The long road to achieve the MDGs

Pamir Gautam, Prerna Bomzan
Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN)

Aimed at improving the quality of human life worldwide, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) contained in the Millennium Declaration; however, fall short of addressing the structural problems of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, disease, environmental destruction and development effectiveness. Moreover, the goals are not inclusive of critical issues of human rights and justice, which are essential for poverty eradication and sustainable development. Hence, the MDGs represent the very minimum standards that must be achieved for the world’s citizens[1].

Nepal being one of the UN-defined least developed countries (LDCs) is characterized by poverty as well as vulnerability, not only on socio-economic terms but, also acute geographical and environmental constraints. It is a landlocked mountain country susceptible to frequent glacial lake outbursts and earthquakes, with the increasing climate change catastrophe further subjecting it to erratic precipitation as well as heat and cold spells. Nonetheless, against this background, Nepal has made significant progress towards the MDGs.

The overall population living below the national poverty line decreased from 42% in 1996 to 25.4% in 2011. Similarly, there has been a decrement in the country’s Gini coefficient of inequality from 0.45 in 2008 to 0.32 in 2011. However, when measured at $2 per day poverty line, 77.6% of the Nepalese population lives below this threshold[2]. Moreover, reduction of poverty has been uneven and inequalities continue to remain a challenge on Nepal’s development path.

Increased spending on the health sector has seen great strides and hence, Nepal is likely to achieve the goals related to health by 2015. In September 2010, Nepal received the MDGs Award for outstanding national leadership, commitment and progress towards achieving MDG 5 on improving maternal health. However, maternal health care is inadequate and maternal mortality still remains unacceptably high. Even the progress made is disproportionately concentrated away from the disadvantaged: 92% of the wealthiest Nepali women receive antenatal care from a skilled provider, while only 33% of the poorest do; and only a dismal 11% of the poorest women receive delivery services from skilled birth attendants compared to over four fifths of the wealthiest women (82%)[3].

A boost to the education budget also has helped in making remarkable improvement on MDG 2. The Net Enrolment Rate (NER) at primary levels is 95.1% and the corresponding gender parity is 0.99. However, the overall survival rate to grade five and grade eight is 82.8% and 67.5% respectively[4]. Despite having made progress in enrollment rate, the quality of education imparted is still questionable. In 2011, only 46% of students from public schools passed the SLC (tenth grade national exam) compared to 90% from private schools[5].

Nepal’s MDGs’ Progress Status at a Glance





Percentage of Poor (National Poverty line)

42 (1990)

25.4 (2010)


Underweight children under five years of age

57 (1990)

31 (2011)[6]


Net Enrollment Rate in primary education[7]

64 (90)

93.7 (2010)


Ratio of girls and boys in primary education

0.56 (1990)

0.99 (2011)


Under-5 mortality rate (per 1,000 live births)[8]

141 (1990)

48 (2011)


Infant mortality rate (per 1,000 live births)[9]

97 (1990)

39 (2011)


Maternal mortality ratio (per 100,000 live births)[10]

850 (1990)

229 (2010)


Skilled birth attendance (%)[11]

7.4 (1991)

28.8 (2010)


Forest cover (% land area)

33.7 (1990)

25.4 (2010)


Safe drinking water (% population)[12]

76 (1990)

89 (2010)


Basic sanitation (% population)[13]

10 (1990)

31 (2010)


Despite considerable progress, there are glaring gaps as Nepal’s development trend is characterized by an increase in food insecurity and hunger, unemployment and underemployment, gender-based discrimination and violence, rich-poor divide, foreign aid dependency, political instability and rampant corruption.

Employment provides the only sustainable means of poverty reduction but achieving decent employment is a formidable challenge for Nepal. The Nepal Labour Force Survey 2008 states that the largely informal agriculture sector employs 74% of the currently employed labor force aged 15 and above. As much as 70% of those with main jobs outside agriculture also fall in the informal sector. Comparing all age groups, unemployment is highest among the youth. Forty-six percent of Nepal’s youth labor force in the 20-24 age group is underutilized. Both, rural and urban unemployment among youth have increased; the latter almost doubled from 7.6% to 13% in the last ten years. At the same time, the employment-to-population ratio has declined and the underemployment ratio has increased. Only 16% are employed in the service sector while 10% in the secondary sector.

In fact, the progress achieved in reducing poverty in Nepal is the result of high remittance inflow as around 56% of Nepali households receive remittances. Including students, estimates for the total number of Nepalese living outside Nepal range from 3 to 5 million. This would imply that between one third and one half of the population aged between 15 and 34 years are currently outside the country[14].

Little progress has been made on improving neonatal mortality with 38.8% of under-five children in Nepal being underweight. An unacceptable number of peoples particularly children still die each year in Nepal from diarrheal diseases. Access to health services in rural areas is significantly worse than in urban areas due to lack of facilities and high levels of absenteeism among health workers. Even though Nepal has made progress in ensuring safe drinking water for 89% of its population, 69% of the population still lacks the facility of improved sanitation[15].

The persistence of poverty in Nepal is due to lack of political will and vision of the State to address the structural causes of the problem. Poverty originates in unequal command over both economic and political resources within society and the unjust nature of a social order which has created and perpetuates these inequities[16]. These inequities in turn are creating an atmosphere of deprivation and human insecurity in Nepal. Moreover, the neo-liberal international aid architecture which undermines people-centred development only adds to the creation and perpetuation of poverty and inequity in the country. The fiscal year 2011/12 shows that the per capita debt burden has expanded by over 21 % to almost USD 238.

Gender Justice, a Far Cry

Nepal has ratified the CEDAW, thereby legally binding itself to put the CEDAW provisions into practice. Further, the Gender Equality Act 2006; the National Women’s Commission Act 2007; the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act 2007; the Domestic Violence (Crime and Punishment Act) 2009 and the 5-year strategic plan of the National Women’s Commission (2009-2014) have all been put in place. However, little or no implementation of these legal provisions remains a major challenge.

Apart from continuing efforts to invest in legal, economic, political and social institutions for ending gender discrimination, gender-based violence and empowering women, they still suffer from economic, social, and cultural discrimination. Though women's contribution to agricultural production is above 60%, the total land holding is only 8%. Over 70% women workers are confined to self- employed, unpaid and low wage informal activities whereas 12% of women are in the civil service and 1.76 % is in the judicial service[17]. In 2009, of total female government employees, 78% were in non-gazetted categories, 16% were in classless categories, and only 6% were in gazetted positions. Non-gazetted officers are basically support staff with no decision-making power. Even women’s representation at the officer level (Gazetted Class II and III) has decreased from 6.2% in 2000 to 5.7% in 2009[18]. Similarly, wide gender gap in tertiary education and employment persists. Although, overall literacy rate (for population aged 5 years and above) has increased from 54.1% in 2001 to 65.9% in 2011, male literacy rate is 75.1% compared to female literacy rate of 57.4%[19]. Maintaining accountability and capacity in state mechanisms to translate gender-responsive polices and legislations into action is still a major challenge. The progress achieved in Nepal in ending gender discrimination and empowering women has been measured only in terms of improvements in primary and secondary education, and reduction in maternal mortality rates[20].

Food Insecurity and Climate Change

Over a third of Nepal's 75 districts suffer from high food insecurity with chronic food insecurity affecting up to 80 % of the population in heavily-affected areas such as the western Terai. With a Global Hunger Index (GHI) of 20.3,the severity of hunger in Nepal is alarming. Nepal has been put in a position of serious persistent hunger based on data which shows 16 % of the population to be undernourished, about half of the children under-five are stunted, and 38.8 % of under-five children to be underweight[21]. A Nepali in an average spends 59 % of his/her income on food. Research undertaken during the 2008–2009 food price crisis showed that the poorest rural families were spending 78 % of their income on food making them highly vulnerable to food price volatility[22]. As the current food distribution mechanism is not sufficient enough to protect the poor people from unprecedented rise in food prices, the government must invest in developing effective food distribution strategies.

Nepal is a country critically vulnerable to climate change because of its unique topography and fragile mountain ecosystem. Of 16 countries listed globally as being at ‘extreme risks from climate change over the next 30 years’, Nepal ranks fourth. Despite being the least Green House Gas emitting country, Nepal has been paying an exorbitantly high price for the unrestrained consumerism in the developed countries[23]. Increase in landslides, glacial lake outbursts and consequent recurrence of floods, erratic precipitation, and heat stress are already impacting agricultural production and food security in the country. Agriculture is the mainstay of the Nepalese economy as 65 % of the population is engaged in agriculture. The harmful effects of climate change are therefore, depriving majority of the Nepalese population of their livelihoods, condemning them to perpetual poverty and human insecurity. Thus, the adverse impact of climate change threaten the overarching goals of reducing poverty and enhancing economic well-being and could reverse much of the investment made to achieve the MDGs in Nepal. Under these circumstances, it is necessary for the government to prioritise cost effective, sustainable strategies for adapting to climate change as well as to make a firm political stand to developed countries for drastic emission cuts, adequate adaptation funds and technology transfers without intellectual property barriers.

Inadequate and Lop-Sided Social Protection

The social security system is governed by the Labour Act 1992 and its supplementary Labour Rules; applicable only to the permanent job holders of the formal sector. Provisions are inadequate and limited to Provident Fund, Gratuity, Sick Leaves, Maternity Leaves and other minor compensation and benefits. Pension is enjoyed only by government employees in the civil service, police and army including those in some parts of the public sector. The informal sector comprising 96 % of the population is completely unprotected and vulnerable sans any form of social security arrangement. Therefore, the poorest, marginalised and excluded populations face constant threat to their lives and livelihoods.

The draft Social Security Act endorsed in 2012 in still in limbo. It has identified six core social security schemes - unemployment, disability, maternity, medical, dependent and old-age benefits. The delay in enforcing the Act will not only deprive workers in the formal sector of the targeted benefits but more importantly, it will be an issue of injustice as they have been contributing 1% of their monthly salary as social security tax since the last three years or so. Only in the last fiscal year 2011/2012, 742.46 million Nepalese Rupees was collected which however is unaccounted for due to absence of a proper accountability mechanism in place.

Persistent Political Crisis

Nepal has experienced drastic political turmoil and consequent changes in its 22-year old history of democracy, achieved by the first people’s movement in 1990. After only six years of democratic taste, the Maoist conflict with the State broke out in 1996, which rocked the country for a decade. The year 2005 saw the royal coup; the then constitutional monarch Gyanendra taking the executive powers directly in his hands. And, interestingly, by a unique coming together of democratic forces and the Maoists, the second people’s movement overthrew the monarchy in 2006, and Nepal was declared a republic.

With the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006 that formally ended the decade long civil war, came the fresh hope that the political change would usher in a new era of socio-economic advance, polity stability and a sustainable peace in the country. It was expected that the elected Constituent Assembly of 2007 will promulgate a people-centred constitution that would dismantle the historical legacy of exclusionary and discriminatory policies in the functioning of the State mechanism. However, the political parties have continued to embroil in vested personal feuds and rivalries lacking political vision and political will towards building the nation. Since 2002, there have been no local elected representatives at the municipalities, village and district levels, to this day. Having missed five consecutive deadlines to promulgate the new constitution, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved on 27 May 2012, leaving the country in a political paralysis with a caretaker government and no consensus way forward in sight. The ongoing political volatility certainly impacts the government’s ability and responsibility to address development needs in the country, as the gap between public priorities and the political discourse remains wide. There is increasing feeling of insecurity and resentment among the general population who is coming to feel that the victories of the people’s movements have been discredited by their failure to bring transformative change in the country.

Evidence in Nepal suggests that the root causes of the conflict include not only the severity of poverty and inequality but also the sense of entrenchment - that opportunities are limited or non-existent for the poor to climb out of poverty. Therefore, addressing constraints on the inclusiveness of development is critical in order to make a real difference in the lives of ordinary Nepalis and reduce the risks of instability. Systemic changes in the development approach must be undertaken to adequately address the needs and priorities of the excluded and marginalized sections of the society. A stable political structure upon which well-informed policies, institutions and mechanisms can function over time is a major determinant for people’s empowerment and strengthening Nepal’s peace and fragile democracy.


[1] LDC Watch, No MDGs without LDCs (Kathmandu: LDC Watch International Secretariat 2011).

[2] UNDP Human Development Report 2011, Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All, New York: UNDP, 2011.

[3] United Nations Country Team Nepal, United Nations Development Assistance Framework for Nepal 2013-2017: 2012 (United Nations: United Nations, 2012).

[4] Department of Education, Flash I Report 2068 (2011-012), Kathmandu: Ministry of Education, 2011.

[5] United Nations Country Team Nepal, Nepal: A Country Analysis with a Human Face (United Nations: United Nations 2011).

[6] 42% and 14 % under 5 children are stunted and wasted respectively. Central Bureau of Statistics, Government of Nepal, 2011.

[7] Government of Nepal and United Nations Country Team of Nepal, Nepal Millennium Development Goals Progress Report 2010, (Kathmandu: GoN and UN, 2010).

[8]United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2012, UNICEF 2012.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Government of Nepal and United Nations Country Team of Nepal, Nepal Millennium Development Goals Progress Report 2010, (Kathmandu: GoN and UN, 2010).

[11] Ibid.

[12] UNICEF and World Health Organization, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2012 Update (New York: UNICEF and World Health Organization, 2012).

[13] Ibid.

[14] United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office, Nepal Peace and Development Strategy 2010-2015: A contribution to development planning from Nepal’s international development partners (Kathmandu: United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office, 2011).

[15] UNICEF and World Health Organization, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2012 Update (New York: UNICEF and World Health Organization, 2012).

[16] Rehman Sobhan, “Agents into Principals: Democratizing Development in South Asia,” in Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honour of Amartya Sen Vol. 2, ed. Kaushik Basu and Ravi Kanbur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 542-43.

[17] National Women’s Commission, Nepal’s Implementation Status of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Kathmandu: National Women’s Commission, 2011).

[18] Government of Nepal, United Nations Country Team of Nepal, Nepal Millennium Development Goals Progress Report 2010, (Kathmandu: GoN and UN, 2010).

[19] Central Bureau of Statistics, Government of Nepal 2012.

[20] United Nations Country Team Nepal, Promoting the rights of women and excluded for sustained peace and inclusive development (United Nations: United Nations, 2011).

[21] International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide, The Global Hunger Index 2012: The Challenge of Hunger: Ensuring Sustainable Food Security Under Land, Water and Energy Stresses, IFPRI, Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide, 2012.

[22] Oxfam International, Improving Food Security for Vulnerable Communities in Nepal (Oxfam GB, 2011)

[23] Rural Reconstruction Nepal, Defending Sustainable Development Agenda in Nepal: Civil Society Concerns, Briefing Paper 10 (Kathmandu: RRN, 2012).