31 Oct - 6 Nov 2014 #730

World champion country

Nepal’s astounding progress in saving lives of babies is not matched by looking after them when they grow into adults
Ashutosh Tiwari
When experts talk positively about Nepal’s development, they refer to social indicators, not to economic and political realities. And by any measure, with each passing year, our social indicators do look impressive.

Nepal’s population growth rate, for instance, used to be among the highest in the world at 2.6 per cent per year in the early 1990s. It is now down to 1.2 per cent. Even the rural poor are having fewer children, partly because our infant mortality rate, which used to be almost 150 per 1,000 live births 20 years ago, presently stands at 36 and is declining further.

We are living longer: the average life expectancy at birth is just shy of 70 – unimaginable only two generations ago.

A little more than one-third of our population is 14 or younger, and more kids go to school all across Nepal these days than ever in history, though poverty continues to keep some children out of school. Even in the Constituent Assembly-II, women hold nearly one-third of the seats, higher than what most parliaments around the world can boast.

All these are remarkable social achievements indeed made possible by the continuous, if underappreciated, hard work of the legions of female community health volunteers, women’s groups, community organisations, civil society institutions, NGOs and international development agencies, all of them, depending on what you look at, working either together with or in spite of the government.

But as statistician Hans Rosling pointed out at a public lecture in Kathmandu last August, what is even more remarkable is that Nepal has been able to amass an enviable list of social achievements at too low an income, which stands at about $600 per person per year. Rosling marvelled at the enormous gap that exists between Nepal’s social progress and economic development.

He brought puzzled smiles on the faces of his audience when he asserted that in combining a low rate of income growth with a high rate of social progress, Nepal must surely be the world’s champion country.

Indeed, our paradoxical reality these days is that we now raise millions of healthy and semi-educated young Nepalis, most of whom, on reaching adulthood, have little option but to head abroad for a salary because their own country is unable to provide them with jobs that sustain lives at home. It’s the sheer lack of income that makes life unjust and depressing for many in Nepal.

This is why the question all our representatives should be asking is: how are we to raise incomes for all in Nepal? For answers, they do not have to invent new solutions. There are examples of what have worked well in other countries.

Make it easier for Nepalis to start, run and grow businesses that sell goods and services. Lower policy and logistical hurdles to attract investment from outside to complement the domestic resources that can be used to pay for infrastructure works on roads and highways, water and sewer lines, electrical grids and telephone networks, schools and hospitals, and the like. 

Put in enforceable mechanisms to monitor quality and against unfair practices. With more people thus working and earning, tax revenues will increase, and use them to sustain the gains made in the social sector, thereby gradually reducing that sector’s dependence on foreign aid.

Urban elites and the media outlets love to bash I/NGOs for all sorts of perceived and imagined social sins. But in a country where NGO-driven social development has verifiably outpaced the rate of economic progress and political stability, it’s time they asked the state and the political parties: for a socially advanced nation like ours, why do you insist on keeping us in poverty?

Read also:

First the good news, Kunda Dixit

Where is the peace dividend?, Editorial

Save the children, Editorial

Remitting knowhow, Ashutosh Tiwari

The politics of foreign aid, Sunir Pandey

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