Maria Otero has been the US Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs since August 2009 and oversees a range of foreign policy issues including human rights, law enforcement, security forces, trafficking of persons, water resources, disaster preparedness and counter-terrorism. As President Obama’s Special Representative for Tibetan Issues, she also coordinates humanitarian and human rights issues related to Tibetan refugees. Prior to working with the US Department of State, Otero was the president and CEO of ACCION International, a
non-profit that works in developing countries on economic development through micro-finance. Of Bolivian heritage, Otero is the first Latina Under Secretary in US history. She was recently on a visit to Nepal, where she held talks with Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, officials from the Foreign Ministry, as well as a wide range of stakeholders in the areas of human trafficking and humanitarian issues. The Post’s Ayushma Regmi spoke with Otero about her visit to Nepal as well as her wider responsibilities. Excerpts:
How fruitful has your trip to Nepal been?
My meeting with Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai provided an opportunity for us to reaffirm the relationship between our two countries and the importance we give to that. But it was also an opportunity for me to continue urging the government to be able to advance in areas that are so important for Nepal, such as finalising the constitution. It has also been an opportunity to show our support to the importance of putting in place the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Comm-ission), which in many countries has been an important transition for moving a country from conflict to democracy. I also met with representatives from the government, civil society, the NGO sector as well as private sector individuals during my brief stay here.
After the US election, you are here in Nepal after visiting Bangladesh, with US President Obama on a parallel trip to Myanmar.
Does your visit have a political goal as well?
I travel every week to cover these issues and in some cases, they are relevant to President Obama’s trip. In this case, especially the issue of the Rohingyas as they are refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh. So it’s been helpful for me to visit refugee camps in Bangladesh, understand the refugee situation as well as the opinion of the nation to ensure these issues are understood when the president visits Myanmar. This isn’t, however, a coordinated visit to merely serve the objectives of a president’s visit. I would come and do this in any case.
How was your experience working for over two decades in the micro-finance sector in over 25 developing countries prior to joining the US government?
I’ve worked for 25 years in micro-finance and it helped me understand the importance of providing economic opportunities to some of the low income people, especially among a populace that doesn’t have skills, education or networks. Women are a crucial target as they form the majority of the poor. This has been my understanding of economic empowerment—it is one very important tool to enable citizens to participate in their society. How does this tie in with what you do now?
My job now is to understand far better what it is that a government has to do in areas additional to economic empowerment to create the institutions, laws, enforcement, and principles of democracy and human rights that then allow for societies to prosper. It is equally important to allow people to have the full expression of freedom that we deserve as individuals. So I would say that economic empowerment and the importance of strengthening and building a strong democracy are the two pieces that then allow citizens to be able to live better lives and participate in their society.
What are the common chall-enges that you see in nations undergoing this transformation?
I see a definitive role that governments have to play to make their democracies stronger. Being a democratic country means that you are always trying to make your democracy better. In the US, this is absolutely the case. It’s not by any means a perfect democracy. If you’d go back a few years—not even too many years—you’d know that the people of African descent could not vote. You go back a little further, and you see women couldn’t vote. So we have progressed, we have advanced in addressing these issues. So there is constant effort need to be able to improve a democracy. And that’s where the biggest challenges lie. How are governments playing their role of making sure that their institutions—judicial institutions, institutions comprising elected members such as the parliament, those that enable civil society to participate—are not only respected, but promoted and supported? It is here that we find repression and shortcomings.
What would you say about Nepal in this case?
In your own country, you have elections, which is the first step towards a democratic process. It is very important to make sure that you have free, fair, credible and transparent elections where everybody, can participate because this is the first process you start after becoming a democracy. That is why it’s important to encourage the government to carry out the elections well as it will be the first step in being able to put in place all other areas.
Do you think Nepal has handled the post-conflict transformations well?
I think your government has undertaken some very serious challenges that are not easy to take on when you move from conflict to peace to reconciliation to democracy. There are several complex, difficult issues that have been developing for many years. It will take some time to develop them in a positive way, and there have been some advances that have taken place. But also, there are some pieces now that are not moving fast enough and that requires more decisions, and a sincere commitment, on the part of the government. The direction the government is going in, however, is a positive one which we support and want to be able to continue giving support to.
You are also involved with the recently initiated ‘Youth Livelihood Alliance’ by the US government. How does that help?
You are raising a broader issue of what we are trying to do with the youth. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said two things; one is that we must empower women if countries want to improve their situation; the other is that we must listen to the youth and work on improving their situation. To tackle the issue of youth, she has now created a global youth office, and is encouraging all of the embassies to work closely with youth. The embassy here in Nepal has a youth advisory council where young Nepalis come and provide their understanding and inputs on the situation of youth. This is an important exchange. In all of that, the economic opportunities for young people is the most important objective around the world, not just here. Because the youth population is so high—there are some countries with over 60 percent of their population that is younger than 25 years of age. I don’t think it’s quite that much in Nepal [ed: it is], but it means that you have to give opportunities for people to be able to work.
How will the youth alliance help create jobs for youngsters?
The alliance is looking to involve the private sector so that it can provide training and resources and can also place younger people in some of their employment opportunities.
It is one way in which the US government can create incentives to let the private sector work in this area in a number of different countries. Although we launched the programme in Washington on October 2, it is really through the embassies that this work will take place.
What projects are you planning specifically for Nepal?
We haven’t put forth a lot of resources for the alliance as yet. USAID, our development assistance arm, provides some resources and programmes of this sort and they will continue to do so. Our additional resources are going into some other areas. We are focusing on funding on trafficking, which is also related to young people as it empowers them and trains them such that they can move away from being sexually trafficked. There are also programmes that we are working on related to health and food security. These are areas that we are working strongly in Nepal.
Posted on: 2012-11-26 09:33