Message from Gulmi

Remarks by Kul C. Gautam
Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and
Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF

At the 61st United Nations Day Celebrations
Kathmandu, 20 October 2006

As I serve at the United Nations Headquarters, I could well have brought to you a message from New York. Instead, I prefer to make this a message from Gulmi, from where I have just returned after a short visit on home leave for dasain.
The United Nations has an amazingly positive image throughout Nepal.

So the message from Gulmi could very well be a message from any of the other 75 districts of Nepal. Nepal has been an active and loyal member of the United Nations. And the United Nations has been a true friend and supporter of Nepal.
Many people think of the UN in terms of its role in peace and security.

That, of course, is very important. At this very moment, all Nepalis – from the Prime Minister to the Maoist leaders, from human rights activists to ordinary villagers – all look to the UN for its help in bringing a lasting peace and a progressive democracy in Nepal.
My colleague Ian Martin will surely address this issue when he speaks next.
But the UN’s role in Nepal is much more extensive – spanning from technical assistance for science and technology, agriculture and industry, trade and commerce; to material help for health and education; policy advice on development planning; humanitarian assistance for disaster relief, victims of conflict, refugees and internally displaced; and protection of human rights and prevention of human wrongs.

In one way or the other, the work of the UN touches the life of every Nepali.

The day I was in Gulmi, we had a massive polio immunization campaign – supported by WHO and UNICEF. This week we will administer vitamin A and de-worming to a large number of children.

I visited primary schools, where unbeknownst to the teachers and students, they were benefiting from teacher training and textbooks provided with the support of UNESCO and UNICEF.

I met retired soldiers who had served in UN peace-keeping operations in the Middle East and Africa, whose remittances are of great help to the local economy.

Yet many people remarked that there were no visible UN supported projects in Gulmi even though the highest ranking Nepali serving at the UN happened to come from that district.

Indeed there is a perception that the UN and other donors neglect districts like Gulmi, which are neither among the most remote and deprived, nor the relatively easy to reach where donor and NGO activities seem to be concentrated.

Yet here is a district that has both high level of poverty and a track record of producing good development results which ought to make it attractive for government and donor support.

The only major donor supported project in Gulmi in recent years was the Gulmi-Argha Khanchi Rural Development Project – (GARDEP) – supported by the European Commission. This project was considered very successful and was beginning to produce good, visible development results.

Unfortunately, following a series of targeted Maoist attacks, including burning of several project vehicles, the project was suspended.

Local officials believe that significant amount of funds from the suspended project remain in frozen accounts in Kathmandu or Brussels.

Now that there is relative peace, many Gulmelis hope that the Government and EC will arrange for GARDEP to resume and expand its much valued activities, and that somehow the UN will help unblock the suspended project and provide additional complementary assistance.

In spite of the conflict and suspension of many development activities, I was happy to note steady progress in basic education. Parents value education enormously, and enrolment in primary and secondary schools is constantly increasing.

An encouraging trend is the growing enrolment of girls in schools.

As more children complete primary education, parents are anxious to see them continue to secondary education. Many communities have therefore applied for upgrading of their schools from primary to lower-secondary and secondary plus schools.

While awaiting government approval, communities have mobilized local resources to hire additional teachers and build more classrooms.

I sensed considerable frustration among local officials and parents that even after many years, the Government has not approved the upgrading, accreditation and funding of a large number of public schools. I understand that this is a nation-wide phenomenon going beyond Gulmi.

I would urge the Government and donors to give high priority to large-scale upgrading of local schools as one of the early peace dividends.

I was told that essentials medicines supplied by the government to health centres and sub-health posts meet less than half a year’s requirement for most communities. There is a need for doubling the annual allocation of essential medicines to primary health care centres and sub-health posts.

If Nepal is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, a significant increase in funding for village level health, education and sanitation activities is urgently needed.

I heard people welcoming enthusiastically the announcement in the Finance Minister’s budget speech that the annual allocation of block grants for VDCs will be doubled to Rs. 1 million per year.

Based on past experience, I am confident that these additional resources will be generally well-utilized by local communities. But directives for the use of these funds have not yet been issued. It is urgent to do so.

One hopes that the CPN-Maoist cadres will not seek to take advantage of these additional resources for non-development purposes, but will join in ensuring that these funds are well utilized for the effective delivery of basic social services at the community level.

The absence of elected local bodies is obviously a major constraint in the smooth functioning of development activities. But I was impressed with the spirit of solidarity and shared objectives with which local communities continue to operate.

An especially encouraging trend I found since my last visit to the district 6 years ago, is the heightened awareness of their rights among women and dalits, and acceptance of their enhanced participation in development activities by the local communities.

This is in part thanks to the CPN-Maoists’ awareness raising campaign. Had the Maoists not resorted to extortion, violence and high handed behaviour, some of their progressive ideas and actions would have won them much genuine and lasting popular support.

It is not too late for the Maoists to change their ways, focus on their positive and progressive social agenda and abandon violence, intimidation and extortion to regain and retain genuine public support.

Although this might lead to a temporary loss of their power and influence, I would urge the Maoists to take a long-term view of what is in their best interest – and in the best interest of Nepal.

I had not been able to visit my ancestral village and district in the past 6 years because of heightened insecurity. Having heard much about the turmoil and turbulence especially during the period of the autocratic royal rule and heightened Maoist activities, I was afraid that I will find a village and a district politically polarized and divided.

To my pleasant surprise, I found the people in villages continuing to behave cordially as good neighbours and friends. I was told that it was the Maoists who came from outside the village, and the Royal Nepalese Army contingents, who also came from outside the village, who brought the fear and distrust in the community.

Left to themselves, I was told, the villagers can sort out their problems and differences amicably.

People are still afraid of the Maoists and deeply resent but tolerate their extortionist behaviour. Even a small number of unarmed Maoists seem to be able to intimidate large numbers of villagers, because of the threat of arms that lurks behind.

Minus the threat of arms, people seemed confident that they can work things out among themselves in a democratic, participatory and consultative manner.

This has some important and hopeful lessons. It is to be assumed that the Nepalese army will remain in barracks during peace time. In the case of the Maoists, if they discontinued the practice of appointing or assigning people from outside their native villages and communities, and relied on local cadres who have to live in peace and harmony with their neighbours, they will find an amicable modus vivendi.

If the CPN-Maoist formally adopt ballots rather than bullets as the only legitimate method of political change, and continue to champion their progressive socio-economic agenda peacefully, they have a good chance to emerge as a formidable political party.

Hence my advice, as a Nepali citizen and compatriot, to the CPN-Maoist to take a long-term view in their own enlightened self-interest, and the interest of our nation.

The United Nations must, and will, of course, continue to be guided by its mandate in supporting the peace process in Nepal as a neutral, honest broker and helper responding to the request of the Nepali parties.

While remaining non-partisan, the UN must, and will, of course remain faithful to the internationally agreed norms and principles that guide its work – respect for human rights, the rule of law, non-violence, peaceful settlement of disputes, and adherence to pluralistic democratic practices befitting the 21st century.

This is precisely what the people of Nepal hope and expect from the United Nations. And this was the sentiment I heard over and over again in Gulmi.

Beyond peace and democracy, and indeed as the concrete dividends of peace and democracy, people expect there to be a rapid progress in their livelihoods.

It is therefore equally urgent that Nepal begins to prepare immediately an ambitious post-conflict reconstruction and development plan that can galvanize broad national consensus and international support. As in other post-conflict situations, the United Nations ought to be ready to lend strong support to Nepal in this effort.

As many of you will have heard, this has been my constant message to everybody during this visit to Nepal. I feel passionately about it both personally, as a Nepali citizen, and professionally as a UN official.

Let us dedicate this 61st anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, to our shared hope for peace in Nepal and the world, and a renewed partnership between Nepal and the UN for the achievement of the Millennium Development goals so that the children of this country can grow up to their full human potential as productive and responsible citizens of Nepal and the world.

Thank you.