“How Nepal and Australia view each other: Time to engage in diaspora diplomacy”

bharat_poudel_raju_adhikari

Dr Bharat Raj POUDEL and Dr Raju ADHIKARI

BACKGROUND

Although geographically and strategically far-flung, the relationship between Nepal and Australia has grown over the years and is strategically important. The time has come to exploit this relationship in order to build enhanced economic and cultural ties.

As government statistics clearly show, Australia has become a destination of choice for tens of thousands of Nepalese students.  The host country has benefited enormously by the mass exodus of both Nepalese students and skilled manpower.With the active involvement of Nepalese community organisations including Non-resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) and the establishment of Federation of Nepalese Community Association of Australia (FeNCAA), the Nepalese diaspora in Australia is expected to create new avenues of discourse for our community well- being and promote mutual ties between two countries. It is now time to deploy diaspora diplomats by hitting the button ofdiaspora diplomacy for the activation of economic and bilateral engagement.

In recent times, Australia has shifted its priority and policy in regional and global cooperation with a focus on the development and governance of Asia Pacific nations by shifting investment from foreign aid and support to South Asian nations and Africa. As a result, Australian aid to Nepal has been reduced to A$22 million from about A$30 million for the current fiscal year 2019/20.Support to Nepal has been gradually decreasing for the last few years while Nepal’s contribution to Australian economy is about A$2.2 billion dollar annually, mostly in the education sector (Approx.A$1.6 billion).

Given the global political and strategic drift, the Australian government’s priority in the region has been overshadowed by the debate of trade war between the US and China and bilateral relationship with China in recent past. However, do Australians think they should undermine and compromise the relationship of the last 6 decades between our two nations? Obviously not. We know that Nepalese diaspora is one of the fastest growing communities in Australia. NRNA, a global diaspora organisation of people of Nepalese origin, is connecting Nepal to countries of their residence throughout the world. Role of NRNA and newly established organisations like FeNCAA will have to play a meaningful role to draw the attention of the 13th largest economy of the world, and lobby for a continued support to Nepal and increased economic cooperation to help minimise existing trade deficit.

The 2011 national census had put the median individual weekly income for Nepal-born in Australia aged 15 years and over at A$485 compared with A$538 for all overseas-born and $597 for all Australia-born. Now median income of Australians is calculated as A$1633 per week.  If we calculate it proportionally, Nepalese individual may have weekly income in between A$1000-A$1300.

NEPAL-AUSTRALIA RELATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANCE

Nepal and Australia initiated diplomatic ties on 15 February 1960. It is now time to review our past and celebrate the 60th anniversary of our diplomatic relations in 2020. Both nations commemorated the 50th anniversaryof their relations not long ago and organised various programs. Australia established residential Embassy in Kathmandu at the level of chargéd’ Affaires in 1984 and a full-fledged Ambassadorial in 1986. Nepal’s Embassy in Canberra was established in March 2007 with a senior diplomat, Mr Shankar Bairagi (Current foreign secretary of Nepal), as its head. Since the establishment of Nepal Embassy in Canberra, both countries have benefited and broughtgreater focus to our relationship.

Over the years, the Australian Government and private sector have become development partners contributing to the governance, education, health, livestock management, forest and agriculture, energy, civil aviation, service sector and overall socioeconomic development of Nepal. However, Australia is still not listed as a major ODA provider to Nepal compared to UK, USA, Japan and Switzerland.

Source: DFAT

Australia’s Aid document for 2019-20 describes that Nepal’s continued development as a democratic and stable Indo-Pacific partner is in Australia’s national interest. The report further describes Nepal as one of the least developed countries in the region which continues to be vulnerable to natural disasters. Nepal’s slow recovery from the earthquake of 2015 and impending economic progress are the matters of concern to Australia. Australia has expressed concern over Nepal’s attempt to transition from least developing nation to a developing nation status by 2022. In order to address numerous development challenges in socio-cultural and geographical fronts, Nepal needs to focus on economic diplomacy and create environment for foreign investments. Biggest challenge lies in the implementation of new three-tier federal government structure. Australia has expressed hope that the Government of Nepal is keen to embrace new development model and be amongst middle-income countries by 2030. Despite reduction in ODA, Australian government still tries to assure Nepal that development support will focus on assisting Nepal’s transition to a federal system of governance by supporting the development of a strong and effective subnational government that can respond to the needs of citizens. Australia has focussed its priority in Nepal in areas such as; disaster risk reduction to improve resilience, humanitarian response capabilities and emerging human-resource development through Australia awards scholarships and short courses, strengthening people-to-people links through the Australian volunteers program in urban planning, midwifery, agriculture and tourism.

Nepal and Australia signed an MoU on establishing a Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia on 14 July 2017 in Canberra, Australia. Foreign Secretary Mr. Shanker Das Bairagi and H.E. Mr. Gary Quinlan, Acting Secretary atDepartment of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Australia signed the MoU on behalf of their respective Governments. In 2010, both countries had initiated Nepal Australia Parliamentary Group led by the then senator Mark Furner. BCM has been scheduled to meet once every two years, alternately in Nepal and Australia to review the aspects of bilateral relations and sharing views on regional and global issues. Although, there has not been any high-level visit of Australian leaders to Nepal in recent years. Nepal Embassy, FeNCAA, Non-resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) and notable community organisations need to work together to take Nepal Australia relations to a new height.

NEPALESE STUDENTS

Statistics suggest that most of Nepalese students come to Australia at their active age of 20-24 with full of youthful readiness to start building a better life in a distant land. Last year, Sydney morning herald reported that over the past 10 years, Nepal has grown exponentially as a source of international students, initially spurred by the decade-long Maoist insurgency and subsequent word of mouth. Now it is not limited to one university or suburb or city where Nepalese students study and live and spread Australia wide making significant contributions to the Australian revenue and multicultural society.

Source: Department of Education

A recent study conducted by JWS Research suggested that an overwhelming majority of locals (81%) recognised the importance of international students and their contribution in Australian economy. Education industry is currently Australia’s  third-largest export and It is exciting that export income of $34.9 billion a year has been received from the international students and it is supporting more than 240,000 jobs across the country.

Source: DoE

Students of Nepalese origin prefer Australia as their preferred destination for higher education and has injected about approximately A$1.6 billion dollar to the Australian economy. Out of $35 billion revenue generated in the education sector, China and India have contributed about $11 billion and $ 3.7 billion respectively. Up until June 2019, Number of currently studying Nepalese student in Australia has crossed above 18,000.

Source: DoE

In recent years, Nepal and Australia have failed to actively engage in mutual dialogue in addressing issues of students, bilateral trade and exchange of visits to make bilateral ties of the last 6 decades more meaningful. However, there is an enormous possibility that Nepalese young graduates trained in Australia can be a great source of trained manpower (brain-gain) to both countries. Can our graduates contribute to Australia’s demand in essential sectors? Just recently Education Minister Hon. Dan Tehan at the national press club in Canberra acknowledged that Nepal is the third largest contributor in international student demand, but he clearly hinted that Australia’s focus is more on India, Vietnam and other countries. MinisterTehan mentioned that Morrison Government is working on a program to deliver 1.25 million jobs over the next five years, including 250,000 new jobs for young Australians.  Dr Denise Napthine, former Premier of Victoria in a study report highlighted need for greater focus in regional areas and that university funding would be available on the basis of four key performance metrics listed in the report.

Nepalese students can take advantage of these initiatives. Further,FeNCAA, in consultation with NRNA and diaspora community can explore possibilities of avenues and lobby with Australian government to speed up bilateral exchanges.

TRADE AND INVESTMENT

According to the market profile and relevant information presented by Australian Trade and Investment Commission (ATIC) and DFAT, Australia’s trade with Nepal is small and it is one-sided. However, there are potential for growth in hydropower, civil aviation, telecommunications, tourism and infrastructure development. Approximately, 25 to 30,000 Australian travellers explore Nepal every year but the number is not increasing as expected.

Two-way merchandise trade in 2018-19 totalled A$53 million dominated by Australian exports to Nepal. Australia’s volume of trade service with Nepal has crossed above A$2.2 billion and imports of services from Nepal is still around A$152 million. Principal exports to Nepal are vegetables and refined petroleum. Australia also exports food and beverages including wine. Trade deficit with Australia is very severe and this is the time to start working on trade and economic diplomacy with Australia.

Source: DFAT

Nepal Australia business forum is one of the programs organised at Embassy Level to discuss bilateral cooperation in trade and investment. Such initiatives are very timely and steps in the right direction to bring greater focus and FeNCAA can play a strategic role in such initiatives.

Nepalese population has also shown interest in Australian mainstream politics. Few Nepalese in different states have contested council, state and even federal parliamentary elections. Growing Nepalese communities and their contributions in all sectors suggest that Nepalese communities have a greater stake and can and wish to play a meaningful role to establish stronger ties between the two nations.

Nepal government’s recent shift in foreign policy to increase focus in Australia and the region to promote greater economic ties is a welcome and wise decision. The establishment of FeNCAA was a very timely initiative and will represent unified voice of Nepalese organisation and communities to both state and federal level of government to protect their interests and create better opportunities in Australian Nepalese communities and promote greater economic bonds between the two countries. It is a win-win situation for both people and countries with similar population volume.

About Authors:

Dr Poudel is Media Expert, Freelance Journalist and Casual Academic in Brisbane

Email:[email protected]

Dr Adhikari is current FeNCAA President and Director of CRAM Responsive Materials Pvt Ltd Email: [email protected]

This article was originally published in the Rising Nepal