Though the government has expressed commitment to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, there is a huge financing gap for SDGs. It is estimated that Nepal requires almost $20 billion annually to achieve SDGs. Sujan Dhungana of The Himalayan Times caught up with Renaud Meyer, former resident representative of United Nations Development Programme Nepal, to know Nepal’s position on SDGs and other issues. Excerpts:
How was your impression working in Nepal?
UNDP enjoys a very good relationship with the government, development partners and Nepali people. Some still take UNDP as a non-governmental organisation while some put us in the same category as bilateral donors. Over the last four years, our constant effort has been to convey the message that UNDP is an inter-governmental organisation.We are an inter-governmental organisation meaning that we belong to Nepal. If we belong to Nepal, Nepal should not worry about our intentions and objectives because the intention and objective of UNDP are the objectives of the government.We have built a strong relationship with the government of Nepal, a relationship based on trust. As UNDP is scattered all around the world, we learn every day what really works and what does not for promoting development and come up with solutions. UNDP Nepal constantly exchanges experiences with its network throughout the world and we make Nepal benefit from this. Every five years, UNDP develops a roadmap in coordination with the government, civil society and other stakeholders, meaning that our objectives are the objectives of the government. There is a profound alignment between what Nepal wants and what people want UNDP to help them with.UNDP’s only agenda is what the government wants and what we call the normative agenda which is all the international conventions, treaties and agreements that Nepal has signed. Due to all these reasons, UNDP has been able to establish and strengthen good partnership with Nepal.Nepal has made tremendous progress in the socioeconomic front despite many challenges — political challenges during the post-conflict period which created a lot of instability. The decision making process was directly affected by the instability and we have to realise that a country needs timely decisions for development to happen.Similarly, Nepal has progressed a lot though being vulnerable to disasters. The country faced a massive earthquake immediately when I joined Nepal office of UNDP. As a result, UNDP’s development agendas got affected at least for one year then as we had to focus more on the response to the earthquake including rehabilitation and reconstruction.
As you have closely gone through Nepal’s development process, what is your assessment of Nepal’s progress in achieving the SDGs?
SDGs were adopted in September 2015, which was a very difficult period in Nepal. We were still looking after the final humanitarian aspects of the earthquake response and moving to recovery. The Constitution was being adopted during the same year and Nepal was still in a period of political instability.Very understandably, the SDGs and their adoption by the country at large have been the priority of everyone. Despite that, Nepal today is considered a leader in SDGs at the global level. Nepal is one of the first countries that produced a baseline report on the SDGs. Nepal is one of the first countries that went for voluntary national report (VNR) in July 2017. Similarly, Nepal is one of the first countries that has produced a full and comprehensive costing and financing strategy for the SDGs which was released by the National Planning Commission a few weeks back.SDGs are the convergence point for everyone. While UNDP worked with people at the local community level in different districts, we found that SDGs resonate with the aspirations of people. Since all the 17 goals are directly related to the people nobody is against the SDGs. Similarly, the government’s vision of ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’ is very much aligned with the aspirations of SDGs and its whole concept. The challenges that remain are related to another theme attached to the SDGs, which states ‘Leave No One Behind’.The country should be concerned about rising inequalities and continue with its efforts in making sure that the positive benefits of development are equally shared among all the people and that they empower everyone to contribute to development.The government should make all vulnerable communities (minority groups, widows, ethnic communities, and people with disability) feel that they are also a part of the development process. All these communities should be the beneficiaries of the development process.
Nepal has put on hold the plan to graduate from LDC status. Do you think Nepal will be prepared for the graduation in the next review in 2021?
We all know that Nepal has already met the criteria to be eligible for graduation. But what is more important is what does this mean for Nepal. I think that the discourse in this regard is positively evolving. When I came to Nepal four years ago, Nepal’s graduation was considered by many as a symbol of pride. Slowly, there has been a better understanding in Nepal that what is the point of the country graduating if the benefits are not felt by the majority of the people.If Nepal graduates next week, will it bring about change in the life of people in Parsa or any other remote area? This is a major question. What is important is to think about what socioeconomic model is required for Nepal to bring everybody out of poverty and graduate everyone out of least development.Graduating from LDC is of course important for a country as it is a symbol of development.Along with the graduation, Nepal should also look into the consequences of this graduation — how will the global community look at Nepal. Once Nepal graduates from LDC status, the country will not be able to enjoy some benefits from the international community that it has been enjoying today.
Resource mobilisation is crucial to achieve SDGs. How do you think can Nepal fill the resource gap and how can UNDP help in resource mobilisation?
UNDP was very happy to work with NPC in developing the costing and financing strategy on SDGs. Every country has a development dream and every dream requires a certain cost. In fact, it is very crucial to know the actual cost for SDGs and the financing for these goals. Very often people who are sceptical about SDGs say SDGs are very expensive. We estimate that an investment of $20 billion is required annually to achieve the SDGs in line with the 2030 targets in Nepal. This shows that a good sizable amount of resources is necessary for SDGs. Now the other question that comes together is what is the cost of not achieving SDGs for anyone — an individual, local government, community or a private firm? I think the cost of not achieving SDGs is way higher than the cost of achieving it. But we all agree that collecting such a huge amount of financial resources for a country like Nepal to achieve SDGs is difficult. It is true that we do not have money.Nepal still has a financing gap of around $6 billion annually for SDGs. So, where is this money going to come from? It is through the private sector and foreign investments. Nepal is hosting the investment summit this month. We believe that the government will be able to inspire investors through trust.Nepal must be able to improve its attractiveness in the international market. We know that there is huge untapped potential in various sectors here. But it is important how Nepal makes these potential sectors more attractive, safer, secured and economically sound for investors.Incidents like international companies withdrawing from Nepal should not continue anymore.The government really has to improve the business environment in Nepal. Similarly, public investment also needs to be maximised. In the years that I have been in Nepal there has not been a single year when the national budget was fully utilised.This shows that there are issues within the government regarding its capacity to spend. So, private and public financing needs to be enhanced to fill financing gap for SDGs.
How do you assess the role of private sector in achieving SDGs, especially against the backdrop of private sector in Nepal still being unable to inject desirable investment?
When I talk to potential investors, they say that legislation in Nepal is not as good as compared to other countries.Countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia attract way more FDI despite different weaknesses.We know that Nepal suffers from limitations that nobody can change. Nepal is a landlocked country, electricity and power cost is very high and a majority of skilled labour today prefers to migrate rather than stay in the country. Except the natural weaknesses, other weaknesses can be addressed through good governance. It is very much related to the will of the government, bureaucrats and leadership. Good governance will result in enhancing Nepal’s attractiveness for investment.
A version of this article appears in print on March 26, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.