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Changing the road ahead

Green advisor

Changing the road ahead

With its snow-capped mountains, serpentine roads and unpredictable weather, Nepal is one of the world’s most inaccessible countries. It is also one of the poorest, and the lack of infrastructure is an obstacle to economic development. Via the Local Roads Bridge Programme, ÅF helps to improve connectivity in Nepal – while empowering locals.

Tucked in-between India and China, leaning against the Himalaya, lies Nepal, one of the world’s least industrialised countries. Infrastructure is poor through- out the country. Some areas completely lack roads, and many villages are accessible only by foot, requiring daylong walks.

Isolation and lack of infrastructure are two of the primary reasons for rural poverty in Nepal. Eighty percent of the country’s 27 million inhabitants live in the countryside. Lack of adequately maintained roads and bridges is a serious constraint for social and economic development. The overall living and working conditions are further hampered by Nepal’s extremely unpredictable weather, with several months of heavy rain causing floods and landslides.

Connectivity fosters development

So as to improve living conditions and relieve poverty in rural areas, Nepal’s national government and local authorities have declared that priority will be given to improve access by building roads and bridges. In 2011, the Local Roads Bridge Programme (LRBP) was introduced. By 2020, almost one thousand new bridges will be constructed in Nepal. Many roads will be converted into all-weather roads. The programme is being carried out in collaboration with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Community involvement a key factor

ÅF in Switzerland provides technical assistance and supports the implementation of the project. This consists of the management and operation of a Programme Support Unit (LRBPSU) of 150 local employees, including engineers, environmental experts, capacity building experts, site engineers, supervisors and social mobilisers. The local workforce is spread out over eight cluster offices in Nepal.

A core component of the programme is to involve the local community and to build the local capacity, says Paul Kurmann, Team Leader of LRBP and consultant at ÅF in Switzerland. This extends beyond the technical field – it is about promo-ting a way of working. In this aspect, the project has democratic dimensions. It aims to foster decentralised structures and include disadvantaged groups in the decision-making process.

“An important output of the LRBP is to strengthen the power and capacity of local institutions – to transfer know- how and apply important principles like transparency, inclusiveness and  accountability”, Paul explains.

One of the most important outcomes of the programme is to promote good governance. Just as many other countries, corruption in Nepal is widespread. In the widely recognised Corruption Perceptions Index published annually by Transparency International, Nepal ranked 131 out of 177 countries in 2016. The LRBP applies a zero-tolerance rule for corruption. Or, as Paul Kurmann says, quoting the Swiss Ambassador Dr. Jörg Frieden:

“It is better to have no bridges than corrupt bridges.”

Digitisation speeds up the progress

Although a large majority of the Nepalese population still lives in rural areas, urbanisation is on the march. With three years left of the Local Roads Bridge Programme, the possibility for people to move between rural and urban areas has proven to be one of the most important results of the project. The urban-rural connection has had a more dynamic effect on the economy than simply selling goods, Jörg Frieden explains.

“It allows families to diversify their assets and develop different livelihood strategies. If you are able to physically access the marketplaces regularly, you can under-stand your clients’ preferences better and plant your vegetables with a different perspective.”

The social and economic development in Nepal is further facilitated by the rapid digitisation of society. Increased availability of digital technologies allows rural and urban citizens to connect, obtain and exchange information more conveniently. Physical connectivity is then made possible by the LRBP.

“The progress we can now observe in Nepal is the effect of combining the flow of information and physical movement,” Jörg Frieden concludes.