Interview with Australian Ambassador to Nepal

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H. E. Felicity Volk is the Australian Ambassador to Nepal. Ms. Volk is a career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was most recently Director, New Colombo Plan Secretariat. She has previously served overseas in Vientiane and Dhaka. Mero Tribune caught up with Ambassador Volk. Excerpts:

It has been almost a year since you came to Nepal. What were your initial impression of Nepal and its people?

While I arrived in Nepal in February 2021, to begin my tenure as Australia’s Ambassador, it was not in fact my first time in this beautiful country. I had visited Nepal four times previously as a tourist – the first in the mid-1980s when I was a university student on a gap year, traveling through Asia to learn more about the history, culture, and societies of my neighborhood.

Returning to Nepal more than three decades after my first visit, I carried clear memories but also knew that both Nepal and I had changed in the intervening years. The country I returned to had matured. Both the built and natural environment had altered with quite dramatic urbanization and the impacts of climate change. But there had also been shifts in the architecture of politics, government, and society. A vibrant youth population has emerged as Nepal’s greatest untapped potential. Nepal’s economy and sense of national identity have evolved.

Yet underpinning all these changes are Nepal’s enduring characteristics: an old, rich, and complex culture and the unparalleled warmth, hospitality, and generosity of its people.

Nepal and Australia have enjoyed warm and friendly relations for a long time. How will you further strengthen Nepal- Australia relations in the days ahead in your term?

This February, Nepal and Australia mark 62 years of diplomatic relations. One of the earliest development projects in which Australia partnered with Nepal was the Nepal-Australia Forestry Project in the 1960s. Like the trees planted in the 1960s to support large-scale reforestation, the friendship between our countries has grown from seeds to the flourishing forest. Our relationship is strong, enduring, and multi-dimensional.

Around 150,000 Nepalis have made Australia their home. Each year, around 50,000 Nepali students are studying in Australia. And, before COVID-19 hit, around 36,000 Australians visited Nepal annually. Australia supports an active development program in Nepal, worth approximately A$21 million per annum, closely aligned with the country’s development priorities. We’re investing in activities to promote women’s political leadership, subnational governance, climate resilience, health security, disaster preparedness, and gender, disability, and social inclusion.

Arriving in Nepal as Australia’s 11th resident ambassador and our fourth female ambassador, I’m very conscious of – and grateful for – the strong foundations on which I will be building as I work to expand our bilateral relationship.

Nepal and Australia’s partnership over many decades has been characterized by trust, mutual respect, genuine warmth, and a solid understanding of each other because of our extensive people-to-people links. I’ve been pleased to work closely with the education sector to prepare for the return of Nepali students to Australia. After a long hiatus in student exchanges due to COVID-19, it’s been great to welcome students from Nepal back to Australia since December 2021.

I am excited to be rediscovering Nepal and experiencing the country and people as a fellow resident rather than as a tourist. And I feel privileged to contribute to the close relations between our countries, especially in forging stronger people-to-people links. This is a particular challenge, but also an imperative, as we navigate the dislocations of COVID-19 and find new ways to bring people together in friendship and mutual support.

What could be the area of cooperation between Nepal and Australia in the future?

The Australian Government is committed to continuing its partnership with Nepal to support economic and social development. Australia is working side-by-side with Nepal to promote a thriving, inclusive society, including through our Australia Awards scholarships program, our support for strong governance, and our humanitarian efforts during times of disaster.

We also share interests in regional and international efforts to promote stability, security, peace, and a global order where international norms, human rights, and the rule of law prevail.

Education will be an expanding area of our bilateral relationship, making a vital contribution to capacity building. I see scope to develop new linkages in sectors such as agriculture, horticulture, water basin management, and renewable energy, where Australia has particular expertise to contribute to Nepal’s development.

Two-way trade between our countries is nascent and we should work to harness the large, active, entrepreneurial, and well-established Nepali community in Australia to expand trade connections. This offers great potential to expand merchandise trade and develop new investment opportunities.

The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged Nepal and impacted its economy, economic activities, and access to basic services such as health, education. How the Australian government is thinking about helping countries like Nepal?

When the second wave of COVID-19 hit soon after my arrival, I was pleased to facilitate a A$7million emergency assistance package to support Nepal’s COVID response, in addition to our vaccine contributions through COVAX AMC and the delivery of much-needed PPE by a Royal Australian Air Force flight.

Our emergency assistance is providing medical supplies and equipment, including oxygen generation plants, for government and community hospitals and primary health care centers. It’s ensuring that family planning and sexual and reproductive health services are available to vulnerable women, as well as mental health and psychosocial support. It’s training medical staff and funding WASH facilities in schools.

In addition, we are supporting economic recovery from COVID through livelihoods support, digital financial literacy training, relief food packages, and safety net schemes. Equally importantly, our emergency assistance has ensured that throughout COVID lockdowns, students in remote locations continue to receive education through radio, workbooks, and digital learning materials.

Australia has also placed a high priority on access to safe and effective vaccines for all. We have committed A$130 million to COVAX globally and this is assisting the delivery of over 30 million doses to Nepal, ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines.

I join Nepal’s development partners in congratulating Nepal for its ongoing vaccination campaign, which to date has seen almost 55 percent of the total population fully dosed.

How do the Australian people treat and assess Nepal in your country Australia?

The thriving Nepali community in Australia, which numbers around 150,000, speaks to the many similarities between Nepal and Australia and the way these make Australia a natural home for migrants and students from Nepal, and Nepal an attractive destination for Australians.

Both our countries are characterized by ethnic and cultural diversity, friendliness, a love of good food and the great outdoors, a federal system of government, an appreciation of community, and concern for the environment.

The Nepali community in Australia is making a valued contribution in all sectors –business, government, academia, health and community services, and many others. Nepalis are highly regarded members of Australia’s diverse, multicultural society.

I look forward to the reinvigoration of people-to-people linkages and two-way exchanges once international borders open fully. These exchanges lead to greater understanding and affection between countries, qualities that are already the bedrock of the Nepal-Australia bilateral relationship.

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