It’s good that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, along with his advisors and cabinet members, took part in the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2019. On Jan 22 and 23, PM Oli addressed two panels titled “Strategic outlook on South Asia” and “Shaping the future of Democracy” respectively. Our prime minister attending the global platform and making an effort to draw world attention to a small country like Nepal carries enormous symbolic value. Let’s congratulate him on this. He did the right thing by attending the forum. In the past few years, the WEF has evolved into a social and political forum, shifting away from its original focus on promoting free trade and globalization. There is increasing realization among the forum’s organizers about the close relation between economic and social development. This becomes clear if we look at this year’s themes.
Among the major themes this year were globalization, climate change, mental health, the rise of populism, China’s economy and Brexit. For the first time, the forum prioritized mental well-being and there were six sessions on mental health covering topics like depression, anxiety, loneliness and Alzheimer’s. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, is one famous face who has in the past raised the issue of mental health at the WEF.
There will definitely be a lot of discussion on PM Oli’s formal and informal talks on the sidelines of the Davos summit. What I would like to do here is draw PM Oli’s attention to mental health, something I have been involved with for a long time.
Nepal is a young country. Of the nearly 30 million Nepalis, around 35 percent fall under the age group 25-54, which is considered the most productive years. Only around 5 percent of the population is estimated to be above 65 years.
Because of a diverse array of factors, Nepalis are increasingly suffering from mental health problems. As there is a dearth of opportunity for Nepali youth in their own country, they go abroad to work. Others leave the country for education and never return. While this may be economically beneficial for the migrants and their families, the separation it entails creates many emotional and psychological problems. Today, many households in Nepal function more or less like old-age homes.
Among those who return from abroad, many will have passed their working age, and the state is constitutionally bound to take care of its senior citizens. That will put the exchequer under enormous stress.
Nepal invests almost one-fifth of its national budget on social protection, covering socially vulnerable groups like children, those with disabilities, single women, the poor and the elderly. The government increases its social security budget every year as the proportion of the socially vulnerable population, including the elderly, keeps growing.
From a mental health perspective, Oli’s visit to Davos could have been an eye-opener. After being briefed on those Davos sessions on mental health, perhaps he now has a better inkling of how poverty and migration affect the well-being of his people.
Therefore, post-Davos, PM Oli should adopt a two-pronged strategy in order to avert this impending crisis. His first focus should be on creating productive jobs for the youth so that they have every incentive to stay behind and work in their own country. His second focus should be on investing in the mental well-being of his people.
It is long past the time that we seriously discussed our mental well-being in the changed social and political context. For instance, loneliness is no more a problem of rich western countries alone. It’s emerging as a major issue in developing eastern countries too. How we tackle the mental health issues of our people will also determine the country’s fate. Prime Minister Oli, please take note.