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Changing mindsets on federalism the most difficult challenge for Nepal: An interview with Valerie Julliand

Biswas Baral

Biswas Baral

Changing mindsets on federalism the most difficult challenge for Nepal: An interview with Valerie Julliand

As she left the country after finishing her term at the end of September for Indonesia, where she will serve as the new UN Resident Coordinator, Julliand recounted her experience in Nepal in this email exchange with APEX’s Biswas Baral

Valerie Julliand was appointed UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP’s Resident Representative to Nepal in 2016. As she left the country after finishing her term at the end of September for Indonesia, where she will serve as the new UN Resident Coordinator, Julliand recounted her experience in Nepal in this email exchange with APEX’s Biswas Baral. Here she describes her experience of dealing with the aftermath of 2015 earthquake, women’s empowerment, Nepal’s federal challenges, the country’s development aspirations, and her overall experience living and working here.

Helping the country deal with the devastating impact of the 2015 earthquakes was one of your first major challenges in Nepal. Can you share some of your reflections from that time? What were the lessons?

I came to Nepal at a time when the country, and city that was to become my home, were recovering from the devastation of the earthquake. Months had passed, but the recovery efforts were still very much ongoing and of course reconstruction to some extent continues to this day. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the UN system began to work with the government to ensure a quick and effective response. The priority of course was to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to those most effected and to start rebuilding homes and communities.

Nepal chose an owner-driven reconstruction approach, allowing for people to build their homes back with the government’s funding support. As a result of which some 500,000 houses have been rebuilt, an amazing achievement really. Given the enormous scale of the crisis, the choice of using a uniform approach to reconstruction is understandable, but it is important to also reflect on its limitations. The inequality and diversity among those impacted by the earthquakes meant that there was also a need for a more differentiated and targeted approach. This need was highlighted by the UN and humanitarian community at large, and it was our role to support the government in ensuring the necessary readjustments to reach those furthest behind.

It is so important for us to remember that sometimes in our efforts to reach the largest number of people, the most vulnerable and marginalized might struggle to access the relief and assistance they need. A female-headed household or person with a disability is likely to have specific needs for support. I am so glad that as part of the earthquake response efforts, we were able to establish the Community Feedback Project with the support of the British Embassy (previously DfID), because this allowed the humanitarian community, including the government to hear from affected communities. It essentially brought their voices to the decision-making table and I think this made our response stronger and more adapted to the needs of those we aimed to serve. This has continued in humanitarian response efforts since then, including the 2017 floods and the Covid-19 response.

The biggest lesson of course is that so much of the life saving work happens prior to a disaster and that is why it is so important that the government has put in place new legislation and policy on disaster risk reduction and management. What is essential now, is to ensure that this is implemented, and legislation enforced. I see a great opportunity provided by federalism in strengthening the disaster risk reduction and management efforts, as this is an effort that requires all three tiers of government from the federal to the local.

You have been a strong advocate of women’s representation in decision-making bodies. The UN played a vital role in ensuring greater representation of women in the last local elections. Why was this important?

Women make up half of the population of the world and of course, half of the population of Nepal. The importance of women being in elected office or present at the decision-making table really should need no justification. Nonetheless, across the globe women’s leadership and political participation is restricted and we are underrepresented in elected office, the civil service, and private sector. As the UN, it remains one of our key priorities to change this, because we cannot claim to have democratic and inclusive societies until women are allowed to participate fully and equally in decision making across private and public life.

Nepal has made enormous progress in women’s representation in political office, with 14,000 women (including 6,500 Dalit women) holding 41 percent of all locally elected positions. This really is the result of the unrelenting work of the Nepali women’s movement. Though the numbers changed overnight, the gender discriminatory norms and stereotypes that have been barriers to women’s equal participation unfortunately have not. Thus, we must work together to build an enabling environment for these women to be able to deliver on their mandates. They must be allowed to do their work safely, their voices respected and heard, and their skills and leadership recognized.

As the UN, it is not only important to provide the necessary support to increase the skills and capacities of elected representatives, irrespective of gender, but to support in building an enabling environment that allows women leaders to succeed, and for this we must together transform discriminatory norms. It is only with this, that we can truly build a gender equal and inclusive democracy.  

Nepal has just started on its federal journey and it’s been a tough start. What do you see as the major challenges for Nepal’s federal project? How do we overcome them?

I must say that being witness to the federalization process in Nepal and seeing the engagement and commitment of the provincial and local governments has been a great privilege. I have been particularly encouraged to see the dedication to localize the Sustainable Development Goals to inform development planning across the country. Of course, the transition to federalism requires years to unfold and many challenges remain, however this process is essential for the realization of the commitments to equality and inclusion of the government of Nepal.

Federalism is not only a process of changing government structures, laws and policies, but of changing mindsets and perhaps that is the most difficult challenge ahead. This requires a change in the thinking of each and every person living in this country and a recognition of the incredible opportunities that bringing political decision making and governance structure closer to the people provides. I look forward to following how the foundations of a federal Nepal become ever stronger in the years to come.

In your view, what three or four areas should Nepal focus on in order to meet its development aspirations? And how can the international community help?

I am happy to have seen that Nepal’s development aspirations and vision really focus on inclusion and building a more equal and just society. With a constitution such as Nepal’s, the foundations for this are strong. Of course, multiple challenges remain and areas which will need focus from the government, civil society, and the private sector, and of course the international development community. First, there is a need to start consciously shifting discriminatory norms and practices that continue to prevail in Nepal and which marginalize women and girls and other historically excluded groups. Gender and social inclusion responsive planning and policy making is needed irrespective of sector. Only by dismantling historical structures of discrimination can Nepal truly build a sustainable future for all. This is not easy of course, but I believe Nepal is on the right path that it must see through to the end.

A key challenge which remains, and one which intricately relates to gender and social inclusion, is that of access to justice. A functioning justice system is key not only to protect and guarantee the human rights of all citizens, delivering justice to both victims and accused, but essential for accelerating progress across the 17 SDGs and realizing the Agenda 2030.  Justice is also the most efficient way to ensure changes in—and counteract—the norms and practices detrimental to many groups in Nepal, pending the change of mentality and mindsets.

As I have mentioned earlier, for Nepal to truly build the foundations for a sustainable future, it must learn the lessons of its past and ensure that disaster risk reduction and management is given the attention and emphasis it needs. If progress made is regularly lost due to disaster and environmental degradation, not only are precious resources wasted, but the lives of the very people the country wants to protect are placed in danger.

Besides earthquake, Nepal is also prone to natural disasters like floods and landslides and the new effects of climate change. How do we mitigate these risks and what role has the UN played in this?

The vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters, together with continued environmental degradation, poses a real threat to Nepal and its people, and endangers the gains made towards achieving the sustainable development goals. The UN has a normative role and technical expertise in policy development and capacity building in the areas of climate and disaster risk reduction, effective emergency response, sound environmental management, and sustainable recovery. It is one of the core areas of our work in our collaboration with the government. The UN in Nepal has a unique partnership with a consortium of Universities led by Durham University, on a project to examine how to use local knowledge and new interdisciplinary science to inform better decision making and reduce the impacts of multi-hazards in Nepal. This partnership has been seen as a model in the region.

The UN works on strengthening the capacity of national and sub-national levels as well as local communities to mitigate risks of, prepare for, respond to and recover and rebuild from the effect of disasters and climate change. It is important to remember, that disasters impact people differently and often women and those from marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted in crisis. Pre-existing and intersecting inequalities mean that women and girls, persons with disabilities or a Dalit person will experience adverse consequences and have different resources, capacities and coping strategies than others.

As the UN, it is our responsibility to highlight these needs before and after the crisis and work with the government to address them. Most importantly, women and those from marginalized groups must be provided an opportunity to participate fully in the planning and implementation of disaster risk reduction and management and humanitarian response. This makes for a stronger and more effective approach.

As I mentioned earlier, Nepal has put in place a strong legislative and policy framework on disaster risk reduction and management. What is important now is to ensure the implementation of that legislation—so that roads and houses are not built in landslide prone areas and are seismic resistant, and environmental degradation is curtailed.

What has been the UN’s role in helping Nepal deal with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis? What are our major challenges? How do we better equip ourselves to deal with such pandemics in the future?

As is the case globally, the UN’s Covid-19 health response is led by WHO, building on its long-standing partnership with the Ministry of Health and Population. In the context of the pandemic WHO has provided technical support across a wide range of areas including strengthening data generation and management; developing necessary guidelines and protocols; strengthening laboratory capacities; and ensuring regular, reliable and accessible communication to the general public. Across the world, health systems have been placed under enormous pressure and this is no different for Nepal. Here the government has been able to take a number of steps to strengthen its health care system to cope with the pandemic, capacities which we hope will remain as the country recovers. 

As we know, the Covid-19 crisis goes beyond a health crisis and as such the overall UN response addresses water and sanitation needs, education, nutrition and protection to name a few.  Another central focus for the UN is of course in supporting the government to address the socio-economic impacts of the crisis and to ensure a timely and inclusive recovery that focuses on the needs of those most affected. We must never forget the individual lives impacted—the women now isolated at home with their abusers, the meals skipped by families as they cope with lost livelihoods, or the migrants who have not only lost their jobs but are stigmatized and discriminated upon their return home.   

As the UN, we have just completed a socio-economic framework to guide our work in the coming 18 months to support the country in its long-term recovery of the crisis. It is important to remain vigilant, ensuring that progress made towards the Sustainable Development Goals is not lost in the aftermath of the pandemic and rather that we use this as an opportunity to address the systemic weaknesses and long-standing inequalities in society.

In terms of your last question on equipping ourselves, I really think it is time for us to critically reflect individually and collectively how we treat the people and our planet. I hope that this pushes us towards taking effective action for a more sustainable and inclusive future, but I do fear that we are so stuck in our ways that real change will be hard to come by. What is needed is a change in mindsets, an openness to address the wrongs of the past, and commit to a carbon neutral and environmentally sustainable future.

What overall impression of Nepal and Nepalis do you take back? Can you tell us about some of your more memorable moments here?

My most treasured memories are of the encounters and conversations I have had with people across this country, hearing of their experiences and I am grateful to each of them for their trust. The people of Nepal are hospitable, friendly and kind; it is this that I will take with me as I leave my home of four years. I have come to love this city and country, its incredible landscapes, diversity of culture and people.