Need for stronger World Bank response in face of ongoing pandemic

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Kathmandu, June 22

Honestly speaking I am struggling getting this.

The recent announcement that the World Bank has officially approved the Nepal Strategic Road Connectivity and Trade Improvement Project worth a whopping $450 million should be met with great excitement because of the great need to fix the national road networks.

The programme, part of a wider connectivity funding line targeting the Himalayan region and an extension to Project for Strengthening the National Rural Transport Program (SNRTP) rolled out between 2013 and 2015, could be a game-changer to ensure climate-friendly roads infrastructure, contributing to better trade while ensuring safer roads.

Only if we were in normal times!

Amid the strongest socio-economic crisis faced by Nepal, I do not really understand why the World Bank is not pausing on this important programme and re-directing more resources on tackling the pandemic and the consequences of the extended lockdown, especially now that there is an increasingly higher number of infections and more lockdowns might be enforced in the near future.

The World Bank, one of the key players in the national development of the country, had started on the right track back in April, offering an emergency package, $29 million COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project.

It is a very important contribution aimed at strengthening the national healthcare system, better equipping the health facilities, improving diagnostic capacities, including a support to the National Public Health Laboratory.

It was the right move, very timely and duly fast-racked by the Board of Directors of the Bank in Washington.

Now I was expecting a different kind of announcement from the Bank, much more conducive to the Health System Support being rolled out by the UN system in the country.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic should be a rethinking of the investments in the national healthcare.

I am not just referring to the government’s plans to expand the national health insurance policy, a very important initiative that if truly implemented nationwide, could greatly enhance the well-being of the citizens.

I am not just talking about a national public private policy where private hospitals can integrate and be part of a stronger national health system.

Do not get me wrong, this is also extremely important.

In Delhi, India, which is now experiencing one of the most severe Covid-19 outbreaks, the capital region government is forcing all major private hospitals to allocate at least 20 per cent of their beds-capacity to deal with patients hit by the pandemic.

Something similar has been envisioned by the Government of Nepal in case the situation gets worse, and I hope private hospitals are really getting ready for the worst.

Yet two measures should be fully financially supported because they are so strategic — long-term massive investments in healthcare, and more immediate cash support for the most vulnerable.

We need to create top healthcare institutions that can take care of the health of citizens in the decades to come. It is not just about renovating or in some cases, rebuilding public hospitals, but also complement them with an effective network of local health units run by the governments of each province.

We all know that the vast majority of healthcare posts everywhere, from urban to rural areas, are in dismal conditions.

The new transportation programme funded by the World Bank was long coming. Detailed information about it can be easily found on the Bank’s website where a Project Information Document, was prepared and updated on the July 12, 2019 (Report No: PIDC27068).

Its theory of change, the rationale that explain how the project will be impactful, explains how the programme will “foster private sector growth and competiveness, improve transport efficiency on selected corridors and strengthen institutional capacity to improve connectivity and facilitate trade”.

Obviously there is no mentioning of Covid-19 and I am surprised the programme was re-branded, at least partially, as a tool to fight the pandemic. Really, is it the case?

The World Bank itself has been producing in the last days a series of very relevant analysis on the wider impact of the pandemic.

Earlier estimates on the negative effects of Covid-19 on national economies have been revised for the worst.

The June 2020 Global Economic Prospects Report issued by the World Bank says that “the increase in the extreme poverty rate and number of extreme poor are projected to be significantly higher”.

Covid-19, according to the report, could push 71 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 under the best scenario hypothesis, and 100 million under the worst scenario.

Justin-Damien Guénette, a Senior Economist at the Bank, in another analysis, is highlighting the urgent need for emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) and Nepal is one of them, “for health and economic policy action to cushion the impact of the pandemic, protect vulnerable populations”.

Surely road infrastructure in Nepal needs to be in better shape. No one will doubt that, but we are also expecting the World Bank to ensure more stewardship and come up with a stronger package to support not only the health dimension of the pandemic but also its socio-economic consequences.

Universal Basic Incomes, an evolution of the so-called unconditional cash transfers, have been touted as one of the most progressive forms to support those most exposed to the pandemic.

In India Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not show any hesitation in expanding the once denigrated Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), upon which here in Nepal the Prime Minister’s Employment Programme (PMEP) is modelled.

It is positive, as brilliantly analysed by Tara Kanel with Niti Foundation, that the government is committed to expand the programme.

The UNDP came up with an emergency workfare programme to support the most vulnerable populations in 11 of the most affected municipalities in four provinces. It is a small scale programme but fully aligned with local governments and also close to the philosophy of the PMEP.

The World Bank has the financial prowess to really support the Government of Nepal in the difficult days to come.

Better focus on the most urgent needs rather than rebranding long in the pipeline programmes that, while necessary in the future, have no impact on helping the most vulnerable segments of the population in the fight against the pandemic and its consequences. The new budget envisions an increase of almost $200 million in health comparatively to last year’s allocation, up to $748 million.

This is welcome but not nearly enough. That’s why we need a better and stronger World Bank response.

Simone Galimberti is a columnist with THT-Perspectives and the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youth living with disabilities. He can be reached at simone_engage@yahoo.com


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