A typical day for 29-year-old Sukhai Mala begins with a visit to the local government office, where large posters promoting solar panels, organic farming and proper sanitation adorn the walls. From the office, Sukhai sets out on his bicycle, pedaling across road and field from house to house. With his youthful charm and friendly smile, he’s a persuasive spokesperson. And before the sun has set, he has spread his message to as many residents as he has been able to pedal to.
His message is environmental. Along with hundreds of other social mobilizers employed by the Government of Nepal, Mala explains the government’s new environmental incentives and schemes, and encourages citizens to adopt environmentally friendly behaviours.
This cadre of well-trained youth are familiar faces within their communities, well known for their accessible demeanor, their resourceful knowledge and their ability to advocate for the needs of the villagers with local government officials.
In 2013, Nepal adopted a national policy known as the Environmentally Friendly Local Governance Framework with the support of UN Environment, UNDP and other development partners. The ambitious policy was an attempt to green Nepal – from household doorsteps to the corridors of power. Across Nepal, citizens were incentivized to install solar panels, manage water and sanitation, practice organic farming, prepare for disasters, among other environmentally friendly initiatives.
UN Environment and partners have continued to support the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development in turning this policy into actions with the social mobilizer programme.
“When I first came here, there were approximately 1,700 households, but now it has increased to 2,200,” Mala says.
Strides in Sanitation
Mala considers hygiene and sanitation one of his treasured wins. Discouraging open defecation among families can often be a sensitive discussion. In Central Terai, where Mala is employed, open defecation is still prevalent among 58% of the population. Resistance to change is high.
“Out of 1,700 households, only 80 or 85 had toilets. We went to each ward and village, gathered people and informed them about the usage and benefits of toilets in a way they would understand. We told them: if you spend 10,000 Nepali rupees to construct the toilet, if you have any disease you have to go to the hospital and spend 50,000. Building the toilet will help you save 40,000 rupees,” Mala recounts.
“Listening to us, many built their own toilets. For those who were too poor to afford it, we arranged for rings, seats and pipes through the village development committee. For a month, every day, we used to wake up at 4 a.m. and work until 10 p.m. to investigate if people were indeed building and using them. I think we’ve had a real impact now with nearly all households having toilets built.”
Promoting participation for the environment
Mala has drummed up community support and participation for climate change mitigation. The villages of Barsauli and Mangalpur, which he frequents, lie on the banks of the flood-prone Tinau river. Each year during the monsoon, villagers lose agricultural lands and abandon their homes and livestock for weeks on end until the water retreats.
To tackle this, Mala and local authorities worked together to construct a dam with a row of trees that now shields the homes and farmlands of the villagers.
With training from the government, UN agencies and other partners, Mala is able to spread the word and help train villagers on environmentally friendly technology like cookstoves and trickle-drip irrigation systems. He encourages them to segregate their waste and ensures authorities provide waste management amenities.
Through the work of Mala and other social mobilizers, over 37,034 households and 18 wards have been declared “Environmentally Friendly” under the national policy. The Government of Nepal has allocated USD 2 million to try and replicate this success across the country.
As Nepal shifts toward a more federal governance structure, social mobilizers and community leaders like Mala can provide crucial support in advocating for the needs and priorities of poor and vulnerable communities. Social mobilizers cease to merely be envoys of the government, but become envoys of the community, inspiring people to raise their voices, claim their rights and demand services.
“For the past 7 years I have been working as a social mobilizer. I used to earn more. I feel money is important, but getting respect from people is more important. As a social mobilizer, it has helped me widen my network and build relationships. People respect me. I feel proud of that.”