Children and Post-Millennium Development Goals in Nepal and the World
Keynote Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam at Round Table on Post-Millennium Development Goals and Children, Kathmandu, 26 July 2013
I commend the Government of Nepal, SOS Children’s Village and Action Aid Nepal for organizing this timely Round Table on Post-Millennium Development Goals and Children.
The United Nations is organizing a high-level event in New York on September 25, 2013 on the post-2015 global development agenda. The outcome of this round-table could, therefore, be useful for the Nepalese delegation attending the UN General Assembly, and for other advocates of child rights who aspire to influence the evolving national and global agenda for children.
The well-being of children has been at the very heart of the current Millennium Development Goals.
All eight MDGs and their indicators pertaining to reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; achieving universal primary education; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; ensuring environmental sustainability; eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; and forging a global partnership for development, are quite directly related to the survival, development and well-being of children.
Origins of Child-centric MDGs
The preponderance of so many child-centred MDGs did not happen by accident or coincidence. Some of us, particularly those working at UNICEF worked hard to influence and shape the MDGs. In this effort, we were greatly helped by the outcome of the historic 1990 World Summit for Children with its heavily goal-oriented approach.
The Summit for Children was the world’s truly first world summit and it set the tone for other Summits that followed in the 1990s, including the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992; the Cairo International Conference on Population and  Development in 1994 and the Social Summit in Copenhagen in 1995. All of these helped build the momentum towards the Millennium Summit in 2000.
As the cause of children is one that unites people and governments more than any other cause, and as the Summit for Children had been more systematically followed up and rigorously monitored than any other UN Summit of the 1990s, it was relatively easy for world leaders to agree on child-related goals as the backbone of the Millennium Development Goals.
Even in the follow-up of MDGs, the key instrument used for monitoring progress towards most of the goals is the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), devised by UNICEF and WHO to monitor the original goals of the Summit for Children.
We all hope that like MDGs, the post-2015 global development agenda too, will once again put children at its core.
However, the world’s development agenda has become more complex in the past two decades. Issues like climate change have emerged as major global challenges, and the rights-based approach to development calls for a more qualitative approach than the heavily quantitatively-oriented Summit for Children goals and MDGs with their focus on the most cost-effective, readily doable and measurable goals and targets.
Thus, we have seen a very broad agenda in “The World We Want” outcome document adopted by the Rio+20 Conference which is now a key reference point for the post-2015 development agenda. It would, therefore, be unrealistic for us to expect that the post-2015 goals, which are now being informally referred to as Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, will be so heavily child focused.
Yet, we do want to see that all the key issues concerning the survival, development, protection and participation of children will figure prominently in the SDGs. After all, while many things in the world change with the times, the yearning of all human beings to see a world that is fit for their children and future generations, remains timeless and universal.
Outline of Post-2015 SDGs
We are, therefore, delighted to see that the new Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, issued on 30 May 2013, entitled: “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development”  emphasizes the role and agency of “young people”, recognizing them as “subjects, not objects, of the post-2015 development agenda.”.
UNICEF has welcomed the HLP report, noting that the illustrative goals and targets it suggests: 1) address the unfinished and continuing agenda from the MDGs (e.g. ending all preventable child deaths); 2) serve to deepen or improve upon issues from the MDG agenda (e.g. quality education through minimum learning standards); and 3) address issues that did not specifically appear in the MDG agenda (e.g. eliminate all forms of violence against children, end child marriage, free and universal legal identity through birth registration, etc.).
SOS Children’s Villages has applauded the HLP’s vision of changing the status quo by leaving no one behind; reaching the most vulnerable; and eliminating violence against children.
Action Aid International has particularly appreciated the HLP’s recommendations concerning poverty eradication, women’s rights, and especially, the recognition by the panel to address the issue of tax evasion and avoidance which cripples many governments’ efforts to mobilize adequate resources for achieving ambitious international development goals.
The Nepalese delegation to the UN GA high level meeting will surely address the issues and proposals contained in the HLP report. We hope that as far as children are concerned, it will take account of the outcome of this Round Table consultation.
To summarize some of the highlights of the HLP report –
It calls for a single and universal agenda applicable to all people, bringing together all of the dimensions of sustainable development.
It outlines a bold vision calling for  five big transformative shifts: 1 ) Leave no one behind; 2) Put sustainable development at the core; 3) Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth; 4) Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all; and 5) Forge a new global partnership.
Ensuring more and better long-term finance is recognized as a key enabling measure for realizing these transformative shifts.
The report presents 12 illustrative goals – expanding from the current 8 MDGs. These include:
1. End Poverty
2. Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality
3. Provide quality education and lifelong learning
4. Ensure healthy lives
5. Ensure food security and good nutrition
6. Achieve universal access to water and sanitation
7. Secure sustainable energy
8. Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth
9. Manage natural resource assets sustainably
10. Ensure good governance and effective institutions
11. Ensure stable and peaceful societies
12. Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance
Each of these goals contains several indicators, encompassing but refining all the indicators used in support of the current MDGs, and adding several new ones drawing on the lessons learned from the comprehensive review of the MDG experience.
The report also identifies several cross-cutting issues of great importance that are not adequately addressed through any single goal, but are relevant for most of them. These include: peace, equity, climate change, urbanization, concerns of young people, girls, and women, and sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Focus on Equity
Most importantly, the HLP report emphatically states that: “Targets will only be considered ‘achieved’ if they are met for all relevant income and social groups”.
This responds to what many have considered one of the biggest shortfalls of the MDGs – that they did not directly address the issue of inequalities and how people are marginalized based on their ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, age, race and/or other status.
Along with the transformative shift calling to “Leave no one behind” , this assertion of universal coverage is a crucial safeguard to ensure that groups which have not benefited from progress under the MDGs will not continue to be left behind.
UNICEF has welcomed this assertion enthusiastically, noting that it would have far-reaching implications for how monitoring should be designed and how future progress should be reviewed at all levels.
The Report’s call for a “data revolution for sustainable development”, including collection of disaggregated data, rigorous monitoring, and increasing the use of innovative techniques and technologies for data collection and evaluation has also been widely welcomed. As noted in the Report, “data must enable us to reach the neediest, and find out whether they are receiving essential services.”
The HLP report is one among several others that will be the basis for negotiations among UN Member States between now and 2015 when the post-2015 agenda will be finalized and promulgated by the United Nations. Based on what is on the agenda for negotiations so far, we can be optimistic that the issues concerning the well-being of children will figure quite prominently in the post-2015 global development agenda.
It is understandable that all of us may not be fully happy with the post-2015 agenda because it is not likely to include all of our wishes.
For example, SOS Children’s Villages’ priority agenda of children without parental care may or may not be included as a specific goal, target or indicator in the final outcome document.
Action Aid’s very important campaign issue of eliminating tax evasion is proposed for inclusion under the HLP recommended goal to “Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance”, but it may not be as specific as Action Aid might have wished.
UNICEF too might be disappointed that the centrality of child rights and well-being may not figure as dominantly in the SGDs as it did in the MDGs.
However, we need to appreciate that if the SDG agenda becomes overloaded by a long list of goals, targets and indicators, it might satisfy many constituencies, but it might be less effective, less implementable and less memorable. That would not be good for the already agreed progressive goals and targets for children on which there is broad consensus and near certainty of inclusion in the SDG agenda.
We must, therefore, find other creative ways to pragmatically use the umbrella of the SDG agenda to promote some of our very worthwhile specific concerns. There are three main ways in which we can do so.
First, the HLP report speaks of universal goals and national targets. Therein lies an opportunity for us to advocate for inclusion of certain additional child-related targets as part of national plans of action in different countries. After all, real action takes place at the national and local levels. So long as our specific concerns fit within the broad SDG framework and strategies, there is always room for pursuing sensible proposals.
Second, the fact that equity, universality, non-discrimination, and leaving no child behind are likely to be agreed strategies of the SDG agenda, provides great opening for child-advocacy agencies to promote issues that we consider important. Ensuring that these principles, as well as the human rights-based approach to development, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the normative framework is retained in the final negotiations is far more important than struggling to get additional goals, targets and indicators included in the SDG agenda.
And finally, the well-being of children can be made a practical consideration under all of the major SDG goals and targets, not just under those that are ostensibly child-specific. Child rights activists must welcome and use this opportunity as a challenge for our creativity and advocacy skills.
Nepal and MDGs
Let me now shift from some of these global concerns to the situation of Nepal.
Nepal has done a very respectable job in implementing the Millennium Development Goals. Out of the 8 MDGs, Nepal is on track to achieve 6. These include reduction of maternal and child mortality, poverty reduction, primary education, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and quite a few specific sub-components of these goals – e.g. childhood immunization, polio eradication, combating micronutrient malnutrition, etc.
We can be proud that Nepal is one of the few Least Developed Countries that is on track to achieve or exceed many MDGs. This is especially remarkable considering that Nepal was engulfed in a decade-long violent armed insurgency from mid-1990s to mid-2000s, and is still in the midst of a prolonged political transition with very unstable governments.
However, like many other countries, Nepal’s success in achieving the MDGs has not been evenly shared by all its people. Indeed, in many cases, inequalities have increased even as progress has been made on average. This is of great concern especially since we had a major people’s movement in 2006, part of whose agenda was to create a more egalitarian and inclusive society overcoming a legacy of age-old marginalization, discrimination and exclusion of many communities from the mainstream of national development.
To illustrate the point, let me cite a couple of examples:
Four decades ago, Nepal had the 12th highest child mortality rate in the world. By last year, we had moved ahead of 50 other countries, reducing U5MR down by 80% from 250 to 50 deaths per thousand live births.
This was possible because Nepal, with considerable international support, focused on problems that were the biggest killers of the poorest children – like diarrhea, pneumonia, measles and malnutrition.
Public health programmes, including training and equipping of auxiliary nurses and midwives, female community health volunteers, support for mass vaccination campaigns, vitamin A distribution and de-worming, etc. were both universal and equity-focused, targeting the most deprived communities.
Challenge of Inequity
However, in recent years problems of inequity seem to have worsened, and many challenges remain to further sharpen and deepen the equity agenda.
For example, while 90 % of children go to primary school today, the 10 percent who do not, are primarily from the historically, geographically, economically and socially deprived and marginalized communities.
Only 38 % of children from the indigenous communities, 20 % of Dalits and a mere 1% of disabled children are enrolled in primary schools.
This is totally unacceptable in today’s Nepal that aspires to be an inclusive democracy.
Persistence of disparity, inequality and exclusion are therefore still real, and need to be addressed with utmost seriousness in the remaining few years of MDGs and as we embark on the post-2015 SDGs.
However, in the highly polarized politics of today’s Nepal, development professionals and decision-makers, and our international development partners too, need to be careful not to fall into the trap of sweeping generalizations about inequities by broad ethnic, caste and geographic groups, but look deeper at which specific sub-groups are most deprived, and merit special attention.
For example, we know that contrary to popular perception, the disparities in terms of U5MR are far more pronounced between urban vs. rural areas, than between the hills vs. Terai.
We know that not all Janjatis are worse off than Bahun-Chhetris – with Newars being often at the top of the totem pole in terms of various human development indicators.
We know that in terms of health services and water supply, the Terai is much better off than the hills and mountains, whereas it is worse off in sanitation and nutrition.
We know that the size of the family is often a more significant determinant than geographic location and ethnic grouping.
We know that neither Terai nor the hills are monolithic regions in terms of social indicators – with Central Terai being worse off in terms of basic education than Western Terai; and the Far-Western hills being worse off than Central hills in terms of nutrition.
While Dalits and Muslims tend to be worse off across the board, the level of mother’s education is a far more important factor than caste or ethnicity in terms of most social indicators.
The worst exploiters of poor Madheshis are rich Madheshis, not Pahadis. Elite Bahun-Chhetris exploit less well-off members of their own kin, as they do other marginalized groups.
And as in most other societies, class interests are often stronger than caste interests when it comes to people’s economic behaviour.
As programming based on caste, ethnicity and geography is likely to be highly divisive and controversial, and does not neatly correlate with levels of poverty and deprivation, wherever possible, prioritizing people at the bottom quintile in terms of poverty and other social indicators, would be a more sensible and less controversial approach.
Looking ahead, the biggest risks as well as the greatest opportunities for building a bright future for Nepal’s children can both be summarized in one word – equity.
A thoughtful, genuinely calibrated pursuit of the equity agenda is likely to be the saving grace, and the most promising way to build a bright future for the children of Nepal. But a superficial pursuit of the equity agenda as advocated by some political activists with vested interests poses real risk of injecting divisiveness, and potential “elite capture” of services and resources, bypassing the truly deprived sub-groups and individuals.
Post-2015 Challenges for Nepal
In the context of MDGs, Nepal already has well-developed strategies in the areas of child survival and development, particularly in health, nutrition, sanitation, basic education, etc. which will serve it well in the post-2015 period.
I would therefore like to make some remarks and suggestions on 4 relatively new areas which are emphasized in the UN’s emerging post-2015 development agenda, which require better articulation in Nepal’s context as well: 1) better social protection of children, 2) environment, 3) urbanization, and 4) good governance.
Child protection
The HLP report calls for elimination of all forms of violence against children, including ending child marriage, free and universal legal identity through birth registration, etc. As a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, Nepal has made some attempts to tackle the issues of protection of children in especially difficult circumstances, but with limited success.
We Nepalis used to think and claim that we are a very family-friendly society and value our children enormously. But it appears that our value systems are changing rapidly.
Domestic violence against women and children has been a known phenomenon in our society for some time. With modernization, and growing trend towards increased urbanization and migration of population, our traditional family structure and social fabric have become weaker.
Sometimes this may be liberating, for example, for women oppressed in conservative traditional families, but on the whole this leads to children becoming deprived of the loving care of parents, grand-parents and extended family members.
Sometimes children are lured to abandon their families, and parents are misled by unscrupulous outsiders to even “sell” their children into servitude in private homes, “orphanages”, factories, and even brothels.
This is partly a global phenomenon in many poor countries. But the situation has deteriorated in Nepal because of the decade-long conflict and the prolonged political transition that has accelerated rural-urban migration, and led to large number of Nepalis going abroad as migrant labourers, thus further weakening traditional family structures.
Vigorous efforts are needed to combat violence against children in the family, at schools and at work places through measures such as child-friendly schools, better enforcement of child labour laws, and a culture of non-violence in society as a whole.
A growing phenomenon is child abandonment for a variety of reasons. In response, we have seen a rapid growth of orphanages and child care homes particularly in urban areas.
While there can never be an adequate substitute for the tender, loving care of one’s own parents in a family environment, it is our duty to offer children who need it, the best possible alternative care in other settings with extended family members, and well-run institutions under proper guidance.
SOS Children’s Village and a few other institutions try to offer such alternative care consistent with international standards as outlined in the UN Guidelines for Alternative Care for Children, approved by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 64/142 in 2009.
Nepal needs to adopt and adapt such guidelines to its own unique situation, but always insisting that such guidelines are not meant to encourage or even inadvertently lure children away from their families and into institutionalized care, which must always be seen as the last resort.
Environmental degradation due to climate change and other factors, and the need to give this high priority as a key component of sustainable development, will undoubtedly be a central theme of the post-2015 global development agenda.
As far as the well-being of children is concerned, way back in 1987, the landmark report entitled “Our Common Future” by the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development had memorably stated that we must pursue development to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs.
Reflecting this spirit, UNICEF had taken the position at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, that: “We must protect the environment for our children, and we must protect our children so they can be the custodians of our environment”.
We now have further heightened awareness of the potentially devastating consequences of climate change and environmental degradation on children’s health and well-being, globally and in Nepal.
Recognizing this, Nepal has committed itself to a strategy of promoting environment-friendly ‘green economy’. However, global warming over which Nepal has very little control, is severely damaging our fragile mountain ecology with potentially disastrous consequences resulting from the melting of the world’s highest snow-capped Himalayan mountains and potential glacier bursts.
This is compounded in the immediate future by many of our priority development schemes, including those involving expansion of the road networks, industries, urban development and rural infrastructure some of which are effectively contrary to our professed strategy of green growth.
Some of our efforts to connect every far-flung VDCs and wards with road network – along with schools, health posts, and other service entities are inadvertently destroying our pristine environment, with potentially negative impact on tourism.
While a democratic society must try to provide basic services to all its people as close as possible to their domicile, this must be balanced with a pragmatic policy of encouraging people to voluntarily resettle in  areas with easier access to services, through non-coercive but attractive incentives, as many countries have done.
Many districts headquarters of Nepal are in areas that are totally unsuited to be service centers for the people of surrounding villages, and have no potential for becoming environment-friendly municipalities. Nepal needs to adopt a policy of developing several hundred green growth hubs or townships with modern amenities, including spacious parks, playgrounds and side-walks that are people-friendly.
For the sake of our children and future generations, we need eco-friendly development that maximizes opportunities for people to pursue their well-being while minimizing the damage to our pristine but fragile environment.
Urbanization and Child-Friendly Cities
The UN HLP report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda acknowledges that by the year 2030 almost two-thirds of the world’s population will be urban. Nepal too will experience a major demographic transition from a predominantly rural population to half of its people living in urban areas.
Our post-2015 agenda must, therefore, be increasingly relevant for urban dwellers. Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost, says the HLP report.  Inclusive growth must emanate from vibrant cities, the only locale where it is possible to generate the kind of good jobs that young people, including a large number of our migrant labourers returning home from abroad, will be seeking in the future.
We therefore need to vigorously develop “Child-friendly cities” as part of child-friendly local governance.
Child-Friendly Local Governance
Good governance has been clearly identified as a major theme of the post-2015 development agenda, as the experience of the MDGs has shown that poor governance is as much a contributor to inadequate progress in achieving these goals as lack of financial resources.
Nepal’s experience confirms this.
Nepal enjoys great goodwill of the international community and it is not difficult to mobilize substantial donor support for its development. The fact that Nepal has a good track record of making substantial progress in a number of MDGs despite a prolonged conflict and political uncertainty, augurs well for garnering further international cooperation.
But Nepal has failed to attract much foreign direct investment for its infrastructure development, and its progress in MDGs has been inequitable. This is directly related to poor governance, and particularly to very weak rule of law bordering on massive impunity.
Since Nepal became party to many international conventions, it has adopted quite a few progressive laws that ban many discriminatory practices and uphold internationally agreed human rights standards. But weak implementation of these laws and policies is the main reason for the persistence of historical inequity, exclusion and discrimination.
Enacting more progressive laws or even a brand new national Constitution will not change this sad reality, if we do not develop a culture of citizens abiding by the rule of law.
In an atmosphere of lawlessness, the rich and powerful always find ways and means to protect their interests. It is the poor and the powerless who suffer the worst consequences of lawlessness or poor enforcement of laws.
Widespread corruption is a manifestation of poor rule of law. No country in the world has had sustained prosperity if the absence of rule of law becomes a norm rather than an exception. Ensuring ‘good governance’ must therefore be the mother of all our pro-poor development strategies.
One modest contribution to ‘good governance’ in Nepal could potentially be the “Child Friendly Local Governance” (CFLG) initiative which has recently been endorsed as part of Nepal’s Local Governance and Community Development Program (LGCDP).
Recognizing its value, CFLG is now supported by a dozen external development partners, including UNICEF and many INGOs.
The lead governmental entity for implementing CFLG is Nepal’s Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development. It has developed very thoughtful guidelines for utilizing significant amount of national budget as “block grants” for villages, municipalities and district development entities. These guidelines mandate all local government bodies to allocate at least 35% of their block grants for such priority target groups as children (10%), women (10%) and other disadvantaged groups (15%).
Besides budget allocation, CFLG actively promotes participation of children, and women, in some of the decision-making processes in the very design and implementation of community development activities.
Meaningful participation of children – with equitable representation of boys and girls – is ensured through Nepal’s extensive network of school and community-based child clubs; as is women’s participation through para-legal women’s groups, mother’s clubs and local women’s cooperatives.
Sometimes, traditional male leaders of our society, including politicians and bureaucrats, are cynical about the real value of such participation, seeing it as mere symbolism.
But those of us who have had the opportunity to witness the activism of some of these women’s and children’s groups are awed and inspired by their creativity, commitment and down-to-earth pragmatism.
We must support women’s and children’s participation, not only because it is their right as equal citizens under our national laws and international conventions, but also because they often bring fresh perspectives, real commitment and can help us hold some of our slippery male leaders to a higher degree of accountability.
One other distinct and practical merit of women’s and children’s participation in local governance is that in Nepal’s highly divisive and partisan political context, they tend to be less partisan, and more focused on real issues of common concern to all in the community.
By involving children and youth in local governance, we inculcate in their growing minds and hearts, from an impressionable young age, the quality of good citizenship, the habit of listening to others, respecting other people’s views while contributing their own ideas, and a sense of responsibility for finding win-win solutions.
Thus, child-friendly governance means both protecting and nurturing children’s right for their own survival, development  and protection as well as facilitating their participation to contribute to broader issues of governance for the common good of their community. Child-friendly local governance should therefore be promoted as an essential ingredient of good governance.
Next steps
Like other countries, Nepal must continue to focus on vigorously implementing the current MDGs as we approach the 2015 deadline. Much more can and must be achieved in the remaining one-and-half years.
Meanwhile, we must all participate actively in the shaping of the post-2015 global development agenda, and try to develop a corresponding agenda for Nepal’s long-term development.
As advocates for children, we must do so with enthusiasm and optimism, with conviction and commitment that we will do our best to ensure that the well-being of children will figure prominently in the post-2015 SDG agenda.
We must celebrate that so many governments, international organizations, public- private partnerships national and local NGOs have now become champions of children’s rights, and child-centric interventions are today the most popular and prominent among all MDGs and SDGs.
This is a huge contrast from two decades ago when UNICEF and Save the Children were the main and often the lone voices calling for children to be put at the centre of the world’s development agenda.
The top political and business leaders of the world at that time would dismiss children’s issues as matters of charity or social welfare, perhaps appropriate for the kind attention of their First Ladies and junior ministers, but certainly not worthy of Heads of State, Governments and CEOs.
We have come a long way since then.
We must take the opportunity presented to us today to influence the post-2015 global development agenda and capitalize it to the fullest both nationally here in Nepal and globally.
I wish all of us great success in doing so starting at this Round Table.
Thank you.