4-10 August 2017 #870

Unlearning politics

Handover of power to newly-elected local governments have been put on hold for too long, and that is not a good start
Dinkar Nepal
Right after they were elected, Nepal’s local governments have plunged into a legal vacuum, exposing the shameless ad hocism of our ruling system. The Local Self-governance Act hasn’t yet been enacted and the heads of the local bodies are mostly clueless about their roles.

The result of all this is that interpretations of the constitutional provisions are haphazard. To correct that interim circulars are issued by the ministries without much homework. Even the orientation sessions conducted by different ministries, the elected representatives say, are misleading and self-contradictory.

This lack of accountability and responsibility of the leadership is creating real problems for local governments on the ground. There is now a very real danger that the apathy, fueled by the reluctance to devolve central power, might just kill the little hope for development that was finally flickering after two decades of conflict and instability.

The elections were a source of optimism and excitement for the people after a long period of uncertainty. Early signs after the elections proved that the optimism was justified. In contrast to the confusion at the centre, and the apathy at the local level in the past, elected local governments finally promise stability, responsibility and a pro-active grassroots democracy. Most municipality heads have started reaching out for solutions.

Shisir Khanal of the non-profit Teach For Nepal explained to me this week how much things have change: “Dealing with government agencies has always been troublesome for organisations like ours. The responsiveness to groups like us is not good in Kathmandu. In contrast, local governments of late are reaching out to us to help them reform public schools.”

Apart from inserting trained graduates as fellows into the public schools system, which Teach for Nepal has been doing in some districts for the last four years, the new heads of the municipalities are also reaching out to the groups about improving the quality of education.

When the local bodies took shape, many experts were skeptical. One of the major concerns was about the threat of local elite capture of the resources in the new system. This, understandably, is a major concern for any drastic decentralisation effort. The shifting political setting and local autonomy are usually a fertile ground for a new eco-system that reinforces the traditional community imperfections. Replacing centralised corruption with decentralised corruption could in fact sabotage the whole democratic project.

Another grave concern of some of the skeptics was about the lack of capacity at the local level to address the massive unmet needs that have been bestowed by the Constitution.

“The hope, enthusiasm and political will is evident, but the capacity at the local level to make policies, to plan and implement projects isn’t adequate to support that zeal,” Khanal says.

These are genuine concerns for any nation transitioning into a new system of governance. Nepal doesn’t have a long history of state centralisation and institutional governance. As a result, our institutions are still weak and often, we have experienced them crumbling under the might of strong individuals and corrupt interest groups. Similarly, institution building at the local level remains a big challenge.

Rather than streamlining the process of transition to enhance institution building, the ad hocism of rulers in Kathmandu is making all these systemic challenges difficult to overcome for local governments. The central government has not yet sorted out the civil servants it is supposed to dispatch to local units under the restructured organisation model. Too many things have been put on hold for too long, and that is not a good start.

Enhancing community-led projects, directly handled by the local governments and accountability mechanisms which develop into strong local institutions over time, are the only ways to ensure that rapid capacity enhancement takes place in the towns and villages so that local strongmen do not abuse new powers.

It is probably time for the national leadership in Kathmandu to unlearn politics. They must abandon the culture of rewarding inefficiency and pick some of the commitment to nation building seen in many newly elected local leaders. To channel this passion, motivation and political will at the grassroots into effective local governance, and lead to prosperity we have to move much faster.

Read also:

The roots of democracy, Editorial

Power to the people, Malika Aryal

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