Nepal’s Future Depends on Radical Social and Political Changes, asserts new report

15 Dec 2004

Kathmandu, Nepal, 15 December -- “Nepal is currently undergoing the most painful period in its history,” asserts a powerful new report launched today in Kathmandu, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme. The Nepal Human Development Report 2004 does more than merely examine the root causes of the country’s current political and economic crises. This forthright publication offers a specific and practical “reform agenda” recommending “radical shifts in policies, priorities and institutions.”

With the restoration of a multi-party democracy in the 1990s, Nepal witnessed numerous economic reforms and improved living standards, says the Report. However, the benefits of social and economic development have varied inequitably across gender, caste, ethnic and geographic lines. “People’s needs have gone unfulfilled, institutions have weakened, and policies have failed to reach the poor, leaving vast segments of the population outside mainstream development,” notes the Report.

“This report clearly shows that Nepal is in deep crisis. However, the situation is not hopeless and things can be reversed dramatically by placing empowerment at the center of the country’s development and reform agenda” says Sriram Pande the lead author of the Nepal Human Development Report 2004.

The publication asserts that unequal social, economic and political empowerment in the country “have provided fertile ground for the existing conflict.” It notes that “The ongoing conflict and political instability threaten the very foundation of democracy. The country’s most urgent priority is the need to make its institutions work for all people and to ensure the democratization of the three branches of government.”

The candid report highlights an unprecedented Human Empowerment Index (HEI) which examines the interplay between exclusionary practices and development. The new HEI brings together the available social, economic and political indicators into one composite index of empowerment. The Report probes the extent to which these dimensions of empowerment reach across Nepal’s regions and major groups of its disadvantaged citizens: women, Dalits, indigenous peoples, the physically disabled, children and the elderly.

“This radical report packs a punch in the word “empowerment,” says Matthew Kahane, UNDP Resident Representative in Nepal. “It calls for dramatic reforms in a difficult time for the country. At the heart of the report is the idea that all citizens, including the poorest and most vulnerable, must be part of the development agenda if Nepal is to reach its fullest economic and social potential.”

The Report examines the country, in part, through the lens of the Human Empowerment Index (HEI) and its three fundamental components: economic, political and socio-cultural. Economic empowerment includes opportunities to pursue productive employment. Political empowerment involves freedom to take part in political debate, to dissent from majority views, and to mobilize for change. Socio-cultural empowerment in the Report includes several aspects of development, such as access to health care, education, communication, and even cultural freedom.

The report notes that when there are large incongruities between the three elements of empowerment, the magnitude becomes a source of frustration exploited effectively by the Maoist insurgency. These geographic areas become strongholds of the Maoists’ thrust into the rest of the country. An example is in the Mid-and Far- Western Mountains where there is low socio-economic empowerment on the one hand, and a higher political empowerment on the other. This high political empowerment reflects rising expectations of people in these regions, but the low level of economic power by contrast, is “a source of disenchantment that leads to conflict in various forms.” In other words, failure to deliver on promises of socio-economic betterment and governance reform fuels the violent conflict that now engulfs the country.

The report also examines the country’s human development, concluding that poverty has become intractable and employment opportunities increasingly scarce. “Human development over the years in Nepal has not taken place fast enough to defuse conflict,” says the report. Nepal’s Human Development Index (HDI), which measures life expectancy, literacy and per capita income, is lower than all the South Asian nations except Pakistan, according to the report.

Within the country, stark differences emerge. “The continued impoverishment and underdevelopment of the Mid- and Far Western regions of Nepal constitute a glaring example of geographic exclusion that has shut every population segment – irrespective of caste, religion and sex – out of mainstream development,” says the report.

Nepal’s education system has been unable to enhance the access of women and disadvantaged indigenous communities. While the overall literacy rate is just over 50%, only 43% of all women are literate.  Only 6% of students come from the poorest 50% of households. The representation of girls from this poorest group is virtually nil, says the report. Rural-urban gaps abound. Settlements in mountainous and remote hill regions do not have adequate access to education.

Life expectancy in Nepal, about 61 years, remains one of the lowest in South Asia. The high level of maternal mortality stems from the low level of access to pre- and post- natal care. About 90% of all births take place at home without professional health assistance.

 Policy reforms over the past decade have yet to show visible impact in promoting growth that benefits the poor. The report predicts that two-thirds of new entrants into the labour force – 200,000 each year – are unlikely to be absorbed into the labour market. Self-employment still accounts for more than 67% of livelihoods, and of the total self-employed, 78% work in agriculture. Moreover, 73% of the non-agricultural labour force works in the informal sector. Together with agricultural activities, largely unorganized and self-employed in nature, informal sector employment has reached 93%. They continue to operate outside of the realm of public policy, bereft of collective bargaining power and job security.


The hard-hitting reform agenda includes the following recommendations:

Deepen Democracy

Specifically, the Report calls for public hearings in the appointment of positions in constitutional bodies to ensure honest and qualified people are appointed. An autonomous Commission on Human Rights should be established with a network throughout the country. Separate Commissions on Women, Dalits (Nepali for a person who is oppressed) and Indigenous People should be made full-fledged constitutional entities to safeguard the dignity of those citizens. It calls for electoral reforms free for ensuring fair representation of all socio-cultural groups.

The report recommends that the civil service must be de-politicized to enhance performance. It furthermore suggests a “literal re-formation and restructuring” of the current administrative zones, districts and villages to ensure devolution of central authority and the strengthening of local governance.

Remove Discriminatory Laws and Practices

Discrimination in the existing Civil Code in terms of property rights, citizenship on hereditary basis, reproductive health and abortion have to be eliminated, state the report.  To abolish all forms of discriminatory practices, not just those that work against women, Nepal must develop a means to ensure that the Civil Code and other legal instruments are enforced. The Report recommends establishing “vigilance committees” at the grassroots levels to keep track of compliance with established rules and laws. It calls for decentralizing jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to the Appellate Courts, and establishing separate benches for civil and criminal cases in the district courts. It also urges that basic legal education be incorporated at the secondary-level schools to enhance the legal empowerment of citizens.

Transform Agriculture

Nepal’s agriculture sector is marked by subsistence farming and pervasive under-employment. The Report notes that 90% of the poor are concentrated in the agriculture sector. Therefore to successfully address poverty challenges, Nepal must pursue agriculture-led growth. This means that “agriculture must undergo major reforms. Landlessness is increasing at an alarming rate; 29% of rural households own no land, making their poverty almost intractable,” says the Report.

The Report recommends community-driven land reforms and the creation of a land bank to fund land purchases for agriculture. Landless households that want to engage in agriculture should have easy access to the land bank, along with credit from the bank, using the purchased land as collateral.

It calls for redistribution of land to encourage rural populations to commercialize agriculture and allow for some land to be used for other productive sectors. Aside from land redistribution, this would require the enlargement of employment opportunities through rapid expansion of the manufacturing and service sectors.


Expand Equitable Education and Health Care

The state must guarantee the right to basic education and health care, says the report. The report calls for a restructuring of the education system that would emphasize technical and vocational education at the secondary and higher levels. Education must be compulsory at the primary level for both girls and boys, says the Report. At the secondary and higher levels of schooling, the government should establish quotas for the Dalits, disadvantaged ethnic groups, women and the poor.  

Similarly, the country’s health services are centrally managed, with little participation by local communities in either health policy decision-making or the monitoring of health service delivery.  The report says that primary health care should be available to every citizen to ensure accessible, affordable, quality health services. This should include preventive and curative medicine; traditional and modern care; population planning and a comprehensive maternal and childcare system.

Create Employment

Nearly 90 percent of employment in Nepal remains in the informal sector, which is exploitative in nature and lacking in social security, notes the report. It calls for ensuring a minimum wage and social security for informal workers both within and outside agriculture.  Policies that discriminate against women’s wages and employment possibilities must be strictly prohibited through better enforcement of rules and regulations. Special employment programmes for the disadvantaged must be introduced, according the report.

Remittances from abroad have become an increasingly important contribution to GNP.  The report, therefore, recommends a thorough assessment of the international labour market to identify potential employment opportunities. Key to this will be the formulation of policies to protect the rights and welfare of those who work abroad.

On the domestic front, the report calls for an overhaul of training programmes in government ministries to eliminate duplication and strengthen effectiveness. Training should be provided for people who want to leave land-based occupations. In addition, training for modern farming technology should be offered to those who opt for agricultural livelihoods.

Protect and Empower the Disadvantaged

Fair representation of women, Dalits and indigenous people must be guaranteed at the parliament and local levels. Legal codes must be changed and legal aid provided to protect the rights of victims of domestic violence. Currently, there is no comprehensive law on domestic violence, says the report. Broad-based awareness campaigns must strike at the root causes of such violence. The report calls for stringent legal measure to halt the trafficking of girls and women to India and other countries. The porous border with India contributes to the trafficking of some 12,000 girls and women annually, according to the report, 20 percent of whom are under the age of 16. The report adds that eliminating child labour through universal education is the sole means of overcoming intergenerational poverty. Basic education must be compulsory. It further calls for more aggressive programmes against child labour, and investing in children even before their birth, through strengthened prenatal health care.




Contact Information

For more information pls. contact Sangita Khadka, Development Communications Officer, UNDP Nepal phone 5523200 ext. 1077