Soon after my arrival as acting permanent representative (PR) to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva, I went to Bern to meet Prof. Arnold Koller, then president of Switzerland who was visiting Nepal on one of the first ever state visits of the Swiss head of state. I briefed him on Nepal and he shared his interests and impressions.
After the meeting I had almost reached the other end of the long corridor of the Federal Palace when I heard someone calling me. I turned back and saw the president’s aide coming to call me back in. As I entered the president’s chamber once again, he opened the curtains of his window and said, “I forgot to show you Jung Frau, one of the most beautiful of the Swiss Alps. Of course, it is not as high as your Himalayas and I am waiting to see them”. I thanked the President for his gesture and added “although in two continents, the Alps and the Himalayas bring Nepal and Switzerland close”.
Nepal is the first country to receive Swiss foreign aid and today Switzerland is one of the main contributors to Nepal’s development. Tibetan carpets, cheese and suspension bridges are some lasting reminders of Swiss-Nepal cooperation. The financial and technical assistance, bilateral trade and large number of tourists from Switzerland are results of the tremendous goodwill at both government and the people’s level.
In international relations, the developed world is seen as extending economic and technical assistance with the LDCs as recipients. My role as PR to the UN and ambassador to Switzerland was different. The Swiss PR Francoise Nordmann once called on me to say “Switzerland has a candidate for one of the special rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights (CHR). My government requests you to consider his case”. President Adolf Ogi and Dr. Walter Fust, Head of the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) also made the request when we met. As chairman, it was ultimately my responsibility to appointment Special Rapporteurs. Nepal-Switzerland friendship and Swiss entry to the UN were important considerations that led me to appoint Jean Ziegler as the special rapporteur on the Right to Food from a list of candidates. Swiss Ambassador Pierre Louis Girard chaired the working party on Nepal’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and helped make Nepal the first LDC to join the WTO.
Nepal and Switzerland are lands of unmatched natural beauty and hard working people landlocked between large neighbors. However, nature has been more generous to Nepal. Despite nature’s bounty and other similarities, why is it that Nepal is in a mess whereas Switzerland has evolved into a garden of peace and prosperity?
History and geography partly explain why societies with similar physical features achieve different levels of development within the same time span. Today, unprecedented access to knowledge and information allow societies to learn and leapfrog avoiding many of the problems experienced by others in the past. My experience has convinced me that if there are lessons societies could learn from one another, the Swiss experience is one of the most fitting for Nepal.
Democracy and institutions: From their old confederacy in 1291, the Helvetic nation-state of 1648 to the federal constitution of 1848, the Swiss wisely used democracy to manage their ethnic, regional and linguistic diversity. Strong democratic institutions preserved the right of the people and helped attain prosperity and security. Unity among the people and loyalty to the nation-state was inculcated by balancing self rule and shared rule.
Transparent, accountable and devolved system of governance: The Swiss Federation is a voluntary accession of independent cantons. Cantons retain a high degree of autonomy, with power moving upward to the federal and downward to the municipal (commune) levels with highly devolved, transparent and accountable governance.
Rights with responsibilities: Rule of law is deeply rooted in Swiss society. With rights guaranteed, individuals feel the responsibility of obeying and enforcing the law. Compulsory military training must have helped the society evolve as fiercely democratic but highly disciplined.
Practical politics, economics and education: Absence of extravagant ceremonies and lifestyles is a striking feature of Swiss society. The Cabinet is composed of seven state councilors (ministers) elected by the Parliament with the state chancellor appointed according to a formula. One of the seven state councilors is elected president (head of state) and one is made vice president for one year, retaining their ministerial portfolio and returning to it after their one year term. At a time when political power takes to ‘larger than life’ self-aggrandizements, simplicity is truly refreshing – the president going around in a bicycle without escorts and ministers walking in the streets or shopping malls carrying their own backpacks.
The Swiss economy combines growth and productivity with efficiency and equity. Service industries, tourism, banking, insurance, foreign investment are priorities. Chocolate and cheese using local raw materials and technology that is eco-friendly is of utmost importance. In the manufacturing sector, the emphasis is on low volume high value products. By concentrating on competitive advantages, the Swiss can generate revenue and employment. Technical, vocational and higher education is free and closely calibrated with the manpower needs of the economy and society.
Power sharing and coalition culture: Politics is quite divided with conservative Christian democrats on the right, centrist social democrats, and socialists and radical Communists on the left, with a number of other smaller parties. The Swiss have, however been successful in avoiding the pitfalls of the winner takes all politics by devising a system of sharing power and building consensus around their national interests. The system of managing diversity, power/resources sharing, minimizing rural-urban disparity and conflict resolution/coalition building is remarkable.
National interest: Swiss policy of active neutrality - friendship with all and hostility towards none - but willing and able to defend itself and when threatened, is well known. For a small country surrounded by big powers, implementing such a policy is possible only with clarity and consensus amongst all major political actors. This helped Switzerland stay out of the great wars in Europe, reaping the fruits of peace.
Though replicating the Swiss model completely in Nepal is both impractical and improbable, Nepal does have crucial lessons to learn from the Swiss experience for creating a peaceful and prosperous country by restructuring the present state and creating a more inclusive democracy. This, however, is possible only with a leadership of wisdom and courage that is capable of learning from our own history and the experiences of others.
The author is the first resident Ambassador of Nepal to Switzerland