Nepali Times
Made in Japan


TOKYO-In a global study on governance a few years ago, it was found that the level of public trust in parliament, government and state officials in countries around the world was overwhelmingly low.

A majority of people said they were more comfortable forming non-government entities and taking care of themselves than waiting for the government to look after them. Japan was no exception: more than 71 per cent of people said they distrusted parliament, nearly 70 per cent were suspicious of the executive, and 60 per cent distrusted public officials.

This suspicion is one of the reasons why in the last 20 years only two Japanese prime ministers have lasted more than two years in office. A prime minister's time in office has decreased from three to two to barely one year during the past four years. There have been four since 2005.

While they may be skeptical about their national government, the Japanese are fiercely proud of the work their local governments do. Japan's decentralisation model is unique and innovative. As we wait patiently for a Nepali constitution to be written, there are several lessons to absorb here.

Japan is divided into 47 different prefectures, which are further divided into cities, where 80 per cent of the population lives. The 1946 constitution recognises local government as an important part of democracy, and it is strongly focussed on the communities it serves. This has helped control corruption because of greater accountability.

The communities directly elect governors, mayors and members of local assemblies. The Local Autonomy Law, amended in 1999, also empowers local authorities. While the central government is responsible for national projects, local government looks after welfare, social insurance, security and healthcare, and takes responsibility for looking after the elderly.

In recent years, Japan's local governments have been burdened with the increasing demands placed on them by the country's ageing population. More than 7.2 million Japanese are starting to leave the workforce and move back to their communities. At the same time, more women are going back to work after marriage and bearing children, and are demanding that local government provides facilities for family support.

Judging by the pride people hold in local government, it is clear this autonomous model, with locally empowered populations, has been a success. To deal with the increasing pressures on local government, Japan regularly calls on communities for help. It is now looking at the idea of giving the ageing population responsibility for local surveillance and security.

In Nepal, our post-1990 experience in local development proves that community-managed projects-whether forests, roads, irrigation or radio-can be hugely successful. Nepal's Local Self-Government Act of 1998 was revolutionary not just because the decision-making was transferred to the people, but because the communities were also given rights to elect local officials. The act has been in a limbo now for more than five years.

However, in the next 18 months, as Nepal rebuilds its damaged structures and society, it will also be writing the constitution of the new republic with a federal structure. To avoid making the mistakes we made about local government after 1990, it is important that those writing the constitution do not forget the power of the people and learn from good practices-such as those in Japan and our own past successes.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)