Nepal has done an excellent job improving its human development index. Nevertheless, there is still much left to do in terms of inequality now that 16.7% of the country’s almost 30 million population live below the poverty line, Ayshanie Medagangoda-Labé, the Resident Representative (RR) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Nepal said in an exclusive interview with DevelopmentAid journalist for South Asia, Laxman Datt Pant. This, she noted, makes poverty reduction the top priority of UNDP not only in Nepal but also all over the world.
Appointed as head of UNDP Nepal on April 11, 2019, just 10 months prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, during the interview, Ayshanie Medagangoda-Labé expanded on how the activities and resources of the office had been repurposed to serve Nepal during the pandemic, pointed out the need to speed up a national vaccination campaign, focused on the approaches needed to reset Nepal’s economy in the post-pandemic era and discussed how the Government of Nepal (GoN) could be helped to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
DevelopmentAid: It has been more than two years since you joined UNDP Nepal as RR, what is your assessment of Nepal’s development process?
UNDP Nepal RR: I think I should start with what UNDP advocates and through which we view any country in the world, that is, in terms of sustainable human development. Last December, we marked 30 years of Human Development Report (HDR). Between 1990 and 2019, Nepal’s Human Development Index Value (HDI) took a big step in the sense that it increased from 0.387 to 0.602, approximately 56%.
Development does not happen overnight. We need to keep it up and continuing in a speedier way than planned. If you look at it from the same dimensions, that is, health, education, and living standards and if you bring it across the populations, inequality is still there. I think there are still some barriers that prevent equal gains and development. Last year, Nepal presented its National Voluntary review of the SDGs which showed that 16.7% of Nepalese were below the national poverty line which is around below 100 rupees (US$1) a day. This is why we need to focus on poverty eradication at the center of the development process. For UNDP, poverty reduction remains a top priority and it is SDG 1 and there is no doubt that it remains the most important focus for us not only in Nepal but everywhere across the world. Globally, UNDP expects by 2025 to help to empower 100 million poor, marginalized, and excluded populations to escape persistent multidimensional poverty. Aligned to this, UNDP Nepal will also prioritize this in our action.
DevelopmentAid: How can Nepal end the inequality that exists in various forms?
UNDP Nepal RR: Nepal has policies, plans, and a budget in place. It is important to think about transforming these plans and visions into concrete actions. For this, you need people who can carry out this transformation. Operational actions are required to execute these plans and policies. The whole of society and the whole of government approach should be brought into the development. We need to ensure that the pace of execution is at the same level as the policies, strategies, and budgets that we are putting in place.
We all need to be very careful how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts any achievements. Some suggest that there will be 3 to 4% more poor, those who are just above the poverty line falling further down the ladder. All the development partners in Nepal must definitely take care of those people below the poverty line, half of whom are women and their stories are untold.
DevelopmentAid: What are the major challenges you think Nepal should tackle as a priority?
UNDP Nepal RR: The vision is set out, it is there. The fifteenth National Plan of Nepal addresses and prioritizes almost all the issues concerning development. It covers income, young people, human capital potential, infrastructure development, connectivity, production and productivity, wellbeing, a just society, health, the environment, security, democracy, dignity, and unity.
Now, if you look at the income levels during the pandemic, they are going down. A survey commissioned this time last year by the UNDP revealed that 1.62 million people had lost their income and today that number is definitely higher. It has affected human capital potential and infrastructure connectivity particularly for daily wage workers in the construction sector. As we speak, there have been more than 9,000 deaths due to COVID-19 and 600,000 infections. Some 2.5 million people have had a first dose of the vaccine. This means we still have to do more in terms of wellbeing, decent life, and health. But, when Nepal does make a decision, it does so very quickly and gets results. In March 2020 Nepal had only one lab to do PCR tests and today there are 96 labs across the country. This shows that where there is a will, there is a way. We started with masks and sanitizers and today we are proceeding with oxygen concentrators, oxygen plants, and vaccines.
Also, relief and livelihood should go side by side. People working in the informal sector need support from the government, such as social security and this is crucial for marginalized people.
DevelopmentAid: It’s been about a year and a half year since COVID-19 struck Nepal. Looking back, what have been the major highlights of UNDP’s work, particularly in recovery? What worked well and what did not?
UNDP Nepal RR: I am very happy that we are here speaking to each other. We have survived the pandemic, and the chances were high that we may not have survived it. For me, it is extremely important that we managed to adjust ourselves to the realities on the ground and managed to put in place the duty of care required for us to survive and for us to serve the rest of the communities.
We managed our business continuity, we didn’t close our offices, and we worked on adopting different mechanisms, basically digital innovations and technologies. We also managed to quickly give access to these digital technologies (Zoom) to 753 municipal governments and some federal ministries of Nepal. With us, our partners also went digital which I consider to be a huge leap.
We also repurposed our resources. Normally, UNDP does not undertake any work in the health arena, it is WHO, it is UNICEF, and UNFPA that do this. During this crisis, UNDP joined with them and temporarily moved away from our governance, environment, climate, gender equality, and social inclusion and livelihood activities towards Health First. We turned around to see how our resources for 2021 and 2022 could immediately be repurposed to buy medical items and equipment.
Side by side, we also worked with provincial and local governments. In Sudurpashchim province, we worked with migrant workers who were returning and in need of support. We worked with other sister agencies to take care of the special needs of women and girls and people with a disability. To save livelihoods, we introduced agri-ambulances to support and protect produce and help farmers to earn some income.
Cases of mental stress, domestic violence, and suicide are on the rise due to COVID-19. The suicide rate jumped 16% last year with mostly young people taking their lives. UNDP managed to look after the social cohesion environment and provided legal aid, particularly pro bono legal aid, in domestic violence cases through its Access to Justice Project.
DevelopmentAid: Has COVID-19 affected Nepal’s development ambitions including the SDGs? Does this require Nepal to revisit its development plan?
UNDP Nepal RR: The fifteenth National Plan of Nepal remains the roadmap to development. Everything I mentioned earlier including income, human capital potential, infrastructure development, wellbeing, health, the environment, and security is still valid as is the way they are going to be prioritized, although not all at the same time as that would involve revisiting certain areas. When it comes to SDGs, some are more relevant and important, but development issues are all interconnected.
Now, the issue is that Nepal’s growth is falling because of the pandemic, as in any other country. With migrant workers returning, remittances will be going down and tourists will be hesitant to visit. Nepal was very good at collecting taxes at one time and then reutilizing this for social and economic spending, funding projects, plans, and the wellbeing of the people. So, I think it’s in a way a kind of reorienting, readjusting, and prioritizing.
The virus is the biggest cause for speculation in terms of what impact it will have going forward for the next couple of months because, in order to generate revenue and collect taxes, we have to continue business and normal activities. There are many externalities that could impact this work. Carefully balancing the opening of businesses with prohibitory orders, trying and crying out loud to get vaccines, sourcing vaccines, and inoculating people in an equitable way, without discrimination, are very important elements to getting back to normal. The international community needs to stand in solidarity with Nepal to ensure vaccine equity. Ambitions should remain, SDGs are still relevant, reducing poverty, hunger and ensuring food security are important because Nepal is climate vulnerable. We saw huge landslides last week. Importantly, all these issues are interconnected.
Different ministries and development partners and the UN should work together more cohesively to bring policy coherence and to achieve the common goal by supporting activities between each other.
DevelopmentAid: What should Nepal’s recovery strategy be for the most affected areas?
UNDP Nepal RR: Nepal already has existing programs for employment, civil works, and women empowerment. And, it is easier to use and expand these existing programs, refine and add quality to them rather than starting new programs which require a lot of time and energy, particularly in times of pandemic or crisis.
More than 95% of Nepal’s private sector businesses are MSMEs and they have been greatly affected. The cash transfer facility can offer them a quick source of income.
In terms of migrant workers, we need to have clear strategies to negotiate with the recipient countries in order to increase employment in a short period of time. For tourism, it is time to invest and prepare for sustainability. According to UNICEF, some 8.1 million students were out of school last year for at least five to six months and this year around three months. This is Nepal’s future generation; it is the duty of everyone to preserve these years of youth, make plans to preserve the learning culture without putting a burden on families. The resilience strategies should use technology to respond to this issue.
DevelopmentAid: COVID-19 has opened everyone’s eyes to the possibility of a green recovery. What are your thoughts on this?
UNDP Nepal RR: Nature is the only space that can provide us with opportunities to recover. Nature is still very generous with us and opens up so many opportunities for us. Any recovery strategy that does not look into this will miss a great deal. ADB, EU, ICIMOD, the Swiss, the UK, and the UN system including UNDP and the World Bank, have come together to propose a green inclusive development action plan (GRID), a framework through which everyone looks at how to support the GoN to think differently.
The government has also made new promises about how it is going to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and secure zero emissions by 2050. The sectors involved in this include agriculture, transport, energy, forestation among others. Through this GRID framework, development partners are trying to see where they can invest, where they can push the younger generation and how countries can learn from each other so that recovery strategies become more inclusive and greener friendly.
DevelopmentAid: What measures have you taken to ensure that aspects of gender equality and social inclusion are considered when investing in recovery programs?
UNDP Nepal RR: Gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) is at the center of UNDP’s activities. We ensure that the aspirations of these groups are addressed as much as possible. Also, while working with the government and other entities at various levels, we instill in their mindset that GESI must be included in their programming, planning, and budgeting.
When it comes to programmatic approaches, we are supporting initiatives such as green recovery programs and the Micro-Enterprise Development Programme for Poverty Alleviation (MEDPA), a two-decade-old program that has resulted in thousands of women having not only basically managed to overcome their economic hardships but has also influenced their decision-making levels by enabling them to be elected as representatives of municipal and provincial governments. We are working with the National Federation of the Disabled-Nepal to make sure that disability is part of the planning process. We have a special program, the Provincial and Local Governance Support Programme (PLGSP), through which we are trying to address some of these issues. With UN Women, we are trying to introduce a basic income for women, particularly in the pandemic situation, for three to six months.
DevelopmentAid: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers that we haven’t covered?
UNDP Nepal RR: I would like to thank DevelopmentAid for providing this opportunity to share UNDP’s work in Nepal. We all are equally affected by the crisis, but differently. It is an opportunity for us to think differently, renovate, reengage and reconnect particularly with nature and the alternative ways of engagement for social and economic development.