What A Long, Strange Trip it’s Been

What A Long, Strange Trip it’s Been

Publication info


Twenty-eight years ago I spent six months living in Rishikesh, India, with a dozen fellow college students. We spent a semester living in an ashram and studying Buddhism, Hinduism and Gandhi. For spring break, we rented a school bus and drove across India and Nepal, visiting the sacred pilgrimage sites of Buddhism and listening to a lot of Beatles and Grateful Dead. This spring, on my first trip back to India and Nepal, I broadly retraced this path with a very different group – a CARE Learning Tour, including Senators Chris Coon (D-DE) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) – but minus the broken down school bus and Jerry Garcia. We focused on how U.S. foreign assistance has, and is, transforming people’s lives and supporting these vital nations in the ongoing work of democratic progress.

What a difference 28 years makes! The gorgeous colors, flavorful food, pungent aromas, and dynamic energy was all there – but most noticeable to me was the growth and advances in so many areas,  including business, trade, infrastructure, tourism and education. It’s astonishing.  India has seen ground-breaking economic growth, life expectancy has more than doubled, literacy rates have quadrupled, a sizeable middle class has emerged, and maternal mortality in India has fallen more than 68 percent since 1990. In Nepal, the percentage of people living in poverty was halved between 2003 and 2011, and the maternal mortality rate fell by 76 percent between 1996 and 2014. And you can tangibly see and feel the change.

The India and Nepal I visited last month are stronger, more resilient and hopeful countries. The desperate poverty and pervasive gender inequities I witnessed years ago are still present, but everywhere I went, I saw clear signs that, woman-by-woman, family-by-family, India and Nepal have traveled an enormous distance. And the United States has walked alongside these two countries each step of the way.

In India, we travelled to see a CARE project, funded by Gates, to support the Government of Bihar with providing quality health care to mothers and children. This is achieved by changing social norms, building ownership for health programs and unlocking the potential of both public and private sector providers. And the scale of the program is enormous – covering 38 districts of Bihar and involving 200,000 frontline workers with the goal of impacting over 10 million mothers and their babies by the end of this year. Training these frontline health workers and bringing quality health care services to the doorsteps of families has resulted in more women breastfeeding (from 39 percent to 59 percent), improving the health of their babies and receiving home health visits after delivery.

In Nepal, simply applying a commonly used antiseptic after the umbilical cord is cut, prevents newborn infections and has dropped mortality in newborn babies by as much as 34 percent.

While India and Nepal both have made impressive strides, both countries still struggle with high rates of poverty. A small investment here has enormous dividends – not only in human lives – but in the stability of communities and ultimately, in the stability of nations. Nepal just celebrated its first democratic elections in 20 years – with a 71 percent rate of voter participation and 50,000 candidates running for local office. We met one of these candidates – Nirmala – in a rural community in Nepal at a women’s empowerment program that receives funding from USAID. Nirmala described her journey from almost never leaving her home, to starting a small business, to leading a woman’s cooperative that is now making and selling plum candy and organic fertilizer as a way to generate income. To date, this program has impacted more than 4,000 women. As Nirmala told us about her personal journey of empowerment, she ended by declaring that she was running for office for the first time, one of the only women in her community to do so. While her election was not successful this time around, I know that her economic transformation and political participation is the kind of change that is a harbinger for a more stable and democratic nation, and will be a launching pad for her continued leadership and empowerment in her life and community.

As we witness so profoundly, India and Nepal are vital geopolitical allies. If we pull back from our partnerships and support – which the Trump Administration’s proposed FY18 budget dramatically does – we risk not only this progress, but we also risk our geopolitical position. Specifically, the administration’s budget proposal would cut overall development funding in half, slash international disaster assistance by 43 percent, and completely eliminate the leading U.S. food aid program. Furthermore, the administration has proposed terminating roughly 2,300 employees at the State Department and USAID, while eliminating the development assistance account that anchors U.S. investments to help the world’s poorest in their fight against extreme poverty. Simply put: decades of investments are on the line.

It is hard to imagine a stable world order in the absence of a strong, democratic India, or to think about what it would mean to lose all influence to China in a place like Nepal. Our catalytic investment here – as in so many other countries –  maintains the bonds of friendship and influence that are critical to the future stability and global leadership of our country. Nepal and India are also a microcosm of a larger cause-and-effect when it comes to American foreign assistance on a global scale.  For the United States, there is a direct and positive linkage between the growth of our aid and the growth of our trade with the nations we support.  At the same time, as American aid grows, we also see a corresponding decrease in political strife and conflict.

What decisions would the administration and our Congressional leaders make if they were able to travel forward in time and see the consequences? Our investments around international affairs need to be made with a quarter-century year time horizon. It is important that our leadership take a long view of relationships, of geo-politics, and certainly around climate change. How will we look back and justify our actions of today to our future selves, or more importantly our future children and grandchildren? American greatness is defined not within “tweeteable” time, but in generational time. And our security, our environment, and our humanity will be determined by the foresight of our decisions today.

I recently returned to India for the first time since I spent six months living there as a college student. What a difference 28 years makes! I also visited Nepal on this most recent trip. Both countries are stronger, more resilient and hopeful places three decades later.