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Participatory governance in Nepal – why the poor and excluded matter

Written by David Walker

Nepal is going through enormous change, with a new constitution, a new government and a new prime minister, Madhav Kumar. To mark the country’s first peacetime Republic Day, ODI and NEPAN (the Nepal Participatory Action Network) are publishing the results of the Nepal Participatory Governance Assessment (PGA).  This is based on the first participatory research initiative carried out at community level with poor and excluded groups in Nepal since the peace process began in 2006. As such, it represents a marked, and positive, shift for Nepali citizens in having an opportunity to be heard by those who represent them.

As well as providing legitimacy to the general governance process, the views of Nepal’s poor and excluded, as reflected in the publication, have implications for policy decisions. They will resonate with ongoing discussions in Nepal to agree on a new constitution by 2010, as well as recent commitments by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to introduce a new Nepal business plan that constitutes a 46% increase on the previous three-year funding allocation to the country.

The importance of this report, and of the participatory process that lies behind it, goes beyond the immediate situation in Nepal, with implications related to the slow progress of fragile and conflict affected states on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the rather disappointing G-20 outcomes on the role of governance in reducing poverty and vulnerability.

Before looking at these linkages though, let’s try to nail some jelly to the wall: what is a Participatory Governance Assessment (PGA), and why does it matter? While there is no recognised format for a PGA, current debates generally agree that conventional governance assessments have failed to incorporate adequately the views of poor and marginalised groups, failed to use mixed methods of analysis, and failed to disentangle the role of unequal power relations (including the politics at play in the writing of assessments themselves). PGAs matter because they allow a clearer and more accurate understanding of how people perceive, experience and practice citizenship, as well as the barriers they face in doing so.

The recent PGA in Nepal highlighted several key issues that are important for approaching national reform.

First, there is a widespread optimism for the future and an enthusiasm to participate in reform. This translates into a window of opportunity for peacebuilding and suggests that political parties should capitalise on the change process. This might include enhancing access to information about reforms and clearly recognising groups that are under-represented in local decision-making, such as women, Janajatis, Madeshis, Dalits and religious minorities.

There is also a window for quick policy wins, such as land entitlement and irrigation infrastructure for the marginalised, both of which were shown to be priorities for the poor in the PGA. For instance, Bahun/Chhetri squatter communities in Kanchanpur district emphasised that this was the major concern in their lives. In Aacham district, a poor community was unwilling to participate in the consultation until researchers ensured that they had connections to potential irrigation service providers. These wins, however, would have to be founded in an appreciation of context, leading to more sustainable policies while garnering support for reform processes. It is therefore important that these same quick wins are in settings in which actors can come together to build, not undercut, state structures.

And while successful policies require meaningful decentralisation and proper consultation – indeed, a lack of consultation has been a major grievance among groups – consulted groups also need the knowledge and tools to support more inclusive policy-making processes. Some specific actions will be politically sensitive, such as affirmative action and proportional representation. But if these can be discussed from the outset, this may not only ease tensions still further, but also legitimise the authority of the state. Finally, the PGA results call for more research on good practice in addressing social exclusion (caste, ethnicity, gender, location) and the role of the business sector in improving state-citizen relations.

In short, this PGA can help to inform a new constitution for Nepal and provide some calming influence to a fragile post-conflict state of affairs. But the PGA can also inform international processes like donor policies, progress towards the MDGs and G-20 responses to the global financial crisis.

It can, for example, also help to put to good use the increased donor attention on Nepal by providing a more properly contextualised and localised assessment of what’s actually happening on the ground. In doing so, it can help to confront the lack of discussions on the role of locally-specific governance practices in the MDGs – a simple case of working with, rather than against the grain of existing social and political structures. This is all the more critical in noting that only two of the 35 fragile and conflict affected states are on target to meet MDG 4, while most are off-target in meeting the MDGs in general.

More widely, the Nepal PGA contrasts with the acute lack of debate on governance in recent G-20 outputs, let alone a more nuanced appreciation of the concept of governance itself. With the global financial crisis starting to hit the real economy, and with fragile states at considerable risk, the proposition of a Vulnerability Fund fails almost completely to reference good governance as a critical factor in protecting vulnerable groups. In fact, in the G-20 communiqué, governance is alluded to only through previous commitments on Overseas Development Assistance pledges, debt relief, Gleneagles and Aid for Trade – all of which have been questioned in relation to their performance on supporting good governance.

As the deadline for a new constitution draws near, Nepal is rapidly approaching what could either be a decisive and progressive landmark in its history, or a potential fracture zone. While Nepal may be celebrating its new Republic, its new Prime Minister is being confronted by increasing hostility. More widely, we have passed the mid-point in the MDG process, with the 2015 deadline looming on the horizon, and are only just starting to confront a critical economic downturn. The Nepal Participatory Governance Assessment demonstrates that widely informed consultation can provide space for strong and varied voices as well as exciting and legitimate propositions. This disaggregated understanding of governance should both inform, and remain of central importance in, national-level development debates as well as global commitments.