During the early 2000s, I had the opportunity to listen to a Nepalese UN official give a talk at the UN building in New York, during an occasion which I now can’t remember. I remember my initial feeling on being invited was one of low expectation—I thought it would be the usual Nepali official sent by a political party, without a great deal of education, who would waffle through a rambling, self-congratulatory talk, taking up an hour of my time. I went, nevertheless.
Standing in front was a tiny Nepali man, speaking in accented but flawless English, who talked about the rights of children with such authority and conviction he could have held his own with the highest UN leaders. I was blown away. Who was this man? Where did he come from? Clearly, he hadn’t been educated in the dirty, corrupt trenches of old style Nepali politics, but in far more rarified environments, where education was taken seriously, and where duty and responsibility rang with the clarity of a bell.
And, this year, with the publication of Global Citizen from Gulmi, I had the opportunity to find out. Unlike Shashi Tharoor, India’s equivalent, who ended up in the third highest post possible in the UN system, and who has received far greater acclaim and publicity, but who ended up losing the race to be Secretary-General, Nepal’s Kul Chandra Gautam hasn’t had the same level of mass publicity and public visibility. And yet, when you read his autobiography, which was published in 2018, you can see his achievements were greater in so many senses of the word. Humility and discretion, as well as a straight dose of pragmatism, overlay the stories he tells, but that cannot hide the arc of a glorious career that started in the impoverished hills of Nepal.
He begins with his birth as a small and underweight baby who underwent several near-death experiences, and whose chances of survival his relatives despaired about. The astrologers, however, thought he might grow up to be a Bada Hakim, an exalted position during that era. His religious Brahmin grandfather sent him to Benaras to study Sanskrit and theology. While there, he had little money and survived on free khichadi distributed as prasad (consecrated food offerings) to volunteers who helped with food preparation at the temple, and peas he would steal from fields he walked miles to reach during holidays in which the kitchen was closed.
His story is the story of the triumph of education, in many ways. A step-uncle from Kathmandu fortuitously suggests he study in the English system, since that was the new education sweeping Nepal after the fall of the Rana regime. His father agrees and sends him to Kathmandu. After a few years in the harsh winters of Kathmandu, he is again moved to Tansen, in Palpa, to study. By the time he is in 8th grade, he’s finished most of the books in the library written by renowned Nepali authors. The Peace Corp Volunteers he meets at this school are central to his development—not only do they teach him Scrabble, but they later act as mentors when he decides he wants to apply to the U.S.A., eventually leading to a full scholarship at Dartmouth College.
The importance of education, and how it shaped his life’s trajectory, is clear in the numerous accounts of influential teachers and mentors who shaped and molded him. He pays them due respect after retirement by building memorials in their names. It appears to me that the early education he received in Sanskrit also stood him in very good stead, because a strong grounding in grammar and vocabulary becomes the foundation from which all other forms of knowledge can grow.
His career in the UN also reads like a whirlwind tour of the most extreme world events that occurred in the last century. I expected a dry UN book, but much of the early chapters read like Nepal’s version of “Around the World in 80 Days.” Immediately after graduating from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, he is asked by UNICEF to go and negotiate to start the first UNICEF office in Cambodia. Mr. Gautam is only twenty-four. This is in 1973, just before Cambodia is about to fall to the Khmer Rouge. He is eventually evacuated by the British. It is interesting to read, in hindsight, how the international community in Cambodia failed to read the threat of the Khmer Rouge, thinking that it was a better alternative to the corrupt Lon Nol regime. Sihanouk had thrown his weight behind the Khmer Rouge, because they opposed his enemies from the Lon Nol side. The expatriates perhaps followed the suave French-speaking ruler without thinking too much about the future consequences, with tragic results.
He then goes to Indonesia, a hotbed of social development, where he gets to test his theoretical knowledge. He works on programs that provide non-formal education to those without formal schooling. He also works to “deformalize” primary education to make it accessible to poor children, especially girls. He points out that this was the precursor of the “child-friendly” schools of today. You can see these kinds of examples of early intervention, which later turn out to be hot-button social change, methods throughout his book.
In Indonesia, he also learns the Javanese concept of power. In Javanese society, powerful people are gentle, humble, and refined, in a manner known as halus. The opposite is kasar—crude, rough, direct, and unrefined. Surely, Mr. Gautam adopted this norm to his own personality, because one suspects that only by being gentle, humble, and refined can people reach to the highest level of an international organization of the stature of the UN.
After Indonesia, they move to Laos, where Mr. Gautam realizes that to be associated with Western powers give him less access to the local culture and people. In a move of great pragmatism, he adjusts accordingly, inviting Russians, Cubans, and East Germans to his house when he invited the Laotian officials. Slowly, he wins their trust. When the UN staff’s salary is siphoned off by the government, Mr. Gautam institutes a program where the staff receive in-kind payment of rice, oil, sugar, and salt. Interestingly, these are the very same four food items his villagers lack in his childhood, and which they have to travel days to Butwal to buy. There are many instances in which the difficult circumstances of his own early life influence his policy decisions and make him a better leader. As he writes proudly, this was the first country where the UN manages to find a solution to hyperinflation and food shortage faced by the staff.
He is critical of authoritarian Suharto, as he is of the other dictators he has to meet later and shake hands with. In Albania, he sleeps in the spooky building (and perhaps the same bed) where Enver Hoxha, brutal dictator, once slept and lived. Dictator Baby Doc in Haiti leaves him feeling dirty after the handshake, wanting to wash his hands. But, on the very same day, he has also shaken the Pope’s hand, and felt uplifted by his message for change. These contrasts and moral ambiguities of working for a system as diverse as the UN are palpable. Mr. Gautam doesn’t hide the moments of moral dilemmas; there are moments in which heads-of-state are corrupt and evil, but as someone entrusted with duty and responsibility, he finds ways to deal with these moments.
Also entertaining are the moments when he does make embarrassing mistakes, which he shares with candor. Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet Minister, puts him in an embarrassing position in Georgia by claiming that the UN has offered him a consultant position, although Mr. Gautam is only paying him a courtesy visit out of respect. Mr. Gautam shares this episode, which could have been a major diplomatic blunder if done by a less experienced UN official, with such transparency it’s hard to fault him for visiting an alcoholic ex-foreign minister of the Soviet Union.
There are also other happier moments with world leaders. He sees Mandala happily mixing with diplomats and children alike, with not many security guards in sight, in South Africa. He gets to meet President Betancourt of Columbia in 2000, and pays his respect. While visiting Columbia in 1985, he’s seen the President on TV talking about the armed guerrillas who’ve just stormed and destroyed the Place of Justice building, and killed half the judges. “The guerrillas too are our children,” the President had said.
In India, he’s escorted to Mother Teresa’s coffin, where he is able to pay his last respects, when Sister Nirmala recognizes him as a fellow Nepali. In Puri, he’s escorted to the sanctum sanctorum of the Jaganath Temple, when the temple officials realize he’s an UN official of high rank from Nepal. These gateways that open for him are symbolically very important—perhaps as important for someone in the subcontinent as getting the topmost position may be for people of developed countries.
In his Haiti chapter, he recollects how he worked with UNICEF to set up the oral rehydration therapy campaign in Haiti. After two years, 80% of the respondents in the poorest slums of Port Au Prince knew about ORT, whereas only 4% knew about it before the program was started. It’s impossible not to think of the Nepalese peacekeepers who set off a deadly cholera epidemic by building toilets with poor sanitation in Haiti a few decades later. Both actors were Nepalese. The only difference is that, one had dedicated his early life to educating himself and this education had given him the capacity to uplift the lives of other people, while the second group had never received that knowledge and could only destroy the work of the first.
En route to Cambodia, he marries Binata Dahal. Binata is only 17 years old and has just finished high school. Reading the book, as Mr. Gautam moves through world capitals shaking hands with dictators and revolutionaries, popes and heads-of-state, one can’t but wonder how his wife may have experienced all of these swiftly changing landscapes of history. What did Binata think when the bombs started to fall in Phonm Pehn, and she had to be evacuated, leaving her husband behind as the conflict deepened?
It has always been a regret of mine that so many Nepalis lead such adventurous lives in conflict areas and areas where history is being made, and yet none of their stories have been told. Unlike British and Americans, who have thousands and thousands of books about people who have experienced the same events, the experiences of Nepalis die with them. So, it was with a bit of glee that I read this book, because it feels that finally we had one man with the language and analytical skills necessary to write down his experiences for posterity. But, in the book, you can still feel the gaps and omissions, including the silence of his wife. Her female perspective on international relations, as she accompanied her husband on his illustrious career and enabled him to work fulltime while she took care of the home and family, will never be known. We do get a fascinating anecdote in which Binata is put into a ridiculously expensive costume that makes her “look like a clown” by a well-meaning Haitian colleague, who decides her sari is not good enough for the formal occasion of meeting the Pope. No doubt there are many such stories. But sadly, she may not have the education necessary to write a book, or even if she did, Nepali society would deem her stories not important enough to hear.
A fascinating chapter on Latin America follows. Mr. Gautam recollects the time he took off to Latin America to hitch-hike with a friend. He gets off at a small village in Columbia. The two friends separate and agree to meet back after two weeks. He later visits Ecuador and watches revolutionaries coach farmers to join their movements. Then, he travels to Peru, little knowing that the Shining Path’s methodology would soon influence the revolutionaries of his own country Nepal in a few decades. These wanderings stand him in good stead when he is appointed chief of Latin America and the Caribbean in UNICEF HQ's Programme Division in 1986. It was very unusual to have an Asian head the LAC division, so Mr. Gautam faces a big challenge. During the early 80s, Latin American countries were defaulting on their debts, and the economies were doing poorly. There was pressure to shift more money to Latin America, but Mr. Gautam decided that, pitting children of Africa and Asia against those of Latin American countries didn’t make sense. He proposed a special adjustment facility (SAFLAC) for Latin America, and designed an innovative debt relief for children, supported by private banks in Honduras and Jamaica.
This pragmatism, of a man making decisions based on rationality and un-swayed by emotion, is also found later, when Carol Bellamy shifts a large portion of the budget to sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Gautam realizes that simply raising the funding level of countries in sub-Saharan Africa and those severely affected by conflict by 55% would not achieve the target goal. He writes to Bellamy and points out that UNICEF’s place at the table is contingent upon the funding it puts into each country with children in poverty, and that it is necessary to continue putting this minimum threshold in each country in order to have a say in policy. As Deputy Executive Director, he continues this policy of strengthening advocacy in Africa, while not weakening UNICEF’s presence in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Central European countries. One could pinpoint this sort of rational allocation of limited resources to all concerned parties as social intelligence acquired from his Nepali background: unlike Western actors, who tend to view poverty as something to be resolved by large amounts of charity, Asians in general come from a background where limited resources have to be distributed daily to many different actors. The UN, to use a festive metaphor, is rather like a large extended Nepali family, in which every actor deserves a small piece of mutton during Dashain!
The adventurous tempo of the book lessens somewhat once Mr. Gautam moves to the UN HQ in New York. The most interesting aspect of this phase of his life is the working relationship with Jim Grant, head of UNICEF, with whom he works exceptionally well. Jim Grant provided him with solid support, and it is clear Mr. Gautam’s rise to the topmost levels of leadership would not have been possible without Grant’s mentorship. In HQ, he’s not dealing with the Khmer Rouge or Agent Orange. He is working to persuade 71 world leaders to show up at 6:30 a.m. at the UN, so the US president can arrive by 9: 45 a.m. The logistics of a large scale international conference take on an unwitting fascination, as we hear how Margaret Thatcher agrees to conduct her bilateral meeting with world leaders at a 6:30 a.m. breakfast. It is advertised as “Breakfast with Maggie”, and soon, the organizers have no trouble getting leaders to arrive early.
The Second Summit for Children becomes mired in negotiations of what should and shouldn’t go into the draft of the World Fit for Children, with the Vatican and pro-lifers pitted against the liberals. One can sense Mr. Gautam’s frustrations here with the deadlocks, as each side hunkers down with its own position. The Holy See and pro-lifers doesn’t like the word “services” being juxtaposed next to “reproductive health.” The U.S.A. insists abstinence is the primary strategy for dealing with adolescent sexuality. It is with a great deal of patience that Mr. Gautam deals with both sides, leading to a compromise (which some may read as a watered-down version, but after reading the chapter, you will agree that any other way would have meant sinking the document.)
We also learn the U.S.A. objects to a whole range of provisions in the draft, including opposition to the abolition of corporeal punishment and the death penalty for children, on which issue the U.S.A. is joined by several Islamic countries, Singaore, Libya, and Australia! The U.S. officials also categorically reject the “rights-based” approach and say the U.S.A. doesn’t accept the obligations based on the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
It is no surprise when the UNICEF head and feminist liberal Carol Bellamy later sends Mr. Gautam to interface with the Holy See—while clearly someone with liberal views, he’s also un-abrasive and pragmatic enough to deal with a powerful institution like the Vatican without riling up sensibilities. It is perhaps this ability to interface with different actors, and to engage with them without rubbing any of them the wrong way, which characterizes his diplomacy, and which eventually takes him to the position of Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and the Assistant Secretary General of the UN.
In 2003, Mr. Gautam goes to Kyrgyzstan and asks the children who they would like to see as a goodwill ambassador. He thinks perhaps they will say Mandela or Gorbachev or the Pope. He is stunned when they say Shakira. He has no idea who Shakira is. This is perhaps the moment when we, as readers, realize retirement is close. Eventually, he does chose Shakira to be Goodwill Ambassador.
Perhaps the chapter I felt most unnecessary was, “Religions for Good and Bad”. It seems arbitrary and somewhat preachy, and could have been better integrated into the description of the visit with the Pope, for instance.
In “Nepal in My Heart and Mind,” we learn that journalist Aditya Adhikari once called him an “extremist” because Mr. Gautam suggested to Ban Ki Moon that he postpone an ill-timed conference set up by Maoist leader Prachanda. If there is one thing that we learn from this book, it is that the writer is an extremely moderate man!
This chapter also describes Mr. Gautam’s hard-fought fight to become President of the UN General Assembly, and how Nepal’s UN Ambassador, Mr. Gyan Chandra Acharya, ends up not supporting his candidacy. Qatar wins in a tight race with Nepal. There’s an interesting description of the “checkbook diplomacy” practiced by states like Qatar and China, in which the small Pacific states are lavished with money and infrastructure in order to get their votes in the UN system. We are left wondering if Mr. Acharya also received some of Qatar’s largesse.
Mr. Gautam ends with his vision for a prosperous and equitable Nepal, which includes this profound line: “Instead of flaunting personal wealth and decadent luxury, I hope all Nepalis will enjoy living comfortably in harmony with nature, their material comfort complementing their spiritual fulfillment.”
In the very last chapter, “My Dream World,” Mr. Gautam talks candidly about the need for greater democracy in China, and about his vision for a Commonwealth of South Asia, which would be akin to the European Union. He also talks about a closer partnership with the UN and World Bank. He discusses ways to reform the financing model of the UN, including the Olof Palme Proposal. This proposal envisions a model in which richer and middle-income states would contribute to the UN budget, decreasing the U.S.A.’s 22% contribution, thereby allowing more states to have a say in the working of the UN by capping the limit of the biggest contributors.
There are moments in the book where a reader feels Mr. Gautam, caught up in events, is taking a larger share of credit for work than he deserves. For instance, the large-scale movement to stop bandhs in Nepal started out as a social media campaign spearheaded by Ujjwal Thapa of Bibeksheel Nepali. For a reader like me, for whom social media is a daily presence, and who observed the organic way in which the campaign started, it feels Mr. Gautam is being blindsided by the scale of his contribution to ending bandhs in Nepal. On the other hand, it feels like he’s not seeing how he’s contributed very generously to other aspects of social change, including the universal vaccination rates in Nepal, which is in contrast to what’s going in other South Asian states. It seems to me he must have had a major impact in creating an atmosphere conducive to vaccinations, as well as lowering the maternal mortality rates, in Nepal through his educated views and public presence at UNICEF. Perhaps it is always hard to say where the “I” ends and the “we” begins when one is caught up in the process of large-scale events. But it is clear that, throughout his career, Mr. Gautam has been engaged in both the “I” and the “we” aspects of collective change.
I enjoyed reading this book, not only because it captures almost half a century of historical revolutions, as well as deeply humane and entertaining moments with people in high places, but also because it is steeped in the deep commitment of the writer towards social change. Mr. Gautam is an outlier who worked his way towards the topmost ranks of the UN, and his story is an inspiration not just for people of Nepal, but also to those of all developing countries. I hope this book is widely read both inside and outside Nepal.