April 9, 2013
A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Peter Bodde has served in Nepal twice before returning this time as ambassador. The Senate confirmed him last year.
Bodde joined the Foreign Service in 1981, and served early career assignments at the embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, from 1982 to 1984; as minister counselor for Administrative Affairs at the embassy in New Delhi, India; in Copenhagen, Denmark; Sofia, Bulgaria; at the consulate in Hamburg, Germany; as deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Kathmandu, from 1994 to 1997; and in Georgetown, Guyana. He has also served in various State Department positions in Washington, most recently as the director of the management policy in the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation. From 2002 to 2006, he was consul general at the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. From February 2006 to August 2008, he was deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Bodde served as ambassador to Malawi from September 2008 to July 2011. More recently, he served as assistant chief of mission for assistance transition in Iraq and coordinator for minority issues at the embassy in Baghdad.
Disclaimer: My interview with Ambassador Bodde began with a technical glitch. The audio on my camera was acting up to the extent that the first eight minutes of the interview were unusable. According to my notes, however, we were discussing what the ambassador cited as some of the most successful programs the U.S. has developed in Nepal during the last 56 years. Among those programs discussed were the Fulbright scholarships awarded to Nepali citizens. For more information,
The ambassador then talked about the Access Program, which provides two years of English language instruction, as well as computer skills and leadership skills to disadvantaged youth. The program participants from Nepal are from government schools. Each group of 40 participants consists of 20 girls and 20 boys from various religious and ethnic backgrounds.
It was at this point that my audio equipment decided to behave. The interview picks up from here:
AMBASSADOR BODDE: The beauty of the Access program is that it really gets to children at all levels. They start at middle school – ages 13, 14, up to School Leaving Certificate (SLC). It’s an after-school program. We’re very proud of our students. Students who got through our program, all got through the SLC.
Mikel, you have been coming to Nepal for many years and you know how many people don’t go through the SLC. So this is a program I would love to expand, because I think it’s one of the things that works. English language here is really important. In today’s world globalization, having strong English skills is just such a critical skill for any young person to succeed.
DUNHAM: Have you managed to take this program to all the districts of Nepal?
BODDE: No. We have 280 students and we’ve been in Kathmandu, Gorkha, Bhairahawa, and Butwal. We’re about to start one in Mahendranagar. All said, all the districts would be very ambitious. I’ll be quite frank. I wish we could get there; we’re not going to. But this program is one that is successful – one in which the model works. We just want to replicate it and keep the model going.
We also should acknowledge our partner in Access: NELTA (Nepal English Language Teachers Association).
DUNHAM: The U.S. works in Nepal to curb anti-trafficking, one of the most pressing issues for women. What kind of organizations do you work with here?
BODDE: We work with NGOs. We also work with the Nepal police, providing them with training in how to deal with this.
DUNHAM: In the past, there was a severe shortage of women officers to help deal with sex trafficking? Have you addressed that?
BODDE: Yes. We funded a police barracks for policewomen in Biratnagar. And it’s not just the police, but we also work with the prosecution side. The Attorney General’s office is involved here in prosecution. And they are doing a good job. We work across the spectrum on these things. You have to, if you want to be successful about it. There’s more to be done. There’s always going to be more that needs to be. But progress is being made.
But you have to remain focused, particularly in education – the prevention side. And we work with a number of NGOs on that.
DUNHAM: When working with the police, are you also addressing how best to handle the victims…counseling?
BODDE: All of those things.
DUNHAM: One thing I hear in Nepal, over and over, is that women become discouraged after they report their victimization, because of what happens once their cases enter the court system. The courts repeatedly postpone their cases and often the police don’t hand over their files. Eventually, so many women just drop their case out of futility and exasperation.
BODDE: I’m not going to comment on individual cases. That would be inappropriate. But I would encourage women: No one should give up. This is a critical issue. Victims should know that there are many people out there concerned about this. There are many programs in Nepal – people out there trying to help. We are always interested in this. The women victims should continue to work with the police. This is an on-going project, a serious problem.
DUNHAM: You are an old hand here. You’ve been working in Nepal, off an on, for thirty years. Can you comment on the differences, the changes you have seen, since you first came to Nepal?
BODDE: I arrived here in August of 1982. The changes have been dramatic. In 1982, there were green rice paddies on either side of the Ring Road. You would be hard pressed to find green on either side of the Ring Road right now.
I think there has been a lot of progress made. One of the things that we have to always remember is just how much progress has been made here. With our help, but also by the Nepalis on their own.
We go back and one your initial questions was, “Has foreign aid been working [in Nepal] over the last fifty-sixty years?”
We’ve had some tremendous successes here, starting with the eradication of malaria in the health sector. When you look at women issues, the child illnesses and all that, Nepal has made great progress in meeting its health challenges. There is more to be done, though. And we’re working now with the government in that the maternal mortality is still too high. The government acknowledges that. From what I understand from our health people, this is going to be a harder issue to do because, the way you really solve this is to get more women to deliver their babies in medical facilities. And getting that done is going to take a longer time.
You look at the economic development...It’s very clear that there is a level of prosperity here that certainly didn’t exist thirty years ago. It didn’t exist here fifteen years ago. Nepal has become a much more modern country.
I was here when democracy was restored in the 1990s. One of the things that happened at that time was that the press made significant progress towards being a free press. That continues today. When I arrived here in 1992, there were two newspapers. Today, there are so many that you can’t count them. There are five or six English dailies. And they report. On all things. Journalists are active here. That’s a very, very positive thing and that’s a critical component of any nascent democracy.
I think that the other thing that has happened, of course, is the whole population explosion. When I arrived here in 1982, the population in Nepal was around 12 million. Ten years later, when I came back, it was 18 million. The estimates now are around 26 million. Obviously, that has created a whole new set of issues.
DUNHAM: Demographic shifts?
BODDE: Demographic shifts. Two-thirds of the population is now under thirty-five.
But one of the things that I’m struck with is that the young people in Nepal are more and more educated. There are more and more really successful young people. They are interested in their future. They are trying to do something right for Nepal… the whole development of civic society [is improving] … and particularly among the young people, there is an awareness about their own civic responsibility – what they can do to make things better – it is a very positive development here. I am very encouraged by it.
We have an embassy youth advisory group, where we bring together just over 50 young people. We do this every month. The interesting thing, there, is that we reached out and did some advertising about it. We had over 800 applicants to join this. We chose the fifty best applicants. I meet them regularly. Susan Parker-Burns [Public Affairs Officer] and her staff meet with them. One of the things we are very, very actively doing with them is mentoring them.
I do a session myself , as a boss: what it takes to be a good employer, what employers look for and what skill-sets are needed. We do a lot of mentoring. We brought in two entrepreneurs, yesterday, to talk to them about what entrepreneurial companies are looking for in young people.
And, I’ve reached out to the Nepal American Chamber of Commerce. And I said, “Now I expect you to come in and mentor these people, because they should be hearing this from Nepalis.” It’s one thing to hear something from the American Ambassador; it’s another thing to hear it from a captain of industry from here. And we are reaching out to FNCCI, [Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry] as well.
The last group that I tasked Susan with reaching out to this past week is to reach out to all of our distinguished alumni from all of our various programs. These are the type of adult leaders that our young people should have access to. We can be a very good bridge for that. I think this is really exciting: It’s Nepali helping Nepali, and that’s the key.
You asked…I think one of your interests is how can the United States be helpful without being overly intrusive? One of things I’ve learned coming back here as often as I have is that I am a very strong believer that we can provide assistance, we can provide expertise, but the solutions have to be Nepali solutions. And our job – our real job – is what I always say in my interviews is to be a frank friend. When we see things that bother us, speak up. And I do. But it’s also to say, “these are issues that you have to contend with.” Ultimately, it has to be Nepalis working through this and coming up with their own solutions.
We certainly have seen this recently, with this new government being formed to move towards elections. This is critical. And I think it is important.
DUNHAM: What can be done to make Nepalis understand that they can’t rely on foreign aid for eternity? There is that mentality here that someone else will come in and provide money and funds to take care of the problems.
BODDE: I think you being a little bit harsh. I take a slightly different approach. I’m very frank is saying, “ Listen, no assistance starts without an end.” It’s not forever. But quite frankly, what I think the challenge for Nepal right now is – if I look out at a two-three-year horizon, the first challenge is the election; get the election done for the constituent assembly to finish the constitution. That’s challenge number one.
The next challenge after that is done is to have another set of election, to elect a parliament and the government. And what it’s really all about is creating the conditions that do two things: creating stability here – creating political stability – so that the economy can take off. And equally important, and its part of the process, that the Nepalis, through this process, take the steps to institutionalize democracy in Nepal. And that’s what has to be done.
When you do that, that’s when the economy will finally take off. That’s when dependence on assistance will come to an end. But in the meantime, there are things that we can do to help. But you are absolutely right: Aid is not an open-ended solution.
DUNHAM: Nor can foreign countries force Nepalis to have timely elections. That time schedule is out of our control.
BODDE: That’s absolutely right. It is theirs to work through and they have worked through it. We are waiting to hear when the election date will be set.
BODDE: I’m not going to speculate on that. That is for the Election Commission to do. I think what’s critical though – and I’ll be very clear on this – is that elections have to happen and they should happen soon.
Elections are a very complex thing to manage, organize and make happen. I have full faith in the Election Commission to do it. They have done it before. They are very good at it. We, as donors, can provide technical assistance. But there are certain things that just take time to do and they have to determine how much time they need to get it done. That said, there have to be elections.
DUNHAM: It’s always been remarkable, to me, how patient the Nepali people are.
BODDE: I think they are patient but, frankly…we travel a lot around the country. One universal observation we all have – and if you talk to the political party leaders here, they know it too – is that the people are ready for elections. While they are patient –it’s like assistance not being an unending process – they want it to happen.