beyond, I see my journey as shaped by a combination of lucky coincidences, hard work, dedication and perseverance. I also feel very humble and consider myself a winner in the lottery of life.So many of my contemporaries who also worked hard, helped others and were dedicated to doing good in their communities, sadly, did not fare as well.
As I recall in my memoir, much of my success in my personal and professional life was the product of my association with some inspiring people–my teachers, co-workers, bosses and friends. Their blessings, mentorship and glory enveloped me. Even though I was not always the central player in some of the events recounted in my memoir, the sheen of working with, and being in the presence of, many illustrious personalities rubbed off on me, and the importance of whatever small contribution I could make was magnified as a result.
‘I am happy that the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit is far better than what our ancestors bequeathed us. The United Nations has contributed much to building this better world.’
My long service with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) gave me a great opportunity to serve humanity, particularly the most vulnerable women and children in developing countries. Since retiring from the UN, while maintaining some of my global interests, I have tried to be of service to the people of Nepal, including through some modest support to community development activities in my own village and some charitable work at the national level, as well as advocacy of democracy, development, social justice and a culture of peace–all of which seem often fragile and threatened.
I have had a fulfilling and purposeful life for which I count my blessings and have no regrets.
In your book, you have vividly recollected your days in the UN including your role in organizing the Summit of world leaders for children. How would you evaluate the progress made some two decades down the line?
The most exhilarating, challenging, satisfying and inspiring experience of my three-decade long UNICEF career was the opportunity to lead the substantive preparation of the historic World Summit for Children (WSC) in 1990. That Summit was the largest gathering of world leaders in history until that time. It gave a major boost to the near universal ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The ambitious goals and targets initially formulated at that Summit eventually evolved into the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
In 2001-2002, I had the opportunity to lead the organization of another major United Nations conference–the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Children–attended by 70 world leaders and thousands of child rights activists and civil society leaders, including many celebrities and Nobel Prize Laureates.
The goals and targets promulgated at these two Summits for Children greatly influenced the whole world’s development agenda, including today’s Sustainable Development Goals that virtually all countries of the world subscribe to.
Cynics often argue that at the UN ambitious goals are ever set but never met. That is not true. While the world’s headline news and media stories often focus on the bad news of the day–a plane crash, floods and earthquakes, hunger and disease, epidemics and pandemics, prevalence of poverty and injustice among others, there actually has been tremendous progress for children and humanity at large in the past few decades. Children today live longer, are healthier, and much better educated than their parents and grandparents. The role and status of girls and women today is much better than it ever was in most societies. Absolute poverty has declined sharply.
By any objective measure, most of the goals set by the UN and UNICEF have been achieved or even surpassed. When I started working at UNICEF in the 1970s, 15 million children used to die every year. That number has now declined to less than 5 million, although the world’s population has more than doubled. Rates of maternal mortality, fertility, child deaths, illiteracy and malnutrition today are at a historic low. Access to immunization, clean drinking water, sanitation, electricity, mobile phones and other telecommunications are at a historic high.
Sadly, in the long march of human progress, we often go two steps forward and one step backward. While we have eradicated or dramatically reduced such fatal and debilitating diseases as smallpox, polio, measles, etc, new diseases such as HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 have emerged and caused havoc. While many traditionally harmful practices such as child marriage, polygamy, untouchability and violence against women and children have declined sharply, new forms of violence and exploitation have emerged. Pornography, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and all kinds of digital violence and environmental crises haunt the world today. Although humanity is much better off than ever before, the growing inequality in the world makes people feel that they are more deprived than they really are.
On balance, I am happy that the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit is far better than what our ancestors bequeathed us. With all its imperfections, the United Nations has contributed much to building this better world, and I feel privileged to have played a modest but meaningful role in this noble effort.
You have also shared your vision to reform the United Nations in your book. As the world is witnessing new conflicts (such as Russian aggression in Ukraine) and challenges like climate change, where should the reform of the UN begin?
Having spent much of my adult professional life in the service of the United Nations, I am very aware of the UN’s strengths as well as its weaknesses. I believe the biggest reforms the UN needs are in four areas.
First, democratizing the UN. The UN is supposed to promote democracy in the world. But its strongest organ, the Security Council, is itself very undemocratic, with its five permanent members enjoying the veto power. Thus, when the real or perceived interests of the Big Powers are at stake, such as in the case of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UN becomes helpless.
There was good rationale for the veto provision when the UN was founded 76 years ago. But that logic is no longer valid in today’s world. Yet, the composition and powers of the Security Council cannot be changed without the voluntary consent of the same five veto powers.
We need highly enlightened leadership in those countries, and a sustained civil society campaign to bring real democracy to the UN.
Second reform is required in the field of responsibility to protect. Many countries, ruled by dictators and authoritarian regimes, like Belarus, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Venezuela, hide behind their sovereignty to oppress their people; even to deprive them of humanitarian relief. When governments are involved in massive violation of their citizens’ rights, they should not be allowed to get away with such crimes.
World leaders at a UN Summit in 2005 agreed that the international community has a “Responsibility to Protect” vulnerable people if their own government is unable or unwilling to do so.
Big Powers like the five Permanent Members in the Security Council must help the UN to implement the “Responsibility to Protect”, but without using double standards to protect their favorite dictators, and only denounce their detractors.
Third, prioritizing disarmament and development: The main purpose of the UN is to prevent wars and promote peace. But today, the world is flush with arms and weapons. We spend almost $2 trillion dollars per year on military expenditures, or almost $5.5 billion dollars daily. Instead of feeling ashamed, some leaders boast about spending more money on the military.
The time has come for enlightened citizens to demand drastic reduction in military spending. What the world needs now is not more money for guns and weapons, but a massive increase in funding for the Sustainable Development Goals, to combat poverty and inequality, and to protect our planet for future generations.
Fourth, changing the UN’s financing system.Money and military power dominate the UN more than democratic norms. Major donors to its budget often wield undue influence.
Funding for the UN is currently based on a formula of assessment of each country’s “capacity to pay”. But from time to time, major donors like the US complain that they are paying too much and threaten to cut off their funding if the UN does not do their bidding.
To avoid such threats, former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme had made a very creative proposal way back in 1985. He proposed that no country should be asked or be allowed to contribute more than 10 percent to the UN’s budget. That would have meant, for example, a significant reduction in the US share of the UN budget from 25 percent to 10 percent, and a modest increase in contribution by most other countries.
I support the Palme proposal to reduce the UN’s over-dependence on a handful of large donors, if they are also prepared not to claim undue influence in high-level UN jobs, and other decision-making processes.
Today, many UN activities benefit from voluntarycontribution of governments, as well as the private sector, and philanthropic foundations. I believe we must seriously explore more such innovative possibilities, including income from the Global Commons and the Tobin Tax, to liberate the UN from the perpetual threats of arbitrary cuts and defunding by major donors.
There are many other minor and incremental reforms that can help the UN become more efficient and effective. But if we can achieve these four big reforms, we can help the UN to live up to its full potential.
After retiring from the UN Service, you were actively involved in Nepal’s peace process. But the country is yet to establish a credible transitional justice system. What needs to be done?
In my book, ‘Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist Mayhem and Mega Earthquake’, I have clearly stated that the decade-long Maoist insurgency was 10 percent blessing and 90 percent curse for Nepal. On the positive side, it heightened people’s awareness of socio-economic inequalities, and persistence of feudalism in Nepal that needed to be more speedily ended. On the negative side, the insurgency retarded Nepal’s development by several decades and unleashed a culture of glorification of violence that will have long-term negative consequences.
Thankfully, the Comprehensive Peace Accord helped end the insurgency, brought the Maoist rebels to the mainstream of peaceful politics, and a new and progressive Constitution was promulgated that augurs well for Nepal’s future. However, a genuine post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation process that would have helped heal the wounds of the conflict and offered some relief and solace to the victims of conflict has eluded Nepal so far. Sadly, both parties to the conflict, the Maoist leaders and the state security forces, have shown no genuine commitment to a credible transitional justice process.
‘Maoist insurgency retarded Nepal’s development by several decades and unleashed a culture of glorification of violence that will have long-term negative consequences.’
As worldwide experience shows, there is no lasting peace without justice. An honest to goodness transitional justice process might result in a handful of political leaders and military officers implicated and punished for gross violation of innocent civilians’ human rights in some emblematic cases, and reparations for the victims of conflict. But such a process would have a positive cathartic impact for society as a whole in eschewing the use of violence to settle political grievances in the future.
There are valuable international norms, precedents and practices from other countries that we can learn from in completing this unfinished part of Nepal’s peace process. Nepal’s own National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court have offered good guidance to the government. Sadly, and foolishly, the government, and especially key Maoist leaders have preferred to obfuscate the issues of transitional justice, by disingenuously dilly dallying on its honest implementation, in the hope that the issue will go away if they continue to delay and confuse it for long enough. Let us hope that some enlightened folks among Nepal’s political and military leaders will muster the courage and wisdom to institute and follow through with a genuine TRC process in the long-term interest of the nation.
How do you see the role of Nepali diaspora in the socio-economic development of Nepal? Is the introduction of ‘NRN citizenship’ for Non-Resident Nepalis a step in the right direction?
While we lament the brain-drain of many educated Nepalis, and ordinary workers going abroad because of difficult economic circumstances at home, in the long-run Nepali diaspora is likely to be a powerful engine for Nepal’s development.
It is largely the remittances of Nepali workers abroad that sustained Nepal’s rural economy during the decade of conflict. Currently low-skilled Nepali laborers are exploited by both unscrupulous Nepali employment agencies and foreign employers. But if this sector were properly regulated and proactively promoted, the benefits to Nepal would far outweigh the disadvantages.
Non-resident Nepalis are not just sources of remittances. They can be innovators, investors and agents of social change in Nepal. As in several other countries like Ireland, Israel, India and elsewhere, we can imagine a day when NRNs will be a dynamic force for positive change in Nepal.
‘Non-resident Nepalis are not just sources of remittances. They can be innovators, investors and agents of social change in Nepal. We can imagine a day when NRNs will be a dynamic force for positive change in Nepal.’
In that context, I believe that the introduction of “NRN citizenship” for people of Nepali origin living abroad is a step in the right direction. It will perhaps take a decade or two for a large enough group of NRNs to get themselves well-established in their host countries to be significant investors in Nepal. Meanwhile, good governance, stronger rule of law and creation of an investor-friendly environment in Nepal will be essential for us to tap the full potential of Nepali diaspora for Nepal’s development.
You have shared your dream for a ‘sundar, shant, vishal’ Nepal in your book. As Nepal is going to have the second federal and provincial level elections, what do you think should be the priorities of major political parties in the country?
Despite many challenges confronting Nepal in the short-term, I am very optimistic about Nepal’s bright future over the long haul. As I outline in my memoir, my optimism emanates from seven positive developments that I have witnessed over the past few decades. They are 1) the empowerment of women and the energy and activism of our youth, 2) real and steady progress in human development, 3) a free, fearless and vibrant mass media that stands as a bulwark against authoritarianism, 4) vitality of non-governmental and private sector development, 5) positive potential of Nepali Diaspora, 6) Nepali genius for compromise and co-existence and 7) goodwill of the international community.
Countering these positive strengths, Nepal suffers from unhealthy hyper-politicization, poor governance, weak rule of law, corruption, cynicism and a political discourse that focuses excessively on what divides us rather than what unites us.
For far too long, politics in Nepal has been dominated by elderly men spouting outdated ideological slogans of yesteryears, cashing on their sacrifice and contribution to earlier political revolutions, rather than their ideas and vision for the future. The young generation of Nepalis are no longer inspired by these political leaders and are now looking for younger leaders with pragmatic ideas in lieu of empty ideological slogans.
I look to the forthcoming national and federal elections in 2022 as a potential turning point when the cohort of young voters will send a clear signal that they want a generational change in Nepali politics. This is an opportune moment for political parties and their top leaders associated with earlier political movements to gracefully pass the baton to a new generation of pragmatic leaders.
The increasingly educated, digitally savvy, highly mobile and adaptable young Nepalis, many with international education and working experience abroad, seek a new crop of leaders whose views and style better resonate with the taste and aspirations of Nepali youth determined to benefit from the positive forces of globalization that they see within their reach. If the old established political parties are not able to transform themselves to respond to this yearning of the youth, I suspect that a new political configuration will emerge before the next round of elections a few years from now.
‘If the old established political parties are not able to transform themselves to respond to the yearning of the youth, a new political configuration will emerge before the next round of elections a few years from now.’
A factor that will propel such reconfiguration will be enabling millions of Nepalis living and working abroad who are currently deprived of their voting rights. Another significant reform needed is to overhaul the current proportional representation system which is sensible in principle but rotten in practice as it allows political party bosses to appoint their relatives, cronies and financiers to the parliament rather than respected experts and eminent personalities, including from historically under-represented groups, as originally intended.
There is also the need to adopt a modern electronic voting system instead of using paper ballots with archaic party symbols and signage instead of names and pictures of candidates and their parties. This is a relic of an earlier era when most voters were illiterate and printing photographs in ballot papers was difficult. With a much higher rate of adult literacy now and with low-cost newer technology, the time has come for Nepal to modernize our ballot papers and introduce electronic voting systems that will make voting and vote counting easier, faster and tamper proof.
Let us hope that the major political parties and their leaders will have the wisdom to introduce such reforms voluntarily rather than being compelled to do so through disruptive street protests and demonstrations.
Finally, what is your message for today’s youth in Nepal and elsewhere?
With high rates of unemployment, poor quality of education, rampant corruption, poor governance, and growing inequality in Nepali society–and indeed worldwide–there is plenty of reason for today’s youth in Nepal and elsewhere to be pessimistic and despondent. The specter of the climate crisis and the existential threat posed by the proliferation of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction are further reasons for pessimism.
However, a more objective reading of the history of Nepal and the world over a longer time horizon gives us plenty of reasons for optimism. Nepal has made pretty good progress in human development and in achieving several of the Millennium Development Goals. Compared to other Least Developed Countries, Nepal has progressed enough to be eligible for graduation from the category of LDCs. Thankfully, unlike Afghanistan, Myanmar, North Korea or countries like Lebanon, Venezuela or Zimbabwe, Nepal is not retrogressing. But compared to Nepal’s considerable development potential and the rapid progress made by some of our Southeast Asian neighbors and other “Asian Tigers”, Nepal’s progress is definitely suboptimal.
The big gap between the economically better performing countries and Nepal is that for far too long Nepal has been lost in endless political transition, whereas others focused their attention to economic transition and good governance. We have paid more attention to fixing our politics than fixing our economy. Our political leaders have deluded us with ideological slogans and outdated doctrines as recipes for development rather than following pragmatic policies. We have changed political systems but failed to institute better governance, stronger rule of law and stricter accountability for results.
‘The big gap between the economically better performing countries and Nepal is that for far too long Nepal has been lost in endless political transition, whereas others focused their attention on economic transition and good governance.’
The time has come for Nepali youth to now demand and expect our political leaders to deliver development results not just political promises. It is foolish for us to elect the same old leaders who have had their chance to deliver development but have failed repeatedly.
In a multi-party democracy like ours, political parties play a major role in shaping and implementing the country’s development agenda. While electing independent candidates for chief executives in local elections can make a big difference, and such independent candidates can also convey powerful messages in the national parliament and provincial assemblies, to secure lasting impact, it is vital to insist on real internal democracy, stronger accountability, term limits and meaningful rejuvenation inside the major political parties.
Empowered by their digital savvy and access to social media, young people around the world are now beginning to shake up the adult world. Just like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, Nepal too has its share of some amazing youth activists beginning to make their mark in various fields. I am encouraged to see quite a few of them standing for elections as independent candidates or as members of nascent political parties. I cherish the hope that many of them will soon infiltrate the major political parties and help transform them from within and build large networks of solidarity for national development.