More equal than others

Nepal is lagging behind in meeting 2030 targets on eliminating hunger and reducing inequality

The Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2024 published by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) earlier this month shockingly revealed that the region will achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) only by 2062, and not by the target year of 2030.  

While the region has taken positive steps towards eliminating poverty, and bolstering sustainable industry, innovation and infrastructure; progress in other goals related to hunger, health, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy and sustainable cities and communities have been less noteworthy. These require much more political will. 

The UN adds in a supplemental note that while the country has shown progress to meet most targets in gender, inclusion and maternal-child health, Nepal is lagging behind in SDGs #2 and #10: achieving food security and combating undernourishment, as well as in reducing inequalities within and among countries.

Translated from UN-ese, this means: many Nepalis (especially children) still go to bed hungry every night, and some Nepalis are more equal than others.  

Chronic hunger is measured by wasting and stunting in children. One of the targets under the SDG’s second goal is to eliminate stunting and wasting in children under five. The 2023 Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates by UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank Group stated that in 2022, stunting affected 26.7% of children under five in Nepal. The Demographic Health Survey in 2022 put stunting slightly lower at 24.8% of children under five. 

To be sure, Nepal has reduced stunting significantly from 67% in 1995, when it was one of the highest in the world, to where it is now. But that is a nationwide figure, and there are parts of Nepal that are still far behind.

In Karnali Province 36% of children under five years of age are stunted. It is 29% in Madhes Province. Despite a reduction in Nepal’s poverty rate and improvements in the national nutrition levels, hunger still persists in these areas.

Food insecurity and undernourishment do not exist in a vacuum, they are also symptoms of societal inequities. Stunting is nearly three times as high among Nepali children from the lowest wealth group than among children of richer families.  Undernourishment is directly affected by a mother’s education level.

Inequality is widening across the world. Oxfam International’s report Inequality Inc in January stated that while the richest five men in the world have doubled their fortunes since 2020, almost five billion people globally have become poorer during the same timeframe.

But not all the news is bleak. The school meals program managed by the World Food Programme (WFP) has been crucial in providing nutritious meals to children for more than four decades. In 2022, the program directly provided school meals to more than 250,000 children in nearly 2,500 schools across the country. The Nepal government has been gradually taking over the program, and stepping up funding while making the program cash-based, allocating around 6% of the national education budget for school lunches this fiscal year. 

The fourth Nepal Living Standards Survey was published last month and showed that the proportion of Nepalis living below the poverty line had dropped from 25.16% in 2011 to 20.27% in 2023. The Gini index for Nepal in 2023 stands at 0.30, and the survey indicates that there are larger inequalities in per capita consumption spending in urban areas. 

The most recent study on inequality in Nepal by Oxfam and the non-profit HAMI was in 2019, which found income and wealth gap to be wide, and widening. The Nepal Living Standards Survey and it showed that the proportion of Nepalis living below the poverty line had dropped from 25.16% in 2011 to 20.27% in 2023. But the income of the richest 10% of Nepalis is more than three times that of the poorest 40%. In 2022, Nepal ranked 112 in Oxfam and Development Finance International’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) Index, which ranks countries on their policies to tackle inequity. 

Landlessness, corruption, and lack of access to quality public services are some of the key contributing factors to inequality in Nepal. But again, these inequalities do not exist independently of one another. Gender inequality contributes to land and economic disparity, to education and resources. One inequality compounds another. 

The moral of the story is that hunger, inequality, exclusion, landlessness, accountability and governance are all connected. As they say in development parlance: inequality is intersectional.

Shristi Karki

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