This document outlines a project idea inspired by the “crash course on local politics in Nepal“. We did the first field research on local politics in Nepal in 2002 and find that the behaviour of local parties and politicians has changed very little since then. But is it possible to make it change? All experience shows that it’s difficult – but we have come up with an idea that we’d like to share below. It’s called: “Initiative to change political demands in a district in Nepal”. We’ll be very interested in any feedback.
Enjoy! (If you have feedback, please email us at email@example.com or use the comments box below).
Various programs aim to change the behaviour of local parties and politicians by informing or training them on “democratic” principles and/or by seeking to empower local people to challenge the local politicians and claim their rights.
No doubt it’s a great challenge to make local parties and politicians change behaviour according to democratic principles (e.g. to not favour supporters, to not interfere with bureacracy, etc.) – and few efforts have created lasting change.
But why is it so difficult to make local parties and politicians adopt a different, more democratic behaviour? The answer to this question is of course complex. However, we think part of the answer has to do with the nature of local demands and norms.
We try to illustrate in the crash course that local parties and politicians are, in a sense, responding to local demands and abiding by traditional local norms. Most locals ask for particularistic benefits and expect benefits in return for support.
Parties and politicians – also at local level – do not respond to all local demands, nor do they always respect local norms. But they typically respond to those of their closest or most important supporters and as a result they favour some over others.
In short, as local people (pockets of voters, party workers, contractors and other businessmen, family and friends) ask benefits for themselves and/or their particular group or area, and as politicians respond selectively, traditional behaviour continues.
Our idea: to work with the incentives of local parties and politicians
We are trying to envision a project that can make local parties and politicians more responsive towards the needs of a whole district instead of selected small groups. However, we don’t aim to achieve this change by advocating democratic principles.
Instead, we are considering how to work with the incentives of local parties and politicians. The idea is to influence, not the way local politics works as such but instead the input, specifically the type of demands, that enter the political process.
Local parties and politicians respond to the demands of supporters who are of importance to them – for electoral reasons, because they owe them favours in return for economic support, due to obligations based on kinship or friendship, etc.
What if it’s possible to form a support group that both has a vision for improving conditions of importance to the whole district and to which local parties and politicians also feel an obligation? This could create a new dynamic in local politics.
We think it’s possible to bring together different interests in a district around creating not only a vision but also a plan for how to improve conditions in a district: how to create more jobs and income opportunities for the locals, for example.
We also think it’s possible to make local parties and politicians interested in listening and responding to such a plan and even to create their own – with input from such a support group – not least in preparation for the next local election.
Creating a support group with a vision for the district
In any district we have visited there are individuals and groups – not least local businessmen and NGO activists – who have ideas about development that can benefit the district as a whole rather than just a few. There are two types of ideas.
Businessmen – from local retailers to hotel owners and contractors – typically talk about ways to create income opportunities and jobs and making the local economy grow. Many NGO activists talk the most about service delivery and helping the poor.
But local businessmen, as well as local NGO activists, have rarely come together to discuss and develop these ideas. The idea is to inspire and help these actors to come together – to pool their thoughts – to make a vision and plan for their district.
The idea is also for this group of businessmen and NGO activists to present their vision and plan to the local parties as a “demand”. Why would they care to do so (busy as they might be) and why would the parties listen? We’ll explain that below.
Thinking in a critical factor: possible motives or incentives of the actors
(“Local parties” and “local politicians” will now chiefly refer to parties/politicians at district level – above all to district party committees and associated politicians).
The project would depend on the ability to make a group of local businessmen and NGO activists interested in making a vision and plan for their district. It would also require the ability to inspire them to actually present this plan as a political demand.
The group would tell the local parties and politicians: we need and want this plan to be implemented. Goals could be to built certain roads crucial to give local farmers easier market access; to remove a road tax for the sake of business; and so on.
Or the group might present demands about local tourism development by promoting local guesthouses, building bridges to ease access to remote areas, as well as providing more facilities for the poorer parts of the district. This is all open.
It is indeed possible that businessmen will simply ask benefits for their individual business – and NGO activists for activities serving their respective organisations. However, we feel there is reason to expect they might think of the bigger picture:
i) In our experience, local businessmen often have ideas about economic growth in their district but rarely sat together with others to make those ideas more concrete. Local businessmen often wish for economic growth because it can serve them too.
ii) Local initiatives that benefit various local businesses will often also benefit other locals outside the businesses through a spill-over effect. Growing businesses can create not only jobs but also income opportunities for other ancillary businesses.
iii) Local NGOs will probably think of their own areas where they operate, or their own beneficiary groups, but they also tend to have broader ideas for the district. The more funding they can get for those ideas the more they might benefit too.
Why, though, would the local parties and politicians listen to the vision and plan of a group of local businessmen and NGO activists? First of all, we think it’s important to involve in the group not least those who can be expected to have influence already:
The group should involve “big” businessmen in the district, not only because they typically have the most comprehensive ideas, but also because they tend to have more clout with local parties and politicians already (e.g. on the basis of donations).
NGO activists from local NGOs linked with national, not to mention foreign NGOs and donors in Kathmandu, would be critical to include in the process for the same reasons. They tend to have more elaborate ideas and also more political influence.
The idea is, in addition, to assist the group of local businessmen and NGO activists with foreign technical support. The formulation of the vision and plan should have high local visibility and this can be created also by giving foreign expert assistance.
We shall say more about the content and role of foreign assistance further below.
Another critical factor: political division in the support group
It’s possible and even likely that the support group might divide according to priorities with respect to the district plan and indeed also according to political divisions. Businessmen and NGO activists may already have links with local parties.
In our view, though, such divisions will only benefit the process, as long as the groups – whatever the number that might emerge – make visions and plans that focus on betterment of conditions in the district as a whole, not just for a few.
It’s also possible that the ideas of the businessmen and NGO activists will differ to such an extent that these two categories will make a vision and plan of their own. This will only benefit the process too, we foresee, as it will diversify local debate.
Current district plans and how our idea differs
It’s not a new idea to make a “district plan” in Nepal. It is done every year in the course of the annual planning process, as described in the crash course. But the approach we suggest differs in important respects from the current district plans.
The first difference is that we do not envision a “bottom-up” process. To make a district plan by collecting proposals from the bottom up – from ward level through the VDCs and Ilakas to the DDC level – has been the common way for many years.
The result of this approach is that the district plans become an aggregation of often disconnected VDC-level proposals rather than coherent plans for the district as a whole. It is also a disappointing process for many as many proposals are discarded.
We are not suggesting to end the bottom-up plans. They are critical for various other reasons – and to continue without them is not possible with the current set-up. However, we think it’s relevant to supplement them with the type of plan we set out.
This/these plan(s) would be made by already influential members of the community, then – businessmen and NGO activists – who would prepare and present their plans, with specific goals, in front of the local parties and politicians as political demands.
The attempt would be – in a different term – to create a process that would make local parties and politicians face a different type of demands: demands for making the district as a whole better off, and to make them feel an obligation to respond.
Inspiring local parties to make a local vision before the local election
Our idea is also to inspire and encourage local parties to start making a vision for the district – to prepare them for the demands of the businessmen and NGO activists. Would they focus on job creation or service delivery? It’s up to them.
But until now, local parties and local politicians have typically based their election campaigns on promises of particularistic benefits to small groups and areas, as described in the crash course, and few have phrased a local vision of their own.
Moreover, the election programs have typically been handed down to the local parties from the central level. These programs are put in very general terms. However, this does not rule out that local parties can start to formulate their own.
The aim is to set in motion a process that put local planning on top of the agenda of the local parties in a district. It is in a sense also an experiment. Can members of the local elite – local businessmen, NGO leaders, and party leaders – plan that way?
Content and role of foreign expert assistance
We think local businessmen and NGO activists, as well as local parties, will be interested in trying to make a plan for the district. But it’s also likely that they will need technical assistance of some form at least to structure and write their plans.
The ideas must come from the local businessmen and NGO activists themselves. But additional input – such as examples of how local economies can grow, methods of planning, etc. – may be needed to help them turn their ideas into actual plans.
The local parties may also have ideas but once again input from outside technical experts will undoubtedly help. We don’t have specific expertise in mind. But to have foreign experts tell about ways to make the local ideas materialise would be useful.
Timing of the project
We think it’s important to start working with the local parties and politicians before the next local election. Waiting until after the election, there’s a great risk that the local parties and politicians have already promised particularistic benefits to many.
It’s possible that the next local election is two-tree years down the line. At the moment, it’s impossible to predict even the year of the next election. But that is only an advantage in the sense that it is bound to take time to achieve what we suggest.
Our idea does not require local governments to exist already since we aim to work with local parties and politicians: the future power-holders in the local bodies. We think it’s important to work with them before the election also for another reason.
Two or more parties typically make up the membership of the local governments. But often DDCs and VDCs are thought of as administrative-like bodies where the members should stop thinking of party politics once they enter – which is unrealistic.
Party politics will matter especially once the local politicians sit in a local body and can allocate resources. We think it’s important to recognise this inherent aspect of parties and politics – also at local level – and work with it rather than try to change it.
It is before the local election – not after – that it’s good to initiate the process which could lead to a new type of political demands in a district: demands that – if met – would benefit larger parts of the population as a result of broader visions and plans.
Implementation issue I: to start with individual, informal meetings
We have no illusions. While it is extremely difficult to make politicians change behaviour by advocating democratic principles, it is indeed also hard to make local actors – such as businessmen and NGO activists – make new types of demands.
It will be important, we think, to start out in an informal manner. We would first ask individual businessmen and NGO activists for informal meetings. The topic of each meeting would be: how can the economy of the district as a whole start to grow?
Our idea is to present some input based on experience elsewhere and in that way inspire thoughts. We would draw on examples from communities in other countries where local growth has spread out from around local towns and business centres.
It is our experience that every district in Nepal have “entrepreneurial souls”. It is important to note here that not all would be businessmen or NGO activists. It may be relevant to approach and invite e.g. youth leaders or cooperative leaders, too.
But in either case, entrepreneurial actors will be crucial at the initial stage of the process of making a vision and plan for the district. To restate an earlier point, it will be an advantage, moreover, if those actors already have some clout in the district.
Implementation issue II: to build interest around the entrepreneurial actors
Once the entrepreneurial actors have formulated a rough vision and plan, the next step is to inspire them to share their ideas with other local actors, most immediately people they wish to invite themselves, to have informal debate about their thoughts.
We imagine that such an informal, incremental approach is more useful than, say, inviting everybody for a seminar and workshop at once. Firstly, it takes time for ideas on such a complex issue to take shape; and it takes time to inspire interest.
However long it will take, the next stage of the process will aim to involve more locals in the process. At this stage, seminars and workshops will be relevant: more formal venues in which the aim is to gather support around the vision and plan.
It will be critical that the “core” of the group – the entrepreneurial actors – are still enthusiastic at this stage and able to transmit that enthusiasm to others. We think foreign expert assistance – and other input – could also help to motivate the actors.
The core group and those who join must feel that we (we being those who initiated the process) fully support and encourage their efforts. It will also help if the group and its vision and plan are made highly visible through various events and media coverage.
Implementation issue III: how to make vision and plan into a political demand
The local businessmen and NGO activists – and other actors who may have joined the group(s) – must be inspired to state their vision and plan at a time when the enthusiasm in the group is still high – as it can quickly drop if nothing happens.
The parallel process of making local parties interested in district planning too as part of their election manifesto is critical. This process will sensitize the local parties for the type of demand which the businessmen and NGO activists will make.
We imagine that the core of the group – the entrepreneurial actors – will already have contacts and influence within the parties. It is possible that they will be able to present the demands through these existing party channels at least to some extent.
But it will also be important to enable the group to make their demand through other channels. Our idea would be to arrange meetings with the local parties, at best of an informal nature, as well as to explore ways to mobilise support from youth wings.
The youth wings of the parties can be a source of support for the group. They might be more immediate in their support for new ideas about how to make the local economy in the district stronger, create more jobs, and so on, than party leaders.
In addition, it is possible that prominent individuals from Kathmandu – intellectuals, party leaders, big businessmen, etc. – could be convinced to make an appearance to provide support. In other words, a host of lobbying methods could be relevant.
The project result
What will come out of this process? We hope it will at least produce a new type of demand: that a vision and plan for the district economy – of interest to the district as a whole – is formulated and then presented to the local parties as a local demand.
We also hope that local parties will respond to this demand, first of all by making a local vision and plan for the district the core of their election manifesto; secondly, once elected, by actually trying to implement it rather than continuing old behaviour.
Once again, we have no illusions: it will be difficult to achieve all of this. But we think it is important at this stage of local government and local politics in Nepal to attempt to initiate the process described in this document and try to learn from it.
The outline above is merely intended as a presentation of our main idea: to change the type of demands which district-level parties face and respond to. Here are some extra thoughts which would be relevant to also consider in starting up such a project.
Is it possible to make local parties make their own local election manifestos without clearing the matter with the central party committee/leadership first? We think this issue will almost certainly come up. We don’t have a ready answer to the question.
However, we think it is possible to convince central party committees of the need to allow local parties to formulate their own election manifestos – which does not mean ignoring centrally issued manifestos, only that local parties also advocate their own.
We imagine the project to take place in one single district as it is highly experimental – or, if resources permit, two different districts, for instance one better off and one poor. The limitation to one or two districts may also help to convince party leaders.
It might be useful to carry out the project in districts where party support programs (if any) are already active. We know of one program which aims to instil democratic principles in the parties by training/advocacy. Some synergy might be achievable.
How would the implementation unfold in practice? We expect that a project like this is bound to be quite unpredictable with respect to the actors who turn out to be interested, the ideas they come up with, and the way they’ll present their demands.
The likely way, therefore, would be to adopt an incremental approach and proceed in phases. If the first phase succeeds – in short, to identify and make local entrepreneurial actors formulate a vision and plan – the second will be relevant, etc.
Thanks so much for reading this. Indeed, this is a rough outline made to hear the reactions to our idea by others interested in local governance/local democracy in Nepal. We think it could be exciting to try something new and so this is our input.