Dreams, Possibilities and Challenges for Nepal’s Children

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam
At UNICEF CPD Workshop
Kathmandu, 22 November 2011

I feel very grateful and nostalgic to have the opportunity to share some views on the future of Nepal’s children – and how we can all help shape it in their best interest.

Making such remarks used to be part of my regular job when I was at UNICEF. I am happy to do so today as a private Nepali citizen, unencumbered by any official position.

I know, as background materials for this workshop, you have many documents and reports with facts and figures, and analysis. You also have many policy documents from the Government of Nepal, UNICEF and the broader UN system.

You certainly need to refer to such documents for any evidence-based advocacy and programming. I used to often quote and cite such documents and statistics to bolster my arguments when I was at UNICEF.

But today, I will not refer to any such documents or statistics. Frankly, let me confess that I have not read most of your background documents. These days I prefer to read Nepali literature – poetry, novels, essays, fiction rather than dense UN documents and governmental dastabejs.

So, I hope you will forgive me if I do not use well-researched statistics to back up some of my arguments and suggestions.

You have asked me to speak about dreams, possibilities and challenges for Nepal’s children. You don’t need statistics to dream. You can let your imagination fly. And what your heart tells you is often more meaningful than what your brain dictates to you, anyway.

Remember what Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted really counts”.
After all, how do we measure the joy of a mother when she first holds her baby in her arms after giving birth following long and excruciating labour pains? How do we count the pain and agony of a father when he has to bury his own child?

No statistics can measure the depth of such feelings, but we know these are immeasurably profound.

I do not know how many of you saw on television – I guess quite a few Nepalis here saw it – the mother of Ujjan Kumar Shrestha – an old lady – crying uncontrollably (bhakkano chodera royeko) – as she recounted how her son had been brutally murdered by a Bal Krishna Dhungel, which then led to the killing of her second son, and then the suicide of her grand-daughter.
Well, some would say, those were only three people – statistically insignificant – out of 15,000 who died during our decade-long conflict.
But if we stretch that kind of logic, why should we make any fuss about only 15,000 killed in Nepal’s conflict – there were 70,000 killed in Sri Lanka; 700,000 in Rwanda, and 2 million in Cambodia.

And if we follow such logic further, why should we sympathize with the Americans making such big fuss about only 3,000 people killed on 9/11, which is miniscule compared to the 10 million exterminated by Hitler or 20 million by Stalin.

Well, dear friends, to a mother her child is not a statistical entity; and love and pain are not measurable or comparable commodities.
To Ujjan Kumar’s mother, it does not matter whether the killing of her son was political or criminal, as it would not matter to any of us here if our own child was brutally murdered.

Because UNICEF deals with children, it has a special responsibility to do its programming with great empathy and sensibility – using both its head and its heart.

Now, the programme guidelines you receive from UNICEF Headquarters do not ask you to do programming with a heart. They ask you to be hard-nosed, evidence-based, and statistically sound.

I know it, because I used to write many of those guidelines when I was Director of Programmes or Deputy Executive Director in charge of policy and advocacy. But let me tell you, programming with a heart is implicit and inherent in the mandate of UNICEF.

And I have seen UNICEF do it here in Nepal.

In my field visits to observe some UNICEF-supported programmes in Nepal, I have been deeply touched by some examples of programming – or rather programme implementation – with a heart.

I recall visiting some Female Community Health Volunteers administering Vitamin A and de-worming tablets. As we know, the coverage of these programmes is very high in Nepal – upwards of 95% – and higher than in any other country of South Asia.

When I asked some FCHV how they managed to get such high coverage, knowing there surely must be many families who face problems bringing their children to the distribution centres on the designated day at the designated time, I was told that indeed some parents are unable to bring their children to the distribution centre. But in such cases, most FCHV personally contact every mother to ensure no child is left behind. They often go to their homes to administer the Vitamin A and de-worming. And they do so without any extra allowance or incentives.

Many FCHV told me how they felt it was their neighbourly, moral and human duty not to leave any child behind, knowing the life-saving benefits of Vitamin A, de-worming and childhood immunizations.

That is what I call programme implementation with a heart, rather than just doing one’s job for a salary, as many bureaucrats do.

I also recall visiting some para-legal women’s groups and observing how they handled so many sensitive cases involving domestic violence and local disputes with deep empathy.

What a contrast it was to hear about the gentle and humane manner in which para-legal women’s groups handled such cases, compared to the rough justice meted out by the so-called “people’s courts” during the dark days of this country’s decade long armed conflict.

I was particularly touched to hear how the FCHV and para-legal women’s groups reached out to people of different castes and ethnic groups without any trace of discrimination. That is for me programming with a human heart.
UNICEF’s long-standing mandate of programming with a humane heart has been reinforced by two recent developments. One – not so recent – is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the rights-based approach to programming, and the other, very recent, is the equity-based approach that Tony Lake has made his hallmark.

Many of you probably do not know that when the CRC was being drafted there was a big debate about whether to call it the Convention on the Rights of Children or the Rights of the Child. There were strong pros and cons in both options.

Some said, the Convention should refer to children – rather than the child – because that would be more appropriate for action by governments and states which have a responsibility to reach out to as many citizens as they can with their limited resources.

Taking care of an individual child is the job of parents, not that of the State.
Since the State signs the Convention, it should take responsibility for the collective well-being of children as a matter of public policy. So the logic was to call it the Convention on the Rights of Children.

But others argued that human rights belong to every individual as a human being or a child. For practical purposes, service delivery may be organized on a group basis, but that is not to deny that the rights-holder is every child.
In the end this argument prevailed, and the Convention embraced the principle of the Rights of the Child.

Now, that may be fine in terms of the principle of the rights-based approach, but it seemed unfair and unrealistic to expect the government of a poor, underdeveloped country to guarantee the right of every child to all the rights enshrined in the Convention, when it could not even physically reach most of them.

To solve this dilemma, the CRC in its article 4 speaks about progressive realization of social, economic and cultural rights “to the maximum extent of their available resources”.

To do so, we came up with measurable but achievable goals for children – short of universal coverage, but still quite ambitious – at the World Summit for Children in 1990, the Millennium Summit in 2000 and the UNGA Special Session on Children in 2002.

Thanks to great social mobilization in support of these goals, we have now reached a threshold, when it is possible to envision universal coverage and embark on an equity agenda.

The late head of UNICEF, Jim Grant – who inspired many of us immensely – used to say that morality must march in tandem with human capacity. In the name of rights-based approach it would have been unfair to expect a poor country like Nepal to fully comply, for example, with article 24 of the CRC which says that a child has a right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health care.

But as a country progresses, and its capacity is enhanced, it becomes fair to ask that it has a moral duty, not just a legal obligation, to try to both improve the quality of service and to reach the bottom quintile.

That is why an equity agenda is now far more relevant than it was 30 years ago, when the agenda had to be to build the foundations for delivery of basic services, and expand their coverage wherever you could, rather than focusing on reaching the unreached, which would have meant practically everybody.

I find UNICEF’s rights-based and equity-focused agenda highly compatible with Nepal’s own aspirations today.

As we know, Nepal has made fairly good progress in terms of the child-related MDGs, with the exception of malnutrition. In fact, it is one of the few LDCs in the world that is on track to achieve most of the MDGs.
Two years ago when we celebrated four decades of UNICEF in Nepal, I recall applauding the significant achievements Nepal has made for children, in which UNICEF has been a valuable partner.

When UNICEF opened its country office in Kathmandu 40+ years ago, the situation of Nepal’s children was among the worst in the world. While there is still much progress to make, the achievements made so far have been quite impressive.

The children of Nepal today are healthier, more educated, and more knowledgeable about the world, than in any previous generation.

In 1970 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 48 deaths per thousand live births.

Four decades ago, 400,000 children were born every year, but 100,000 of them died before reaching their 5th birthday. Last year, 730,000 children were born, but less than 34,000 died.

That certainly is progress. It is all the more remarkable that Nepal made great strides in reducing child deaths even in the middle of a violent conflict in the last decade.

Thanks to this progress, Nepal is on track to reach MDGs 4 and 5, to drastically reduce under-5, and maternal mortality.

In our life time, we have seen dreaded diseases like smallpox and polio eradicated; deaths due to measles drastically reduced; goiter disappear, and immunization services for children becoming virtually universal.
Forty years ago, barely a quarter of school-age children went to primary schools. Girls going to school were a rare sight. Today 90 percent of children enroll in primary school, including a majority of girls. There has also been much progress in women’s health and education, which is so vital for the well-being of children.

While we have made much progress for children in the past 4 decades, unfortunately, that progress has been uneven. According to some estimates, the poverty rate went down from 42% in 1995/96 to 25% in 2010.

But the Gini coefficient which measures inequality worsened from 0.34 to 0.46 during the same period.

There are serious disparities along the lines of geography, caste, ethnicity and household size.

For example, 90 % of children go to primary school today, but the 10 percent who do not, are from the historically, geographically, economically and socially deprived and marginalized communities.

Only 38 % of children from the indigenous communities, 18 % 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.

Issues of disparity, inequality and exclusion are real and need to be addressed seriously. However, in the highly polarized politics of Nepal, there is often a tendency to make sweeping remarks about inequality by broad ethnic, caste and geographic groupings to suit the agenda of political activists, rather than to really uplift the poorest and the most deprived.
There are elites among all groups, including those classified as marginalized, who seek to acquire power and perks in the name of the poor and the down-trodden. We notice this in the disproportionate emphasis given to quotas and reservations for high level positions, such as in the cabinet, parliament, justices of the Supreme Court, and senior officers in the army and police force, rather than at the level of school teachers, health workers, etc who touch the daily lives of ordinary people.

The disproportionate emphasis given to the federalization of the country on the basis of ethnic identity rather than true devolution of power to the lowest level of the government and to the local communities, is partly a reflection of this elite capture mentality.

UNICEF and others need to be careful not to fall into the trap of politically-motivated interest groups who are good at using statistics selectively, ignoring certain inconvenient facts and figures.

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 the 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 far worse off in terms of basic education than, say, Western Terai; and the Far-Western hills being far worse off than Central hills in terms of nutrition.

And the level of mother’s education is a far more important factor than caste or ethnicity in terms of most social indicators.

While Dalits and Muslims tend to be worse off across the board, in the case of Madhesis and Pahadis, Janajatis and Bahun-Chhetris, disaggregated data show great variations in terms of how well-off or worse off they are as groups.

The worst exploiters of poor Madhesis are rich Madhesis, not Pahadis. Elite Bahun-Chhetris exploit less well-off members of their own kin, as they do other marginalized groups.

As in most other societies, class interests are often stronger than caste interests when it comes to people’s economic behaviour.

To implement the equity agenda, we need even more disaggregated data on levels of poverty by quintile or decile, so that our progammes are truly responsive to the genuinely poor and deprived groups regardless of caste, ethnicity and geographic classification.

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, prioritizing the bottom quintile in terms of poverty and other social indicators would be a more sensible and less controversial approach for organizations like UNICEF.

We should be mindful that even when the diagnosis of certain problems is accurate, often the policies and priorities advocated by various political parties may not be conducive to solving those problems.

For example, we know that the representation of the Madhesi population is rather low in the Nepali Army. We also know that the Terai-Madhesh region has a huge shortage of school teachers. To meet the nationally recommended student-teacher ratio of 40 to 1, the schools of the Terai probably need to double or triple the number of their teachers.

But currently, we see the Madhesi parties giving the highest priority to recruiting 10,000 soldiers in the Nepal Army, but the urgent need to recruit some 20,000 additional teachers in Madesh is nowhere on the priority agenda of any political party.

It is far from clear as to what good will it do to the well-being of women and children of Madesh if we have 10,000 more Madhesi soldiers in the Nepal Army,. Yet, the proven benefits of having 20,000 additional Madhesi teachers do not make it to the top of our priority list.

Though very legitimate, some of these issues are, obviously, fraught with political sensitivities, and would be inappropriate for UNICEF to raise.
What I hope UNICEF and other UN agencies will do, is to help collect and disseminate more and more disaggregated data, and present facts and figures, which some of us Nepali citizens and child-oriented NGOs can use for advocacy purposes.

Dear friends,

As we look ahead to the future, I see very bright horizons for the children of this country over the long-term. The short –to – medium term horizon, however, is rather murky and unclear, as it is closely tied to how the politics of the country evolve in the coming years. My crystal ball shows three scenarios:

The most optimistic scenario is that the peace process will conclude in the next three months; the new Constitution will be promulgated in the next 6 months and new elections will be held by the end of 2012. Hopefully, the elections will result in a stable government that will not have to constantly worry about its own survival until the following elections 4-5 years later. Such a government will be able to focus on a massive reconstruction and development programme, and the well-being of children will be one of its key components.

Under such a scenario, UNICEF can propose an ambitious country progrmme that will lead to the achievement of all the child-related MDGs and the World Fit for Children goals, with equity and improved quality of services at its core.

The worst case scenario would be that the peace process will drag on for another 6 months, delaying the completion of the Constitution till the end of 2012, and elections being held only towards the end of 2013, because of bickering about the electoral system and posturing by political parties to position themselves in more favourable circumstances.
Even then it is conceivable that we might have a highly fractured vote with no party or coalition winning a comfortable majority to give us a stable government.

Under this scenario, it is conceivable that we will have frequently changing governments that will be more concerned with their own survival and longevity, rather than focusing on issues of reconstruction and development.
Additionally, it is conceivable that some political parties might break-up; and some groups might take up arms, and resort to violence.
A big unknown is how the new federal set up will evolve. But it is clear that for the next 5 years, many of our new federal/provincial governments will spend most of their time and resources to build-up their administrative structures.

There may be little resources left for development activities at the local level if the federal/provincial governments end up spending most of their time, energy and resources to building up their government infrastructure, creating large number of sinecure jobs to dole out to various communities in the name of inclusion and proportional representation.

It is quite conceivable that Nepal could become like Bosnia where 80 percent of the government budget is spent on salaries and expenses for a bloated bureaucracy where government jobs are created not on the basis of need but to ensure representation for all ethnic and religious groups.
Such a parasite state will be a disaster for development.

Under such domestic circumstances, foreign donors and international organizations would either have to follow a wait-and-see approach with minimalist programmes and humanitarian assistance, or act like venture capitalists betting on the central government’s ability to carry on some development activities and supporting selected federal/provincial governments and relying on NGOs for delivery of certain essential services.
A third, more likely scenario, is that the period after the next elections will still be one of extended transition in which we will muddle through trials and errors of new forms of governance, but that work on basic services will continue. Depending on how the private sector is allowed to function, it may well be that certain services will be expanded through private or some form of public-private partnerships.

With a weak, transitional national government, and federal/provincial governments still in the making, it will be challenging for organizations like UNICEF to rely solely on the strength of the government to launch ambitious programmes. UNICEF should therefore be flexible enough to improvise and adapt its country programmes to changing circumstances and changing counterparts.

On balance, we must err on the side of optimism, and hope that something between the first and the third scenario will actually materialize in the next 5 to 7 years.

I would, however, be much more optimistic, for the period beyond that, i.e. after the second election under the new Constitution.

That is when I expect political maturity to have dawned in this country, as ordinary people will no longer be fooled by misleading promises by our political leaders, and the Nepalis will have tasted and exhausted all forms of governments – from a traditional monarchy to a constitutional monarchy; a one-party system and a multi-party system; rule by liberal democrats and by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideologues; a parliamentary system and a presidential system; a unitary state and a federal structure.

What else will there be left to try out – other than common sense, and approaches that have worked reasonably well elsewhere in the world ?
Given these scenarios, for UNICEF, I would not see the next 5 years as a period of grand experiments. Instead, I would suggest continuity in the programmes that have a proven track record with appropriate refinements based on lessons learned.

I take it that in the next country programme, the bulk of UNICEF’s resources will continue to be invested in helping achieve the child-specific MDGs and the World Fit for Children goals with a strong equity focus to try to reach the bottom quintile.

I would hope that early child development and nutrition will get higher priority in the next country programme, not only because of their intrinsic importance, but also because I do not see any other major donor or the government putting these issues high on their priority list.

These are areas in search of strong leadership, and it seems to me that UNICEF would be a natural leader.

Besides the more traditional survival and development issues – health and education, water and sanitation – protection and participation merit increased attention. In fact, I believe there is more room and need for some real innovation in these areas.

In the last two decades, UNICEF helped formulate some innovative programmes to deal with the emerging problems of child protection against HIV/AIDS, trafficking and abuse of children on a massive scale, and violence and exploitation of various kinds, including the impact of armed conflict on children.

Unlike in health and education, Nepal does not have a broad policy frame-work to deal systemically with protection issues. The UNICEF-assisted Decentralized Community Action for Children and Women (DACAW) seems to have become a flagship programme almost by default.

Under the umbrella of DACAW, community-based women’s federations and para-legal committees, and school-based child clubs are revolutionizing awareness and action to combat domestic violence, to promote sanitation, and to heal the wounds of Nepal’s fratricidal violent conflict on children.
A programme along this line needs to be institutionalized as a national programme by the government to promote a participatory, rights-based approach for empowering women and children.

And let us not forget our solemn collective commitment to treat children as a zone of peace, and to keep schools, hospitals, health centres and places of worship off- limits for violence and political agitation.

In today’s world children are not only to be seen, but their views and voices must be heard. In UNICEF’s experience globally, we have found that children themselves can be key actors and effective partners for their own development and the development of their societies.

Young people today are amazingly resourceful, and we must harness their extraordinary talents, enthusiasm and creativity.

In this country that is so wounded by conflict and divided by poverty, let us embrace and empower our children so they can build a better present and future for themselves. That is the essence of CRC’s core principle of respect for the views of the child and right to participation in accordance with a child’s evolving capacity.

UNICEF’s important social policy work must help develop a solid protection and participation policy, besides trying to influence child-friendly budgeting, monitoring and evaluation.

Finally, UNICEF Nepal has been a pioneer in the creative use of communications in support of programmes for children using films and cartoons, radio and television, education and entertainment.

UNICEF must continue to be avant-garde in its communication work, which has made it a house-hold name, and a true child-friendly UN presence in Nepal.

Dear friends,

Mother Nature has bestowed on the children of Nepal a beautiful landscape, bountiful supply of clean air, fresh water, green forests, fertile land and an amazing ecological diversity that can be the source of great prosperity.

We have no external enemies and our internal differences are readily manageable.

But our politicians have saddled the children of this country with the burden of exaggerated ideological conflict.

They try to pollute the minds of our children by dividing Nepalis into progressive and regressive, feudal and modern, patriotic and anti-national. This divisive politics is destroying the fabric of Nepali society and compromising the future of Nepali children.

Instead of searching for what unites us all as Nepalis – in our rich cultural diversity – our children are being encouraged to be backward-looking, narrow-minded and chauvinistic.

But I believe that we Nepalis are able to overcome this self-destructive orgy of hyper-politicization peppered with a most un-Nepali ugly culture of violence that has seeped into the Nepali society in the past decade.
As we like to say in UNICEF, children have only one chance to grow. If they miss that chance, they can be doomed for life.

We, Nepalis must cherish wonderful international organizations like UNICEF that are ready to help us in a non-partisan, non-political manner keeping the best interest of children as their only guiding principle.

Today, we Nepalis are divided by many ideologies, which is quite common in a multi-party democracy.

But as we look to the future, and look for issues that can unite us all, I hope that safeguarding the best interest of all our children will emerge as our common, shared ideology.

I wish UNICEF great success in helping contribute to developing such an ethos in Nepal, which will make us all very proud and grateful.

Thank you.