"Development cooperation must be able to act quickly and flexibly – with a long-term perspective"
Thanks to the efforts of the Swiss embassy in Nepal, at the end of March a group of tourists from Switzerland and other European countries were able to travel to Kathmandu and fly back to Europe. Switzerland is working with equal determination to combat the effects of COVID-19 in this Himalayan country. Switzerland's long-standing presence and close cooperation with its partners in Nepal is instrumental in this effort, says Elisabeth von Capeller, the Swiss ambassador in Kathmandu. That is also why Switzerland was able to lend effective support to Nepal's reconstruction efforts after the 2015 earthquake.
The Swiss ambassador to Nepal, Elisabeth von Capeller, hands 30,000 COVID-19 test kits flown in from Singapore to Nepal's Minister of Health and Population. © FDFA
What are the main challenges Nepal faces in the fight against COVID-19?
Nepal's Minister of Finance has repeatedly stressed that "COVID-19 is not only a health crisis, but also a social and economic crisis that is impacting institutions and systems. It is not a humanitarian crisis, a fact our response must take into account." This means above all that the social and economic crisis must be tackled immediately and that the existing institutions must not be circumvented.
What does this mean for Nepal in concrete terms?
Nepal has one of the weakest healthcare systems in the world and all it can do with respect to the pandemic is to try to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. The country is vastly under-equipped to treat most of those infected with the virus. There are, for example, only about 100 intensive care beds for over 30 million people. The total lockdown, which has been in place for five weeks in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, is already having serious consequences and pushing large numbers of people into poverty. In addition, millions of Nepalese migrants are stranded in the Gulf States, India and East Asia waiting to return home. Many of them are infected and all would first be required to quarantine before returning to their villages, where they have no job or source of income. It's an impossible situation. Private remittances account for 30% of Nepal's GDP. If Nepalis who were until recently working overseas can no longer send money home, this will have devastating macroeconomic and social consequences.
Can the country's institutions and systems cushion the impact?
Nepal's young federal system is having a positive effect. People can already see and feel the benefits. The provincial authorities and local governments are doing a tremendous job of organising quarantines, distributing food and social assistance, carrying out contact tracing, and much else.
Where can Switzerland step in to provide concrete and rapid assistance?
We responded early and swiftly. To begin with, we immediately adapted all our projects to the new needs on the ground. For example, we helped set up call centres for agricultural extension services and provided assistance to helplines for women victims of violence. We helped set up remote learning programmes for apprentices and provided support and food for Nepalese migrants returning from the Gulf region.
We also provided emergency assistance as set out in our strategy. This included, for example, disposal systems for medical waste and wastewater in hospitals treating COVID-19 patients, and helping the government prepare for the return of Nepalese migrants. We provided support to human rights organisations that monitor whether assistance actually reaches people who are frequent targets of discrimination and helped secure financial support for SMEs. Together with provincial governments, we are developing a voucher system to allow farmers to receive agricultural assistance. We also sprang into immediate action to procure medical equipment: thermometers, thousands of PPE kits and some 30,000 COVID-19 test kits. We handed these medical supplies to the central and provincial governments. We think it's important to strengthen existing structures and institutions, not to replace them.
Switzerland is implementing and supporting various programmes and projects in Nepal. Do these make it more difficult to respond flexibly to COVID-19? Or are they what enables Switzerland to provide effective assistance to begin with?
I think we need to get away from the notion that "rapid action is humanitarian aid" and "long-term engagement is development cooperation". As far as I am concerned, our emergency responses – buying medical equipment and tests and putting medical waste disposal systems in place in hospitals – are system-wide interventions that require immediate implementation. Development cooperation must be able to act quickly and flexibly – with a long-term perspective. Which is what we've always done. In the last several decades Nepal has gone through a civil war, the abolition of the monarchy, earthquakes and the establishment of a federal republican system of government. The country is in a constant state of change. We have always adapted our programmes by taking the context as the starting point. It's our standard practice.
Are you now able to apply the lessons learned from the post-earthquake reconstruction assistance in Nepal to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, we gained valuable experience that is now helping us to tackle the crisis. One of the things we learned after the 2015 earthquake was that many relief activities, especially in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, were undertaken where there was easy access instead of where there was the greatest need for assistance. And as unfortunately happens times and again, they did not reach communities that are the usual targets of discrimination, because newly arrived organisations were unfamiliar with the local setting. A lack of coordination has also led to duplication of efforts. That said, the government showed exemplary leadership in taking responsibility for the reconstruction effort and ensuring that standards and quality would be maintained. By the end of 2020, just five years after the earthquake, Nepal will have completed almost 90% of its reconstruction operation after only five years. An unprecedented achievement! Moreover, the country now has homes and infrastructure that will enable it to respond better to future natural disasters. And to tackle the pandemic, we also have to strengthen national institutions, not circumvent them. As regards social benefits, local governments and development partners have become aware that discriminated groups must not be sidelined. Nevertheless, in the current situation it will still be necessary to keep a close eye on who is actually receiving social benefits.
The FDFA has virtually completed is repatriation flights operation. Are any Swiss travellers still stranded in Nepal? And if the answer is yes, what's the Swiss embassy doing to support them?
There are first of all Swiss nationals who work here and want to stay in the country. We are in regular contact with them. There are also Swiss tourists who want to leave the country. Last week we organised another convoy of coaches to transport over 100 people to Kathmandu. Among them were 11 Swiss nationals who were then able to return to Europe on 2 May on a French charter flight. There are still a few consular cases for whom we have to find solutions with the Consular Directorate at head office in Bern.
At the end of March, you and the Swiss embassy mounted a major operation to enable tourists from Switzerland and other countries to fly home to Europe. How well did the cooperation with other countries work?
It was an incredible feat of logistics. We were able to repatriate around 90 Swiss nationals on flights organised by Germany, France and the Czech Republic. They were scattered all over the country and we had to organise transport by coach and one domestic flight. Among other things, we had to obtain permits, inform the authorities, and sort out other details while the country was under a total lockdown. Coordination with the EU and subsequently with Germany, the Czech Republic and France was excellent. We are very grateful to all of them. The excellent relations we have long enjoyed in Nepal were no doubt one reason for the success of the operation. Fortunately I still had a supply of excellent Swiss chocolate and Swiss wine to thank them.
Switzerland's commitment in Nepal
Switzerland is supporting the democratic development of the new federal state in Nepal. Through the SDC, it supports the creation of forums for citizen consultation and participation within municipalities. It also fosters capacity building for public sector employees and elected officials to ensure good-quality public service. It promotes participation, particularly by women, discriminated groups and migrant workers, so that they can exercise their rights and responsibilities. The SDC also works to bolster dialogue between the authorities and the population as well as to improve the management of public finances.
The SDC helps women and men, especially those from disadvantaged groups, to develop vocational skills that will enable them to find a job and increase their income. It also aims to encourage public participation in policymaking in the areas of agriculture, vocational education and training and infrastructure construction. Young people in particular are helped to develop vocational skills through the apprenticeship model.
With SDC support, efficient transport infrastructure and irrigation systems have been put in place, improving the food security of over a million Nepalis, 60% of them from disadvantaged groups and 42% women.
Since 2011, the SDC has been working with the government in its efforts to promote safer migration. Labour migration is a mainstay of the Nepalese economy. Around 400,000 people emigrate each year, mainly to the Gulf States. Half of all Nepalese families receive remittances from abroad.