The starting point of this paper, prepared for the international workshop "Understanding and addressing spatial poverty traps: an international workshop", is that poverty is multi-dimensional, being not only concerned with economic, but also social exclusion – and thus powerlessness. Under the Nepal Swiss Community Forestry Project, five particular aspects of chronic poverty are recognised – class (economic status), caste, gender, geography and vulnerability (which may be a result of the first four, but also encompasses ill health, disability, and suffering related to the armed conflict). Whilst it is difficult to identify precisely the extent to which spatial poverty traps contribute to chronic poverty, geographical isolation is one element, interacting with others. This paper describes the project's work in addressing chronic poverty through sensitising Forest User Groups – of which there are some 886 in the project area, representing some 92,613 households – to economic and social exclusion. These FUGs are legal entities, and have occupied a particularly important position during the period of Nepal’s armed conflict – functioning democratically, conducting meetings and organising local services from their own funds at a time that the local administrative bodies (Village Development Committees, VDCs) were non-functional.
Through a well-being ranking, the chronically poor are identified, and options for improving their livelihoods are explored by the FUG membership. Aspects considered include funds (loans at reasonable interest rates), representation in leadership positions, training for employment, educational scholarships, access to community forest land, pro-active inclusion in decision making processes, equitable access to forest products and the opportunity to participate in forest-based enterprises. The project monitors the extent to which FUGs make “pro-poor” provision in their planning and implementation, and the extent of social inclusion in decision-making processes. The latter includes records from meetings on the number of actively participating women and individuals belonging to disadvantaged groups; their representation on FUG committees, etc. The NSCFP is also seeking to challenge attitudes of social discrimination through demonstrating workforce diversity, and encouraging this amongst partners, as well as through supporting national awareness and contributions to policy debate. Key findings are as follows:
- Local, rather than external, definitions of ill-being is an effect means of identifying the chronically poor, and can enhance understanding of what it is to be chronically poor in the Nepali context.
- Social responsibility can be effectively promoted through local level organisations in which all members know each other – in this case, the FUG, and appears potentially sustainable in the long-term.
- Vulnerability as a result of natural calamity, illness, accidents and conflict is well understood in rural Nepal as a precursor to chronic poverty. FUGs have demonstrated willingness and ability to provide such households support through the most difficult period.
- Representation of women and disadvantaged groups in committees needs not only to be encouraged in itself, but supported through coaching and capacity building, so that those individuals who are elected are empowered to participate fully in decision-making.
- When brought together through a federated structure, many small locally representative bodies such as FUGs can obtain very significant national level power.
The feudal attitude of the powerful towards disadvantaged households remains a major challenge in addressing chronic poverty in rural Nepal. Nevertheless, there are many examples under the NSCFP of FUGs playing an active role in overcoming
social barriers and bringing about positive livelihood changes for the chronically poor.