MCC officials wrap up visit hoping the US programme’s ratificationA message, however, is clear to Nepali leadership—it has already been too late and further delay could impact economic recovery at a time of the pandemic.
Prithvi Man Shrestha
As top officials from the United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation wrapped up their Nepal visit on Sunday, they made it clear that they were in Kathmandu to make one point clear—take it or leave it. However, at a presser after their meetings with Nepal’s political leadership, business community and civil society members, they looked hopeful that the $500 million American aid would get through.
On the final day of her visit on Sunday, Fatema Z Sumar, vice president of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, said that she conveyed to all who she met during her meetings in Nepal that four years have already passed since the agreement was signed and that it was high time the agreement moved ahead.
“My message to everyone we met was not to lose this moment... that the MCC compact can spur economic growth at a time when we are hit by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Sumar during a press conference on Sunday.
Sumar arrived in Kathmandu on Thursday, along with her deputy, Jonathan Brooks, at a time when the MCC has become a lightning rod of controversy in Nepal, with political parties deeply divided over the American programme.
At Sunday’s presser, Sumar said she was optimistic that the Nepali political leaders would take an informed decision on the American aid programme after the MCC headquarters provided clarification to the concerns raised by the Nepal government.
“It has already been four years since the agreement was signed. Now is the time to act and decide whether you want to go with the MCC Nepal Compact,” she said.
Nepal signed up to the American aid, commonly known as MCC, in September 2017. But it has run into controversy over some concerns raised by some political parties including whether it supersedes Nepal’s laws, whether it has any military connection, and whether the US would control the rights over the intellectual property generated through the implementation of projects.
A day ahead of Sumar’s visit to Kathmandu, the MCC headquarters had provided clarification to concerns raised by Nepal saying it neither supersedes Nepal's constitution nor does it have any military links.
Sumar reiterated the same points saying there is zero military component and that there “is no strings attached”.
“This is a gift from the American people to Nepali people,” she said.
In the past four days, Sumar has held a series of meetings with Nepali politicians.
Her first meeting was with CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli.
Oli conveyed to the US delegation that his party was for a parliamentary ratification of the American programme when it was in power, but it would take a while before it made a position as the ruling alliance was yet to make a position, as his party is currently in the opposition.
Nepali Congress President and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, however, has been making a push for an early ratification of the MCC from Parliament. After meeting with Oli, Sumar on Thursday met with CPN (Unified Socialist) chair Madhav Nepal and Janata Samajbadi Party leaders Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav. While Nepal said his party won’t approve anything that “goes against national interest”, Bhattarai and Yadav are of the view that their party’s position would be made based on discussions with other parties.
On Friday, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) said that a national consensus would be required for the US programme’s parliamentary ratification. During his meeting with Sumar, Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal said since a lot of questions have been raised over the MCC, he would seek to build a national consensus before his party could take a position.
Later in the evening on Friday, during his meeting with the MCC officials, Prime Minister Deuba said his party, as well as the incumbent government, was all for implementing the MCC at the earliest.
With mixed messages from Nepal’s political parties, confusion has arisen if the MCC, under which electricity transmission and road improvement projects are to be built, could move forward anytime soon.
On Sunday, asked if the MCC had any set deadline for the parliamentary ratification of the agreement, Sumar said they didn’t come to Nepal to put pressure on anyone by showing any “artificial” deadline.
Though tabled in 2019, the MCC agreement is stuck in Parliament due to controversies surrounding it.
Sumar, however, made it clear that any further delay would mean denying economic opportunity for the Nepali people. She insisted that Nepal was chosen for the compact programme after the country made a request to the US government about 10 years ago when the MCC had selected Nepal for a smaller threshold programme in December 2011.
“We have worked with eight governments since the programme was approved for Nepal and we have worked with all political parties,” she said.
She also hinted that the MCC was hugely politicised based on [mis]information.
“There is information, misinformation and disinformation about the MCC Nepal Compact,” she said.
Asked whether she was convinced about ratification after the meeting with the political leaders, she said she was optimistic that Nepal would take an informed decision as her team has already provided necessary clarification on the concerns raised by Nepal.
Finance Minister Janardan Sharma, a Maoist leader, on September 3 had written to the MCC headquarters seeking clarifications on as many as 11 questions and some supplementary concerns, some of which were dubbed by observers “ridiculous” and “uncalled for”. The questions included if the MCC agreement was above Nepal’s constitution, if it was part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, if the US aid programme was indeed “selfless” and if the US was pushing Nepal to accept it because of Nepal’s geostrategic location.
The MCC headquarters on September 8 dispatched a 13-page clarification to Minister Sharma, attempting to address all the concerns raised by Nepal.
During its stay in Kathmandu, the MCC delegation also held talks with the business community and civil society leaders.
An economist, author and newspaper columnist said he understood during his meeting with the US officials that they wanted to make sense of how the MCC was perceived in Nepal.
“They didn’t seek our help... rather they sought to know how they could dispel the rumours that are being spread,” he said, requesting not to be named. “I was very clear about how they [the US] too were to be blamed for making a bungle by failing to engage with Nepal regarding the MCC.”
Foreign policy experts said that the future of the MCC still “hangs in the balance.”
Khadga KC, a professor of international relations at the Tribhuvan University, said that he does not see ratification immediately given the widespread suspicion about the programme.
“Instead of whether the MCC Nepal Compact will harm the national interest, electoral politics is most likely to guide how Nepal's parties are going to perceive this US programme,” said KC. “The MCC actually has emerged as a political weapon for some parties.”
According to KC, even though Prime Minister Deuba wants it to be ratified, his coalition partners’ positions are different.
“So the government may try to buy time,” KC told the Post.
According to KC, the debate over the MCC in recent days in Nepal has been guided by a biased approach.
“Those who were and are connected with the Americans in the past and present and have ideological leaning towards the US are defending the MCC, and those who are ideologically leftists and have perceived the US as an imperialist force are against the programme,” said KC.
“Efforts were never made—neither by the donor nor the recipient—to help make a common ground among the intellectual circles. That’s why we are seeing this mess.”