UNICEF in Nepal – and the Quest for Equity for Children

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam
at Briefing for UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake
Kathmandu, 12 January 2012

Let me add my words of welcome to our esteemed Executive Director, Tony Lake.

Tony, your maiden visit to Nepal comes at a propitious moment. Nepal is right now in the midst of drafting a new Constitution. We are engaged in heated debates like at the great American Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

We are now at a stage that the Philadelphia Convention was when two competing visions for the future of the US Government were being debated – the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, which were eventually merged into the Connecticut Compromise.

But unlike in the US, where representatives of all participating states shared a common vision of democracy, republicanism, and federalism, even as they held differing views on the best modalities to attain their goals, unfortunately in Nepal our political parties have more fundamental ideological differences in their basic values and vision for the country.
But you will be pleased to know that the one ideal they all share is the need for greater EQUITY – which you have very wisely prescribed as the central agenda for UNICEF globally.

Indeed, the central agenda – the make or break issue – underlying our great Constitutional debate today is how best to ensure greater equity, social justice, inclusion and empowerment of the historically marginalized and deprived communities.

What kind of democracy and economic system will best deliver such results for our future generations is what we are grappling with in Nepal today.
Interestingly, UNICEF’s greatest contribution to Nepal’s development over the past four decades has actually been to promote an equity-based agenda, not necessarily conceptualized as such in theory, but as implemented in practice.

You will have noted in the exhibits of the historical tour of UNICEF in Nepal, how in the selection of its interventions and beneficiary target groups, over the decades, UNICEF supported programmes that deliberately reached the most deprived communities.

Perhaps an early programme with the greatest visual impact that UNICEF supported was control of iodine deficiency disorders.

Four decades ago, if you walked around in any crowded market place or gathering of people during festivals, you were bound to see many people with huge goiter glands in their necks.

This led to brain-damage, reduced learning and earning capacity and even cretinism, as goiter hit hardest the poorest people in remote rural areas, particularly in the hills and mountains of Nepal.

Today, you don’t see any cases of goiter – a true triumph of a programme that reached virtually everybody, including those in the bottom quintile.
When UNICEF opened its country office in Kathmandu 43 years ago, the situation of Nepal’s children was among the worst in the world.

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 UNICEF focused on problems that were the biggest killers of the poorest children – like diarrhea, pneumonia, measles and malnutrition.

UNICEF’s help in training and equipping of auxiliary nurses and midwives, female community health volunteers, support for mass vaccination programmes, vitamin A distribution and de-worming, etc. were both universal and equity-focused, targeting the most deprived communities.

As a result, Nepal is one of the few least developed countries in the world that is on track to reach MDGs 4 and 5, well ahead of the 2015 deadline.

In the 1980s, UNICEF helped a small farmers’ development programme and production credit for rural women – a precursor of today’s more famous micro-credit schemes.

These programmes did much to empower poor rural women to improve their lives and those of their children.

The greatest beneficiaries of UNICEF-supported water supply and sanitation schemes were the poorest women who were spared the daily drudgery of having to walk for hours just to fetch a jar of water and to relieve themselves with dignity.

This helped improve the health and hygiene of their children and enhanced the status of women.

Forty years ago, barely a quarter of school-age children went to primary schools. Girls going to school were a rare sight. Today over 90 percent of children enroll in primary schools, a majority of them – girls.

To motivate parents to send their daughters to school, UNICEF specifically designed a programme in the 1970s and 80s to increase the number of female teachers.

In an early example of affirmative action with focus on equity, UNICEF helped build teacher training institutes and dormitories specifically for women.

This led to dramatic increase in enrolment of girls in schools, helping to narrow one of the greatest gaps in gender equality in Nepal.

These are just a few examples of how UNICEF has effectively pursued an equity agenda in Nepal, without calling it as such.

However, despite all the efforts and achievements of the past, 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, 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.

Persistence of disparity, inequality and exclusion are therefore still real, and need to be addressed with utmost seriousness.

However, in the highly polarized politics of today’s Nepal, we need to guard against 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.

If we look deeper, and examine the disaggregated data, we will find that there are privileged 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, the Supreme Court, and senior ranks in the army and police force.

But curiously, there is much less emphasis on greater equity at the level of school teachers, health workers, pre-school monitors, etc who really touch the daily lives of ordinary people, at the bottom quintile.

UNICEF, the broader UN system and other friends of Nepal 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 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 Western Terai; and the Far-Western hills being far 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.

So, to implement the equity agenda effectively, 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, and the broader UN system.

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.

But a superficial pursuit of the equity agenda poses the biggest risk of injecting divisiveness, and potential “elite capture” of the state, bypassing the truly deprived sub-groups and individuals.

While 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.

I would therefore urge the Executive Director, the Regional Director, the Resident Coordinator and the UNICEF Nepal team to pursue the equity agenda in a carefully calibrated manner to reach not just broadly defined historically marginalized groups but currently deprived specific target groups below the poverty line or the HDI thresholds.

The focus of such an equity agenda must not be just righting the wrongs of the past, but a forward-looking vision of building a bright future for all children of Nepal, and thus liberating this country from the darkness of inequity to the brightness of prosperity for all.

Thank you.