By Robin Giri
Rock star of statistics makes frank assessment of Nepal’s health and predicts country is poised for change, but much more needed to boost development.
Kathmandu, Nepal, 12 August 2014 – In a large hall packed to capacity, and housing an eclectic mix of the doubtful and the believers in the capital city, Hans Rosling brought everybody to their feet.
The famed Swedish statistician and wizard of data, wowed Nepali audiences with his gripping presentation on “Investing for Children” and received a standing ovation.
“Never before in the history of the world has any country made so much social progress with so little money,” said Rosling, referring to Nepal’s impressive child mortality rates and primary school enrolment for girls and boys.
“You are the world champions in lightweight health care, only you have no money to go further,” said Rosling, to cheers from the audience at the ceremony jointly organised by the National Planning Commission and UNICEF.
Mr. Rosling’s presentation was notable for two reasons.
The first was the almost reverential silence by the audience throughout most of the presentation, which is observed only at solemn religious ceremonies; and the second was the spontaneous bursts of cheer whenever Mr. Rosling made the smallest joke, which again is usually conferred only upon movie stars.
By the end of the show, broadcast live on Nepal Television, the audience of policy makers in government, diplomats and heads of development agencies, CEOs of the country’s largest financial institutions, and students and academics – everyone was converted.
That was the Hans Rosling effect.
Visiting Nepal after 42 years
UNICEF Nepal and the Gapminder Foundation of Sweden organised Mr. Rosling’s visit to Nepal. This was Mr. Rosling’s second visit to Nepal and he was accompanied by his wife Agneta, who had also travelled with him in 1972 when they were college sweethearts and he was a medical student.
After arriving in Nepal, the Roslings travelled with UNICEF and visited a birthing centre in Chatrebajh VDC in Kavre district to meet with community health workers and women’s paralegal committees. He also met with pre-school children at an Early Childhood Development Centre at the Pragati Primary School.
“Your country owes you immensely, and believe me, I’ve never been to any other place in the world where health workers like you do what you do, without a monthly salary,” said Mr. Rosling to the Female Community Health Volunteers at the birthing centre.
An academic at heart, and a statistician by trade, he asked the FCHVs many questions, probing to learn how these semi-literate women, whom he referred to as the “most intellectually capable women” were trained to battle childhood pneumonia, and to provide vital services to ensure safe deliveries of mothers and infants.
“Families are more accepting of social change, and nowadays are more inclined to seek health services for children and women, and the men more willing to listen to us women,” said Bhuvaneshwari Shrestha, an FCHV, when asked about her perceptions on the positive indicators.
According to the Ministry of Health, there are approximately 52,000 FCHVs in Nepal. They are referred to as Nepal’s front line of defence in the battle to reduce infant and childhood illnesses, and promote immunisation and micronutrient supplementation throughout the country. FCVHS do not receive any salary from the government, but are provided with uniforms and basic medicines to disburse among their communities.
Mr. Rosling also met with members of the women’s paralegal committees, who were supported by UNICEF and was formed as community groups to stop trafficking of women and girls, but whose activities has now been broadened in scope and are referred to as Gender Based Violence Watch Groups.
During his presentation in the capital, these were the women Mr. Rosling repeatedly referred to as the agents of change responsible for bringing Nepal closer to the threshold of change and development.
“I commend UNICEF for their work to strengthen these vital community based institutions, but at the same time all of you must remember that this country cannot proceed any further, just on the voluntary labour of these women,” said Rosling.
“Nepal now needs to make huge gains on the economic front,” he said and urged the development community to “look beyond the focus on software and training only, but also invest in hardware and infrastructure. Just be careful not to lose the gains you have made in the social sector in the process.”
He called upon the National Planning Commission and development agencies, including UNICEF, to develop innovative income generating programmes for women, and also for more investment to create jobs that can provide sustainable livelihoods.
Sensing the palpable anxiety in the assembly, he ended his presentation with a now famous tweet doing the rounds in Nepal.
“Nepal is like an aeroplane on the runway, just waiting to take off. All it lacks is fuel in the tanks – and that fuel is money!”.