Interview | “Health and food security situations of most vulnerable members have been exacerbated by Covid-19:” Khemraj Upadhyaya, Country Director, Action Against Hunger 

“Disasters have different impacts on different people, and they have different recovery patterns. One size solution will not fit all.”

NL Today

  • Read Time 6 min.

Action Against Hunger (ACF) was established in 1979 to save lives and eradicatethe hunger through prevention, detection, and treatment of malnutrition, particularly during and after emergency situations caused by conflict and natural disasters. In Nepal, ACF started its operation in 2005. 

With decades of work experience in the development sector, Khemraj Upadhyaya has been working as a Country Director for ACF for about a year now. Nepal Live Today recently talked to him on a range of issues. 

You have been in the development sector for nearly three decades. What inspires you to work in the not-for-profit sector? 

I was trained as a telecommunications professional in the early days of my career. However, I realized I was not interested in continuing to do the same routine job every day. During high school, I had been volunteering to educate non-school going children, and facilitated the enrollment of 25 poorest and marginalized children who were supported by 25 Swiss families with small amounts of incentive directly deposited to their bank accounts. These people got registered bank accounts including their thumbprints for the first time, with Nepal Bank in Jiri village of Dolakha district. This support and volunteering continued for 10 years. Some of these children, after graduating, are now well placed in their careers. This connectedness of and empathy towards the community, working with the poor, marginalized, and so-called “lower caste” people continued even after I went abroad to study Human Resource Management in Japan. Once I returned, I joined ActonAid Nepal and started my career in the development sector in 1996, which continues to this day.

In your decade-long experience with the development sector, how do you see the role of nonprofits in the development and social change process?

My involvement in bonded labor emancipation in five districts of western Nepal was part of a movement that brought social development actors, especially non-profits engagement, into the development arena.  Nepal is a country with exemplary rules, acts, policies, procedures, and norms. Primarily, translating these instruments into the operational and practical level is taken over by non-profits, as gaps are found in the implementation of policies. Policy enforcement can make large impacts, and nonprofits are playing the role of operationalizing this in Nepal. There are political forces for quick social change, but they are not able to reach the poor and marginalized section of the community. Therefore, non-profits are an integral part of the country and its development. 

You are currently working as Country Director for ACF Nepal. The organization’s goal reads ‘overcoming hunger by fighting its causes.’ What approaches are taken to translate the goal into action?

Looking at the context and background of Action Against Hunger in Nepal, you can see that ACF focuses on addressing hunger and nutrition. Strengthening effective operationalisation of essential services, especially at the municipality and ward level, as well as improving health systems to make them more resilient for better child health, including the reduction of malnutrition and food waste are some primary components we address.

“To facilitate the process of risk reduction, we have been engaged in strengthening health systems, facilitating nutritional care, and supporting food security activities.”

Health and food security situations of the most vulnerable members of the community have been exacerbated by Covid-19 pandemic. This is another area that needs immediate attention. An increased risk of natural disasters, mainly landslides and floods, which are effects of climate change due to human activities is another common concern that affects everyone. Due to economic and social inequities, the greatest vulnerabilities affect excluded women, ethnic minorities, caste-based excluded groups, as well as people with disabilities. Rising vulnerabilities even in urban areas due to rapid and unplanned expansion of urban areas have increased stress regarding access to basic services. Thus, to facilitate the process of risk reduction, we have been engaged in strengthening health systems, facilitating nutritional care, and supporting food security activities.

Where are ACF Nepal’s focus in recent years?

In the aftermath of the earthquake of 2015 and Covid pandemic of 2019, ACF had to reduce its direct operations due to lack of funding, yet we are continuing our interventions in the health and climate change sector based on our country strategy of 2021-2025. We are carrying out bamboo plantations for several reasons, such as a) animal fodder production, b) low cost house construction, c) bamboo treatment, d) flood control, e) protection from soil erosion, and f) handicraft promotion for livelihood. We have also been promoting bamboo as an anti-poverty plant. Bamboo also sinks carbon and contributes to reduction of carbon footprints, minimizing climate change impacts. In this process, the local government, local community, and local civil society are also involved. We started the project from a small scale in Udayapur, and are planning to gradually expand.

Action Against Hunger Nepal supports the government’s Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition program at the district level building capacity of health workers and providing treatment to children affected by severe acute malnutrition. Photo: Photo: Stéphane Remael for Action Against Hunger, Nepal

Secondly, ACF has been supporting the drinking water supply system. There are few villages, which we are planning to tend to in the years to come. In the health sector, water facilities play the most important role. Therefore, we have promoted baby WASH programs in the past, and with the availability of funding, we would like to do the same in the future.

ACF’s priority areas, it appears, are very much aligned with the SDGs. Where does Nepal stand in terms of implementing programs to realize SDGs by 2030?

Zero hunger, the SDG Goal 2, is our primary area of concern and contribution. Food security is the sector we have been working on to address hunger. We have been engaging collaboratively with food security and nutrition allies. There are neglected and underutilized crop species (such as Amaranths, Millet, Otoe, Colocasia (yam roots)), for the promotion of which we are running a dedicated project under the control of the poor and marginalized community, to sustain and retain food security.

In your opinion, what are the impacts of pandemics in the area of eliminating poverty and achieving zero hunger?

There has been great panic among people due to this artificially exaggerated manifestation of Covid. There are numerous deaths that occur due to accidents, TB, Cholera, HIV/AIDS much more than due to Covid, but the biggest noise is made for Covid. This has direct impacts in peoples’ minds, seen especially in production. Everything is reduced. Some private firms in the market took control of the sale of new items (masks and sanitisers), consuming people’s incomes. Thus, decrease in production and increase in expenditure on items that were not used in the past squeezed out people’s abilities to sustain their livelihood. This will delay our process of eliminating poverty and achieving zero hunger. 

ACF’s strategic objective states improved the gender-sensitive resilience of the vulnerable populations to shocks and disasters in urban and rural areas. What activities are being conducted to achieve this objective?

ACF has designed every single activity to be gender-sensitive, disaster-resilient, and climate-smart. As we all know, disaster has different impacts on different people, and they have different recovery patterns. Therefore, one size solution will not fit all. In this context, while designing, implementing, and monitoring any activity, our special focus has been addressing different sets of the population–in terms of age, sex, class, caste, and ethnicity. In the selected communities, there are prime stakeholders in designing, implementing, and monitoring project activities. In our future interventions too, ACF will be reviewing or developing existing disaster preparedness plans by coordinating with the local authority and community.

How important is it to empower local civil society organizations to achieve your organization’s goal and objectives?

ACF has a philosophy of strengthening local rapport by the local institutions. Also as per government regulations, INGOs must work with local NGOs. We work in strategic partnership with NGOs. We have a framework agreement provision in case of funding availability with two strategic partners for long-term implementation, and 14 standby partners in case of emergency events.

We will be immediately initiating operations based on pre-agreed terms and conditions. These partners are selected through a rigorous participatory process at the local level. Primarily, they will be working in pre-identified areas. ACF will also be focusing on capacity building where there exist large gaps. Besides, we also plan to engage with academia, the private sector, and the local government.

How does your organization align your programs in line with the policies and programs of the government of Nepal? How does ACF’s activities complement the government’s goal of ending poverty and hunger?

Every program designed by ACF will be contributing to the 15th Five Year Plan, SDGs, and country-specific as well as global strategies as guided by the Country Strategy. The same is also prescribed by the Social Welfare Council. So we must abide by the law of the land. As a Nepali citizen working in an international organization, it is also binding and mandatory that I have to be accountable to this nation and community. In this context, all our projects are and will contribute to government rules, processes, and plans. 

What approaches are taken by ACF to ensure that the impacts of interventions are sustainable?

ACF works with the community and government simultaneously along with partner organizations. Projects are identified based on community needs in consultation with local people and the government. In every sector, engagement with concerned stakeholders is a must in the design, implementation, and monitoring of projects. As per the rules of the country, different groups and communities formed are registered and abide by the regulation they made, which we respect and strengthen.