Madhav Ghimire was a man of substance and grace, and we must remember him by celebrating a life devoted to Nepal.
About 20 years ago, while researching the impact of foreign aid on local collective action in Nepal, a trusted friend suggested I meet a civil servant who could be relied upon to be balanced and pragmatic about Nepal’s complicated relationship with development assistance.
My friend also cautioned me not to try to meet this person on a Saturday, which I thought was a bit odd as that was the day to catch government officials for candid conversation. It turned out Madhav Ghimire used his Saturdays to spend time with his ailing father, massaging and tending to him in the rented family home in Sanepa. Over time, I would learn that devotion was a central tenet of Madhav’s being, in both his private and his public life.
Back then, Madhav was head of the Foreign Aid Coordination Division of the Ministry of Finance. In those early years of our friendship, we argued the nuances of Nepal’s first foreign aid policy and the Nepal Development Forum. I spoke of the need to mind the letter of international covenants, while he insisted that the recipient country’s dignity must not suffer even under circumstances of dependence. For Madhav, a constructive balance had to be found between those would give and those who would receive. Indeed, his career was characterised by the motto of building together respectfully.
Madhav Ghimire moved quickly up the ranks during the years of conflict and, it is a testament to his broad acceptability that he was chosen from among well-respected peers to lead as Secretary the newly-established Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction. It was a fraught period in Nepal’s post-conflict history, with the need to navigate the shoals of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and rebuild a broken nation.
The appointment also marked the start of the most significant and tragically short period of Madhav’s life as a public figure. We all celebrated when he was appointed Chief Secretary in 2009, for no one came better prepared to oversee the deployment of Nepal’s public administration in service of its people. We had to make up for the developmental losses of the conflict years, and doing so in cordial partnership with the international community.
From his concern for gender-based violence as a binding constraint for social progress to his worries about inadequate preparation for administrative restructuring under the federal Constitution, Madhav the civil servant displayed the wisdom of a statesman.
From Madhav, I came to learn and appreciate the pragmatics of principled public administration, countenancing the demands of politicians and ministers while serving the public interest. Tried and tested as a civil servant through multiple administrations of every political colour, he emerged without blemish. With each appointment, he gained greater respect from the political class, the international community, and the general public.
Madhav’s retirement from the civil service was ever so brief – in a period of constitutional crisis after the collapse of the first Constituent Assembly, he was called upon to serve his country again, this time in the interim administration overseeing fresh elections for the second Constituent Assembly. He held both the foreign and home affairs portfolios and, as expected, conducted his work efficiently and without drama. He was accessible to anyone who was concerned with the Nepali people’s betterment. Madhav was a wise and sophisticated man who stayed close to his roots.
As Home Minister he ensured the seamless coordination of security and administration that made the peaceful conduct of the second Constituent Assembly elections possible. Everyone had expected state failure, and Madhav delivered against overwhelming odds.
Over the years, Madhav and I stayed in close touch, mainly interacting on public policy matters and related institutions and individuals. Recently, our meetings had become more frequent, and looking back, our conversations had taken on a reflective tone – about the two decades of tumult we had witnessed together in our beloved Nepal, about the forthcoming changes in governance, and about how we would all cope.
In our last meeting only a few days ago we lamented the perverseness that has come to represent governance and government in Nepal, where the demos no longer seem to matter, where self-interest trumps everything, and those who seek to serve are without support and direction. We also reassured each other about the commitment and goodness that remains, especially in the civil service.
Our last conversation was about how that goodness might be encouraged, protected and rewarded for the sake of Nepal’s future.
Madhav Ghimire was a man of substance and grace, and we must remember him by celebrating a life devoted to Nepal. There was so much more left in this true patriot to give to his country and people.
George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Nepal.
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