Change of course

  • Development must address the pledge to achieve Sustainable Development Goals

Dec 20, 2018-

Over the last several decades, our development plans mostly focused on infrastructure with no visible linkages to our most fundamental concerns. This led to an alarming trade deficit, a volume of food imports which has reached an unacceptable level for an agrarian economy, dismal employment opportunities, and an ever-increasing dependence on remittance to support families which is harrowing. Without addressing these foundational issues, development, in any real sense, will remain a distant dream. To put it graphically, a bouquet of flowers with a get-well-soon card only looks good when an ailing person is recovering with the right treatment following a proper diagnosis of the problem. Otherwise, it makes no real sense other than the giver expressing best wishes.

The development of infrastructure such as roads and communication has made basic amenities available in what until a few decades ago were remote places. Liquefied petroleum gas and kerosene have reached most villages which has helped save forests and alleviate the issue of indoor pollution. The market has deeply penetrated the hinterland with all necessary consumer goods from Indian Basmati rice to Chinese garments, and instant noodles to soft drinks. Health and education services provided by the private sector are available in most towns to those who can afford them. 


Higher living cost

With these facilities, however, the living cost has gone up. Local income levels (largely from agriculture) fall short to meet the basic needs of families, most of whom only have the option of leaving for the global labour market. It is believed that more than 3 million (some estimates put it at more than 5 million) Nepali youths are working as migrant labourers abroad. They send more than Rs600 billion annually in remittance which is about one-third of our Gross Domestic Product. Remittance has not only helped reduce poverty but also helped other service sectors such as transport and banking to thrive. This has also supported the transition to a heavily import-based economy which ultimately earns valuable revenue for the government. 

Regrettably, this new economy has put those who live on a fixed income--such as salary earners, pensioners and the like--in acute economic stress. Families without someone to ‘spare’ as a migrant worker are equally stressed. Correcting these circumstances requires plans that address the actual issues with appropriate strategies. Rightly, the country moved from a unitary system of polity to a federal one giving local governments full responsibility to plan development. This makes even more sense in a country where the development needs and aspirations of the people are as diverse as its geography and demography. 

The high hopes placed by the constitution on local governments faces as many challenges as it solves. With smaller units of local governments, coordination between development sectors is quite possible which the past development efforts failed to achieve. How multiple governments will work in coordination and collaboration to deliver long awaited development in the villages and remote hills remains to be seen. 

Every single rupee spent from the public coffers for development must address the national commitment of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This means that every project must consider how it can contribute to realising the SDG agenda which requires the development process to mainstream the philosophy of sustainable development. 

Not exactly sustainable development, but the past experience of mainstreaming cross-cutting issues such as poverty and gender in development shows that most of them ended up being projects. These projects did well while they were in operation, but they failed to influence the mindset of planners to take on board the philosophy of mainstreaming cross-cutting issues within development plans. Therefore, despite huge investments in good projects, we are still facing underdevelopment on all fronts, especially with regard to the question of how our plans respond to problems ranging from disaster risk reduction and agriculture to protecting water sources--all key matters that need to be addressed to achieve the SDGs.

Development projects generally embrace situational values, a term described by Pulitzer Award winning journalist Thomas Friedman in his 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded as focusing on what one can get here and now instead of sustainable values which stress protection and restoration of resources. Many SDGs goals aim to address the same agendas that were prioritised under past development efforts. So what will ensure that the same stipulations will be realised this time? This is a tall order since the development plans of local governments have to work towards supporting the SDGs despite being bound to their election manifestos. What complicates matters further is the different capacity and resources of each local government to tackle issues that are different from each other. 


What not to do

Decisions regarding development are always political but actual development is not. Development is about how individual citizens can take advantage of the opportunities available. But in our case, the number of migrant workers has soared to record highs even when the country is boasting about having built more than 90,000 km of roads and other infrastructure besides making great leaps in aviation and communication. These infrastructures, instead of addressing the core issues, spurred situational values. The question of if and how these remarkable progresses have helped reduce the trade deficit or bring down dependence on remittance is what lies at the core of the SDGs.

Local governments must be aware why development pursuits did not deliver in the past. Failing to learn from past experiences and going about business as usual will only result in the same fate. What is needed is repairing or building the very foundation of development--the local economy and local capability. We need to have confidence in our own foundations which are either being weakened or waning in some instances. 

The approach to development has to be for the distant future while addressing immediate needs. This requires taking a deliberate step to address the lack of job opportunities, widening income gap, soaring trade deficit, and ever-increasing dependence on remittance.


Upadhya writes on issues relating to watershed, climate change, disasters and their intersections with society.

Published: 20-12-2018 06:54

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