Empowering citizens to lead at local levels 

Are the ways federalism is playing out on the ground more of the same old way of doing politics in Kathmandu or has something truly changed for the better?

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 4 min.

Recently Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba said something very important about grassroots democracy. Speaking at an event commemorating the 29th anniversary of the Nepal Municipality Association he said that “local government is the first school of democracy”.

After the promulgation of the constitution in 2015, the country has embarked on an ambitious, albeit difficult, journey of federalism. It is a massive undertaking implying not only amendments of old laws but also the making of new legislation that could fit into the new framework and a change in people’s mindset.

Federalism is always referred to as a tool to bring people closer to decision-making.

Under the federal setup, citizens can vote for their representatives at local and provincial levels. But the people who are mandated to serve the common good through decision-making bodies have sometimes to start from scratch.

Power to people

If the centers of powers have been localized, what have been the real opportunities for people to participate more meaningfully in public affairs at local levels?

Does devolution of powers automatically suggest that citizens are, in effect, in more control of the decision-making? Or the same structures of power existing at the center, certainly not particularly effective nor participative, have been replicated “downward”?

Are the ways federalism is playing out on the ground more of the same old way of doing politics in Kathmandu or has something truly changed for the better?

In my view, the answer depends on case-by-case circumstances. We can find excellent administrators at local and provincial levels, committed citizens elected to truly pursue a transformative agenda for the people. We can also find those who just grabbed the opportunity to achieve their own personal self-interests.

To be fair, it takes a lot of time to build an entirely new system from scratch.  And criticism of local bodies should be based on the challenges existing on the ground, including spheres of competencies that are shared with the center. Take education where there are calls for some sort of “repatriation” of powers to the federal levels.

Yet Nepal has a unique opportunity in its attempts to shape its version of federalism that, rather than being a copy from other nations, should have its own distinguished features, especially in terms of enabling more citizens to be part of the decision-making. Locally elected officials should not be a substitute for engaged people who want to have a voice and a say in the way local affairs are run.

In this context, what Prime Minister Deuba said is so important.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has rightly said that local government is the first school of democracy but we need to make an effort to translate this vision into action.

Yes, local governments are the places where democracy and good governance can flourish but we need the right seeds, water and all the care and maintenance if we want the seeds in the fields of local democracy to sprout.

So what are the means and tools that could allow such bottom-up involvement and engagement to solidify and become a norm of the way local governance functions in the country? How can we create a level playing field for more youth to participate?  What can be the mechanisms, formal and informal, that could empower youth to be more interested to participate?

Localizing SDGs

First of all, localizing the SDGs can be a great way to start thinking about new ways of participation. This means, in practice, allowing people to discuss and plan actions related to their common problems. The SDGs are a series of goals, each related to one particular issue but all of them are intrinsically connected to each other.

Let me move to another question: What can happen if the SDGs are localized?

To start with, imagine the elected representatives reaching out to their constituencies to ask for their suggestions on how to tackle these issues.  The other way around can also be considered with the citizens doing their due to call politicians to their attention on certain issues.

Both dynamics may be playing out informally in many instances but a push for bottom-up governance would require a genuine interest to go beyond informal practices. We need to set up local platforms where people can access information and discuss and propose solutions. These can be citizens’ forums that are going to be formally recognized by the local authorities.

While it might be unrealistic to allow them to have binding decision-making powers at the outset of their establishment, such institutions could be formal places where citizens must be consulted and listened to for any major decisions. The long term goal would be to experiment with practices where such setups have real powers but initially, a good way to start would be for locally elected politicians to agree to sign a compact with their citizens, a commitment about practices they are going to adapt and mainstream in order to involve them more.

Such compacts would set the rules of engagement between the locally elected representatives and their electors: How often public consultations would happen, which power would be given to these citizens’ forums, how all members of the communities would have to be involved and how to ensure that also those normally left behind, the poorest, the dispossessed ones, can also have a voice.

There is no doubt that the citizens can complement and, perhaps one day, even overtake duties and powers entrusted in those who got elected. To some extent, it is already happening. For example, dynamics of participation already revolve around decisions related to budget formulation and approval.

Participatory budgeting is getting more and more traction around the world and it is being mainstreamed. There are cities with decades of experience in involving people in the decisions related to their budget.

I am not just talking about consultations where persons can provide ideas and suggestions. Instead participatory budget can be a tool of emancipation for those who lack access to power. The ambition is much higher where for certain thresholds, committees of citizens can also have decision-making power.

It is a fascinating area that surely will require more discussions and I will come back on it sometimes in the future column. My central message in this column is that Prime Minister Deuba is absolutely right but what is said is not enough.

Local governance is the place where civic engagement can shine and thrive but we also need an enabling environment to ensure that such a shift of approach can truly happen. One way to go would be to bring these new approaches from the top. They might be accepted and incorporated in the right way or just for the sake of doing something popping up from the top.

Otherwise, we could start with the places more conducive and enabling for the best of good governance to flourish, organically and driven by local passions. What counts is a commitment to accept that federalism will pan out in such a way it serves the best interests of the country, citizens are empowered and allowed to lead.

Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities. Views are personal. [email protected]