It is a pity that Nepal was not invited to co-host the upcoming second edition of the Democracy Summit, an initiative launched by the Biden’s administration in 2021. The event, happening on March 29-30 will be co-hosted with the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Republic of Zambia.
Perhaps it was due to the fear on the American side that such an invitation would have caused a backlash or simply and most probably it was an issue of timing as Nepal was right in the middle of its general elections when the second Democracy Summit was announced.
Maybe South Korea was too alluring a nation to represent the whole Asia Pacific.
After all, it is a country that has been recently showing democratic resilience as also assessed by V-Dem’ Democracy Report, where South Korea was one of the eight countries around the world where democracy is “bouncing back”.
Yet what matters is that Prime Minister Prachanda has been invited and will virtually attend though pundits might see this event purely from the prism of its symbolism rather than substance. Still this can be a good opportunity for Nepal to show its democratic credentials and prove a further commitment to deepen them especially if the Prime Minister will go beyond the very generic and vague statement that was delivered by then PM Deuba in the first summit.
Prachanda, since regaining the premiership, has been very vocal in emphasizing that he wants to focus on good governance. Perhaps its intervention at the Summit could be focused on his plans to embed good governance in the heart of national democracy.
Indeed, it is easy to notice that there is almost no speech on the part of the Prime Minister that is delivered without mentioning or referring to the imperative to ensure it across all the spheres of government.
While there is no universally agreed definition of it, good governance normally refers to decision making processes in the sphere of governing, processes that must be effective, efficient, transparent but also responsive.
To give you a better idea of all its dimensions, it’s useful to look at an international initiative being promoted by the Bertelsmann Foundation, one of the most renowned philanthropic entities in Europe. With its Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), Bertelsmann is offering a very holistic and comprehensive way to assess what nations are doing to promote a very interesting interpretation of good governance.
“We believe good governance and sustainable development go hand-in-hand. We also believe in mutual learning. As a cross-national comparative survey designed to identify and foster successes in effective policy making, the SGI explores how governments target sustainable development” explains the website.
With three pillars, policy performance, itself divided in economic, social, environmental policies, democracy and governance, SGI offers a very detailed assessment on how governments perform.
The Prime Minister could take the opportunity of the Democracy Summit to launch a good and responsive governance summit not just as a one-off initiative but as a semi-permanent forum where effective, efficient and responsive governance is discussed and new ideas emerge.
The indicators translated in forms of questions delve deep in areas like inter-ministerial coordination, ways for the office of the head of government to monitor and track policies and if such policies are implemented according to the national priorities. The assessment also touches on the ways external advisors, NGOs and civil society in general are part of the policy making process.
While the SGI initiative is only implemented for EU and OECD nations, it could be very useful for a country like Nepal to embrace the methodology. For example, since any talk about good governance on the part of PM Prachanda comes also with an important commitment (for example expansion of Shahid Gangalal National Heart Centre into a teaching hospital), you might wonder if there is a pre-planning and feasibility study behind each of these announcements.
Surely it is going to be essential to have a very strong coordination between the political office of the Prime Minister, his most trusted advisors, normally all political appointees and the staff at the National Planning Commission.
Good governance is a key
So perhaps the PM can truly focus on the “nitty gritty” of governance delivery with some new institutional arrangement to make the Office of Prime Minister and Council of Minister really fit for the purpose to better ensure implementation of all government’s initiatives.
Moreover, looking at the way capital budget is abysmally implemented at all levels of governance, certainly there is a lot of room to increase the level of accountability across all the ministries, ensuring that the Chief Secretary and all the Secretaries across the ministries are really in a position to do their work.
While there is ample evidence around the world (look at China or Singapore for example) that democracy is not prerequisite to good governance, in a context like Nepal, it can make a difference.
Indeed, if effective and efficient delivery of services is at the core of good governance, we should not forget that responsiveness is also central to it and a democratic nation like Nepal is in an advantageous position to implement responsive governing.
In short, responsive governance means a government able to listen to the people.
Recently we got a good example of it when the Kathmandu Metropolitan City organized an interaction with the citizens as per its statutory outreach to the public. Consulting and engaging the citizens is a prerequisite to a responsive government and it is also part of a more deliberative approach to democracy.
In a recent training, I was interacting with youths about their interest in politics. My assumption was that, considering that there are young (and promising) new faces in the Parliament and Provincial Assemblies, their interests in national political discourse would increase. To my surprise, a good number of them still showed contempt and frustration towards the political institutions of this country.
Why, then, not finding novel ways to make it easier for the youths to participate in the political discourse without necessarily entering into the complex and inflammatory world of students’ unions? Could the Prime Minister establish a council of external advisors ensuring that half of its members are in their twenties and thirties?
Imagine a platform whose quarterly meetings are also broadcasted live and where its members can have a mandate to garner ideas and propositions from the public on a permanent basis and where individuals can also be invited for presenting their views.
Such initiative could be symbolically transformative.
Then, could the Prime Minister ensure that the review meetings of the major projects/initiatives can also be opened up also to members of civil society and even individual citizens? The National Planning Commission already has some consultative mechanisms but can they be re-booted and made more frequent, accessible and open?
Moreover, initiatives like Daayitwa Nepal Public Policy Fellowship or Teach for Nepal where bright Nepali youths are embedded in the delivery system should be expanded and mainstreamed with public money rather than donors. These could be examples of initiatives that can make the national governance system more attuned to the expectations of the people, especially if the local bodies also follow suit.
But much more could be done especially in the areas of enabling more bottom-up participation and engagement.
First of all, the Prime Minister should commit to launching a national consultation on the draft National Volunteering Policy. Volunteerism is the backbone of civic engagement and it is such a waste that Nepal does not have in place a proper volunteering “infrastructure”. It is something that can truly make the difference, leveraging volunteerism not as a substitute of government’s actions but as a complementary tool to deliver services for the common good.
Then about deliberation. Can PM Prachanda launch a major initiative to promote more civic and open spaces for the citizens to interact and engage with the elected officials? This could start by enhancing what is already in the rules.
The provisions for the municipalities to engage with the public can be made even stronger and rigorous, less tokenistic and easier for the people to participate.
Doing so would be about strengthening consultative practices but just consulting the people is not good enough: bottom-up deliberation requires a far broader vision, a vision that truly empowers citizens.
The idea is to establish people’s forums or citizens’ assemblies where citizens are given the opportunity to be consulted but also the chance of making propositions, some of which, ultimately should be also made binding.
There are already similar initiatives across the world and let’s not forget one of the mantras of Singapore’s superb governance is called “Think Across” that means looking around for best ideas from all over the world that can be replicated in the city state after adequate adjustment.
Does the Office of Prime Minister and Council of Minister have a unit that tracks the best good governance practices from around the world?
Ultimately the constitution of the country should be amended not to return to monarchy as many are now advocating but rather to add one important adjective in its preamble.
It could read like this: “Nepal is an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, socialism-oriented, federal democratic and deliberative republican state.”
It might take a lot of time to reach this point and maybe it is just another dream of mine. But for sure here is a way for PM Prachanda to start a national conversation on something. Governance, though it does not inspire people as it’s seen as a too technical and cold issue, is essential for a country like Nepal to graduate to a middle income country.
The Prime Minister could take the opportunity of the upcoming Democracy Summit to launch a “Good and Responsive Governance Summit” not just as a one-off initiative but as a semi-permanent forum where effective, efficient and responsive governance is discussed and new ideas emerge. Let’s not forget that including democracy, true bottom-up democracy in the governance equation can only bring benefits to the country.
Simone Galimberti is the co-founder of ENGAGE and co-initiator of The Good Leadership. Opinions expressed are personal.