Change is the only constant - Struggling to escape poverty in Nepal

By Vidya Diwakar

Change is the only constant
— Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

For Savi, this quote rings especially true. The 50-year-old carries a story of tumultuous ups and downs, an escape from poverty followed by a series of shocks that has left her today in a state of despair. I outline her story below, and some initial policy implications on ensuring that escapes from poverty can be sustained in Nepal.*

Savi was born into a poor family not far from her current house in a peri-urban municipality of Nepal. Her father engaged in a small shop business, in which her mother would occasionally help out. The family also had a bit of land in India, where her father had once worked. When she was five, her father went to India and sold the land in the hopes of improving his family’s wellbeing, but was robbed during his return to Nepal.

A few years later, her father fell ill. To pay for his treatment, the family sold gold and reduced their food consumption. As a girl, Savi was often left in a state of hunger, and her brothers’ food intake prioritised. At the age of thirteen, four years after her father fell ill, he died.

In the years following her father’s death, the family faced other losses in the business which resulted in giving up their house and becoming squatters.

Shortly after, at the age of 19, Savi was married and moved in with her husband, a motorcycle mechanic, into a small room in which they paid rent. They soon migrated to India with financial support from relatives, which helped them escape poverty. In India, her husband continued with his motorcycle work, while she contributed financially as well by sewing saris that a neighbour would bring to her.

A year after they arrived in India, they had a daughter. However, as her daughter aged, Savi became reluctant to continue life in India. “I heard people saying that that daughters [in India] are supposed to stay home”. This lack of freedom for girls was not something she desired for her own daughter, and so through her influence they eventually returned to Nepal. The family continued to do well upon their return, continuing her husband’s motorcycle repair work.

However, when she was 35, Savi’s husband died due to kidney problems aggravated by continued alcohol consumption over the years. Savi lost a lot and as a result fell back into poverty, partly from the death of the primary breadwinner, but also due to loans that her husband had taken out for alcohol and motorcycle repairs, in which he’d put gold as collateral and which had thus been seized. This has instilled in Savi a fear of loans. “We should rather stay hungry, [than take out loans]” she said, echoing her mother’s mantra years before.

The series of unfortunate events continued in following years. Maoist forces orchestrated a suite of murders during the height of the conflict: of her brother, followed by two brother-in-laws, all of whom had helped support her following her husband’s death. Their murders pushed Savi deeper into poverty.

In a state of despair, Savi joined a social assistance organisation as a volunteer, from which she received some money for five years up until the project collapse. Today, her children are working and provide some financial support to Savi, though not enough for her to escape poverty once again.

Preventing temporary escapes…

A series of shocks prolonged Savi’s state of poverty as a child (illness, theft, and death), while a series of shocks prevented her later escape from poverty from being sustained over time (again illness and death, but also asset loss through unpaid loans, and conflict). Policies in this setting require a portfolio response, as well as acknowledgement of and way to help cushion against idiosyncratic shocks in particular. To prevent households from falling into poverty, social protection also requires further targeting, contextualisation, and inclusion of the poor in urban areas. The little social assistance money Savi received later in life was unable to pull her out of poverty once her descent was underway, nor was it targeted to circumstances of conflict affecting Nepal at the time.

And promoting sustained escapes…

There were of course several positive drivers of poverty escapes that should be nurtured in Nepal. Social norms in favour of female empowerment, particularly in urban areas, has intrinsic and instrumental long-term benefits for sustaining poverty escapes well into future generations. In addition, migration and involvement in business expanded the set of opportunities available to Savi’s family and improved their long term well-being, and provide routes out of poverty that could be more of a policy focus (for example, through private sector development), particularly in cases where the markets function well. For Savi, migration was a key moment which helped her move out of poverty, although ultimately this escape was not sustained over time.

The urban poor: A neglected group

Ultimately, poverty eradication policies should further develop to address the urban poor. What struck me most from my interview with Savi was that she did not physically appear to be ‘deprived’. In any local office in Banke or even the capital, she’d blend right in dressed as she was when we met- a light layer of lipstick, unassuming gold jewellery, and an elegant sari in summer pastels. In fact, this was my perception of most of the urban interviewees, and reinforces the many different faces and voices of poverty. This requires different metrics to be tailored to local contexts so that the scale and nature of urban poverty are properly estimated, and for a better understanding of the characteristics of the urban poor such that they not fall by the wayside. We need to engage in change and refine our tools to ensure that our preconceptions of poverty prevent us from truly leaving no one behind.

Watch this space in the coming months for a report on sustained and transitory poverty escapes in rural and urban Nepal, and policy and programming implications stemming from the research. The report is part of the project Resilience and Poverty Escapes

Photo credit: Vidya Diwakar, CPAN.