Promoting democratic participation and human rights
En favor de la democracia participativa y del respeto a los derechos humanos

A View from Nepal

Critical Challenges for Governance

Dev Raj Dahal, FES, Nepal Office

Conceptual Complexity

Modern governance—as a system of norms, rules and institutions—enables national actors to organize information, knowledge and capacities in order to formulate joint policies and achieve goals. The goals of governance are: national security, rule of law, public access to information, citizen participation in civil bodies, delivery of public goods and conflict resolution. The concept of governance marks a paradigm shift from state-centric to society-centric regime. Horizontal macro actors of governance are—the state, the market and all intermediary actors, institutions, networks and movements constituted as civil society. The vertical actors are: District Development Committees (DDC), Municipalities and Village Development Committees (VDCs) and similar forms of hierarchically designed sectoral units of various ministries, departments and corporations.

Government is a territorial entity. Governance, by contrast, is de-territorialized. Governance is a coordinated regime and, therefore, its synergy can be captured through proper communication, coordination, coherence, steering and collective action of its actors under the vision defined by the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal and various international regimes of which Nepal is a member. Similarly, its normative means and ethical values are assessed in terms of its performance, neutrality, transparency, accountability and equity. Good governance enables citizens to have opportunities to secure their basic needs, freedoms and rights through an access to markets, assets, and economic goods and properly regulated civic institutions so that poor and marginalized sections of the society can realize their potential. Are the governance actors in Nepal sufficiently cooperating to achieve their goals and deploying the normative means?

The Macro Governance Actors in Nepal

Since the restoration of multi-party democracy, there is a paradigm shift from bureaucracy possessing the state’s essence to opening itself to market and civil society, universal spirit of hierarchy and control to equality, flexibility and competition, and faith in authority and confidentiality to democracy, transparency, ownership, participation and subsidiarity. Ethical governance requires a new equilibrium beyond legislative, executive and judiciary where the state’s imperative of public order is matched with the market and civil society’s aspiration for freedom, autonomy and internationalization. Owing to growing political conflicts in the country and globalization, the governance actors in Nepal face institutional deficiency in providing public good and adapting to technological, sociological and political change. Political crisis in Nepal has produced a political culture of confrontation and deadlock, weakened the power of public to live in civil coexistence and nurture their well-being. A proper balance in governance actors and norm-governed action alone can prevent the extraction of social surplus by their leaders. What is the nature of governance actors in Nepal? Why the policies and institutions they adopt do not support economic development?

The State: The state of Nepal has lost legitimate monopoly on power and struggling to maintain security, impose law and order, regain the periphery and restore its capacity to pursue common good so that it is seen as a civil association. Restoring this monopoly is important to overcome security, democratic and development deficit and shape the “rule-based conception of ethical life.” It is dependent on foreign aid, recognition and legitimacy. The autonomy of state has been eroded by the growth of multiplicity of societal actors sharing policy and decision domain. Due to growing incongruence between the state (ruler) and society (ruled), inability to contain rebellion and provide service delivery in the periphery, donors call Nepal a “fragile state” and have accordingly defined the principles for engagement. Only visionary leaders can minimize the political differences, build consensus among the key actors for national action and strengthen the constitutionalization of society, economy and polity.

The Market: The Nepalese market is spatially fragmented. There are hundreds of pockets of small markets unconnected to each other. This condition has defied the national political economy of scale and increased difficulties of collective action. The planners’ earlier belief in the infallible wisdom of market to allocate goods and services and specialization has been shattered as it remained too weak to support the pattern of cooperation across national societies, modernize workforce and strengthen the backward and forwards linkages of the political economy. The ideology of state minimalism, espoused by Nepalese technocrats, limited the power of the state to create security, penetrate society, formulate rules and authority and seek the loyalty of citizens to polity. Corporate elites, concentrated in urban areas, preside over a grossly inequitable division of wealth that is both the source of their supremacy, disenfranchisement of the mass of Nepali people and the crisis of public life. How can the market serve as a meeting point for all when corporate elites are disinterested in social responsibility and prefer to pursue class-blind democratic values? Ethical governance requires a tab on the unrestricted interplay of economic actors driven by self-interest and orients them towards corporate ethics of serving public interests.

Civil society: The horizontal series of groups in Nepal called civil society have been regarded as a rational response to social change. Therefore, they are tossed with huge responsibilities of promoting social justice without thinking first their capacity to foster civic involvement and political participation. Despite mushrooming growth of civil society, NGOs and voluntary associations, cooperation between the state, the market and civil society in Nepal is marked by general weariness, distrust and lack of interest in collaborative problem solving. The societal denationalization by civil society and the market forces has produced a class of cosmopolitan citizens who are not obliged by what the notion of citizenship loyalty entails in a democratic polity. This condition has undermined the national ideology of the state and exonerated the market and civil society from constitutional control. Moreover, hyper social activism of civil society contributed to the decline of party politics and eroded the capacity of leadership to inspire mass followers. The government is now facing problem in projecting its policy making capacity over the territorial sovereignty. National territory has become too small for the markets and civil society to function and the government and political parties have not developed any integrative political response to this denationalization.

Public Administration

The society-centric governance presumes that there are enough competing centers of power and competing groups, enough citizens competing for influence over public policies and the institutions of governance giving scope for participatory democracy. But the hard question is to explore how democratic process itself is situated within certain political relations, social and economic division of labor, civil-military relations and their competition and conflicts. Nepalese bureaucracy cannot be divorced from this reality. This has posed a problem for civil servants to remain neutral, seek to pursue institutional interests and manage to bring social and collective goods to the citizens. Autonomy of public administration from special interest groups of society is possible with highly selective meritocratic recruitment, long-term rewards for career improvement, fair penal system and a system of rule of law.

Public administration is an executive part of the state. The legality of public administration in Nepal springs from the separation and balancing of powers among executive, legislature and judiciary, the justification and application of norms and binding administrative power to the interest of citizens in common. This means its integrity, impartiality and honesty in performance are crucial indicators for good governance. The Constitution obliges the state to protect citizens and leave all other activities to self-regulating market forces except in the cases of poor, Dalits, women, indigenous people and the marginalized requiring social justice, access to opportunities and identity. Bureaucracy coordinates the functions of the state and society and executes the “rules of the game” governing public policies, elections, property rights and contracts.

Representative democracy defines the basic norms of governance where bureaucracy is bounded by general policies, structured by division of labor and hierarchical control and reviewed for rough conformity to some principles and policies of the state, constitution and laws. The administrative power has a statutory basis approved by people’s representatives in a procedure by discussion, consent, public opinion and constitutional legitimation. The expanding nature of welfare state has added more power to bureaucracy in planning, policy making and service provisions and their increasing control over money, infrastructure development, technical expertise and information. The governance reforms thus also required new checks, such as ownership of clients, the use of ombudspersons, hearing of public grievances, and citizens’ access to the conduct of public affairs.

The road map of governance reforms articulated in Governance Act is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to address the question of national integrity system that plagues the functions of governance. System of political will necessary to carry out reforms in Nepal is complicated by the legacy of paternalism, discretionary authority and a political culture of chakari and affno-manchhe thus de-motivating the esprit decorps of civil servants and the exercise of rational authority.

A number of reasons militate against the accountability of Nepalese bureaucracy. First, despite considerable growth in size and professionalism, civil servants are finding it difficult to hold their job in high esteem. Second, symptoms of institutional decay have occurred in which public officials subordinate their dharma (institutional duty and authority) to self-interest. Third, there has been an increase in the atrophy of their morale and civic responsibility to serve the citizens. And, finally, de-motivation of civil servants in both karya dachhata (ability) and karya chhamata (capacity) has consequently led to a breakdown in governmental performance. The culture of confidentiality has further eroded the trust between the government and the governed and bred the source of corruption. Only a free press grounded on the ability of the state to guarantee citizens’ right to information, protected by independent courts and a vibrant civil society makes the abuse of governmental power absolutely intolerable and reduces the distortionary effects of corruption and culture of impunity. Public access to government information empowers citizens to make important choices and to achieve a greater degree of transparency of governance actors.

Development and Delivery of Public Goods

Globalization and ongoing conflict have undercut the policy capacity of national state to pursue various phases of human rights needs in Nepal—liberation, entitlements and social opportunities. International community became equal stakeholder of policy regime. As a result, development policies in Nepal are negotiated with the donors and tailored to the strategic pursuit of the “rational choice” followed by most of its development partners regardless of the “political framework condition.” The rational choice model is ahistorical, grounded in the neo-liberal ideology and does not fully take into account the existing irrational, unresponsive and tenacious obstacles to change. It also contradicts both social rationality and Constitutional responsibility to create an open society based on social justice, freedom and solidarity of capital and labor mediated by class-neutral state.

Governance’s ability to muster political will for institutional reforms and achieve targeted programs for poverty alleviation embedded in Tenth Plan, MDGs and PRSP can be realized only if the central functions of the state such as security, order, welfare and rule of law are restored and linked to negotiated conflict transformation. Economic performance is largely determined by the structure of incentives, “public choices” accorded to the stakeholders by the government and the delivery of basic services, such as education, health, social welfare provisions, water and sanitation, communication, technology and ecological resources underlined in Service Delivery Guidelines. Persistence of chronic poverty in Nepal implies the deficiencies of economic policies to trigger production revolution and foster the social integration of Nepalese society.

If poverty alleviation is meant to overcome powerlessness there must be a political will and strategy of the political class. A political structure must be created in such a way that right to livelihood is constitutionally guaranteed, poverty alleviation becomes a participatory process, a new social contract of the poor with the state is negotiated where the state serves as a helping hand to them and root causes of conflicts are addressed in time before they escalate into unmanageable proportion.

Conflict resolution

Conflict escalation implies governance ineffectiveness. In Nepal, conflict is hierarchical situated at the geopolitical (geo-strategic contest of great powers), structural (between the state and CPN-M), manifest (between the state and seven-party alliance) and latent (between the state and societal forces) levels. Conflict is formed at the societal level due to gaps between constitutional ideals of freedom, equality and social justice and hard reality of inequality, bonded labor and structural injustice. Due to a lack of proper management, the underlying grievances of critical mass were articulated at the political level, then militarized and finally escalated at geopolitical level. Resolution of conflict demands proper study and suitable political response to address the “root causes” of conflict. Resolution of conflict in Nepal requires a transformation of the rationalist conception of politics where power is pitted against power for survival, supremacy and identity thus sidetracking the question of social justice. Nepalese political actors must learn from the failure of power-mediation approach of 1950 and 1990 where social contracts created their own enemies and rendered democratic peace unsustainable. Hierarchical nature of conflicts in Nepal entails multi-track and multi-step conflict transformation strategies. This means peace building measures requires simultaneous strengthening of security, order and welfare.

Ordinary citizens, working at the grassroots level, are now coping with various types of conflict and inventing the change process. But, they need full agents of change—information, skills, organizations, networks and resources. To change the structural causes of underdevelopment, the organization of the poor must have critical mass of change agents to reform the unreasonableness of political order that does not bring well-being, freedom and identity and articulate a vision for things higher than those offered by today’s government, political parties and civil society.


Good governance in Nepal requires the citizens to forge a single national identity, an identity sustained by a democratic partnership among the state, the market, the civil society and citizens. The greatest strength of polity lies in their capacity to enlist the confidence of ordinary citizens to shape the society and its vision. Without strengthening the national integrity system and proper separation and devolution of power, transparent, just and responsive governance cannot be realized. The tissues that link the citizens to governance, such as legislatures, political parties, civil society and a myriad of mediating social and economic institutions, now require a coherence, trust, cooperation and collective action based on human essence.

When Constitution, the only governing plan of the nation, is made a contested site for power struggle and interest groups of society reflect institutional biases of their organizations, the only option left for bureaucracy is to act with public-minded spirit and connect themselves with the values and experiences of common people who are coping with various types of conflicts and struggling to evolve norms based on their needs, aspirations and reciprocity. This is the way to win the confidence of Nepalese citizens and the development partners who believe that Nepal ceased to become a developing country. At this critical juncture, the responsibility of Nepal’s governing and opposition leadership lies in steering the governance in right direction that is both inclusive and visionary and satisfies both the needs of its citizens and the Spirit of the Age.

Source: Comment made by the author at a seminar exclusively organized by NASC for secretaries of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, July 11, 2005

The Telegraph. [Taken from Peace Journalism ]


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