Locally-Led Solutions in Nepal

March 27, 2017

Last week I travelled to Kathmandu, Nepal, to support the Plan International Nepal country office in developing its five-year strategic plan. The Country Strategic Plan (CSP) is the basis for all the work done in the communities where Plan operates. There are whole sets of exercises that feed into the strategy, including a detailed situational analysis of development in-country; a stakeholder analysis describing who is working on these issues and evaluating where Plan can add value; and a youth assessment to get the views of the children and young people with whom Plan works.

The workshop convened close to 60 Plan International staff and – importantly – four young people who had been sponsored through Plan’s child sponsorship programs. Child sponsorship links individual donors in other countries to children in need, and provides support to sponsorship communities in areas such as health, education, and social services. The majority of the Plan employees were from the Nepal Country Office. A handful of others, like myself, were invited to provide global perspective and strategic thinking around the choices the Country Office ultimately makes.

Nepal is beset by many challenges, all of which were exacerbated by the 2015 earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured close to 22,000. This was the worst natural disaster to strike Nepal since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake. The earthquake, combined with the six-month long Indian blockade later the same year, had a devastating effect on the economy. Of the world’s 187 countries, Nepal ranked 144 in the 2016 Human Development Index . Girls and women fare worse than boys and men in many areas. The most common forms of harmful practices are child marriage, dowry, son preference, and prejudice against women during menstruation. 

In addition, certain ethnic groups face discriminatory practices and social stigma. The Badis, a small Dalit community living mostly in the Teral districts of the Mid- and Far-Western regions of the country, are considered to be one of the most disadvantaged groups in Nepal, particularly the women and girls, given their perceived association with prostitution. Another harmful practice is deuki, an ancient custom practiced in Far-Western Nepal, by which a young girl is offered to the local Hindu temple to gain religious remit. Poor families leave their daughters at the temples as an offering to the gods, or they sell their daughters to richer families without daughters who then make the offering. These girls are not taken care of after being left at the temple and have to beg other worshippers for basic needs.

In the face of all of these obstacles, it is incredibly difficult to choose which interventions should take priority. But focus is key to success in the current environment of increased competition for funding from individual donors, as well as fewer institutional opportunities, given bilateral cuts stemming from a move toward isolationism in some countries that had previously been more generous with foreign assistance. There are limited private sector opportunities for Nepal, due to the challenging economic situation. As a global development organization dedicated to child rights, and in particular equality for girls, Plan is in the fortunate position of having a diversified set of donors. However, the diversified portfolio also presents its own set of challenges, balancing donor priorities against those that emerge from Plan’s community consultations.

The assembled group met for three days to narrow down the initial choices the country team had made, asking themselves what was most important in terms of having the greatest positive impact on children’s lives. Since Plan works at the community level with an integrated program approach, it is especially hard to separate out activities. For example, supporting increased girls’ enrollment in secondary schools requires a focus on menstrual hygiene management, as much as it does changing parents’ perceptions about the value of educating girls. So many girls drop out of school when they reach puberty since there are no sanitation facilities to accommodate them.

The assembled team rose to the challenge, working closely in small groups to assess each opportunity and debate where efforts should ultimately be focused. The Nepali staff is an experienced group of professionals with considerable expertise in Nepal’s development: some team members had been working with Plan for at least 20 years. All of them possessed detailed knowledge about the challenges communities faced and the activities that would help lift people out of poverty, enabling their children to learn, lead, decide, and thrive.

The most powerful interventions came from the young people who had been sponsored children. One of the women advocated for a focus on ending child marriage and child trafficking, as well as eradicating violence against girls in home and at school. She knew well how hard it is to succeed in an environment that violates the most basic human rights for girls.

There is a lot of discussion around the value of foreign assistance these days, and Plan’s experience speaks to the need for a shift in how development funding is used. Budget cuts do threaten the ability of organizations like Plan to deliver much-needed support to countries and communities that are trying to improve lives, but even existing funding can often be leveraged more effectively. What is clear from my time in Nepal is that development effectiveness and sustainability rests on locally-led approaches. Without the ownership of the communities served, no activities will have lasting effect. And, without Nepali leadership driving the process and steering Plan to the most impactful interventions, the results will not be successful.