south asia watch on trade, economics and environment

COVID-19 may disrupt Nepal’s progress in SDGs

Ms. Neelu Thapa

Despite Nepal’s considerable progress in meeting targets set by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the COVID-19 pandemic has made strengthening efforts for effective implementation of SDGs more urgent. Although Nepal is still assessing the full implications of COVID-19, the signs are clear that it will have a comprehensive and long-term cross sectoral negative impact, severely undermining the nation’s capacity to implement SDGs.

The recently submitted voluntary national review of SDG implementation shows that Nepal made significant progress in poverty reduction between 2015 and 2019 reducing poverty by 1.1 percent each year, raising the average per capita income. However, only modest progress has been observed in the indicators related to hunger, nutrition and food security. There has been significant progress in some indicators related to health while challenges remain in meeting the targets of maternal and child mortality. Indicators on education show good progress but the impact is uneven across different provinces and groups as ensuring the quality of education, retention at school, and promoting technical and vocational education are still a challenge.

Progressing on the SDG indicators is more important for Nepal since it aspires to graduate to a developing nation from a least developed country status in the next few years. Since the first voluntary national review in 2017, Nepal has made consistent efforts to accelerate progress towards achieving the SDGs. The high growth rate (7 percent on an average) has remarkably reduced poverty. Remittance inflows have contributed to reducing extreme poverty levels in Nepal and resulted in improving nutritional, educational and health outcomes. Yet, multidimensional poverty, structural constraints, mountainous geophysical features and detrimental impacts of climate change continue to pose a serious challenge for rapid, inclusive and sustainable development in Nepal.

However, different calamities, disasters and the circumstances that were beyond its control have undermined its efforts. The 2015 earthquake led to huge losses of lives and property, and also had extensive adverse impacts on Nepal’s development efforts.

Making speedy progress in reaching the SDGs in the remaining 10 years would be an uphill task even in normal situations. But just when Nepal was starting to emerge from the devastating impacts of the earthquake of 2015, the coronavirus disease emerged. The disease has already claimed the lives of 52 people and infected more than 19,000 people by the end of July. The lockdown imposed on 24 March was finally lifted on 21 July but the schools, recreational centres are still closed as the threat of infection is still persistent. The COVID-19 pandemic and the containment measures that has caused abrupt halt in economic activities is expected to have short- to medium-term impact on the fight against poverty, nutrition and food security, health and education outcomes.

The pandemic may not only undermine the present achievements, lockdowns and disruptions in economic activities, social distancing and other restrictions imposed can have long-term impact on the lives and livelihoods of the people and the socioeconomic situation of the country. Multiple factors such as loss of employment, rising prices of essential items and health-related concerns may have a combined effect on daily wage earners and people with limited income. For example, the immediate fallout of the pandemic has also been felt in education sector. Though most schools and colleges have started virtual learning programs in order to continue the learning process online, it may not be as effective as the earlier learning method. Further, the digital divide between the rich and the poor may widen the existing gap in education. Countries like Nepal will have a hard time confronting the multidimensional impacts of the pandemic, thus, adversely affecting the efforts towards the effective implementation of the SDGs.

The 2015 earthquake had reduced the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, which 2015 pushed 2.5–3.5 percent of population below the poverty line. The consequences of the COVID-19 needs to be checked by implementing policies to aid economic recovery that provides targeted support to the vulnerable population. Interventions focusing on higher economic productivity, innovation and gainful employment is required in order to address uplift the economic status of people. This would ensure even distribution of the progress among all the sections of the population supporting the agenda of "Leaving No One Behind" yet again.

Policy initiatives have been taken to reorient economic activities with greater emphasis on the agriculture, skill development and employment generating activities for migrant returnees and unemployed people, enhance government expenditure on priority infrastructure projects and provide special credit facilities to the affected sectors. Nepal now needs to further strengthen these efforts in view of the COVID-19 pandemic which is now going to have serious consequences on all the sectors and are going to impact the vulnerable population more. There is a huge financing gap in investment for the SDGs amounting to NPR 585 billion. Improving revenue administration capabilities, streamlining development assistance to national needs and priorities and policies to facilitate foreign direct investment is necessary to bridge the financing gap. In addition, capacity enhancement of the government as well as all stakeholders, including those at the subnational levels, will enhance coherence, integration and effective implementation of the SDG.

Ms. Thapa is Member of Executive Committee, SAWTEE. This was published in SAWTEE’s eNewsletter Trade, Climate Change and Development Monitor, Volume 17, Issue 7, July 2020.