In 1995, a short-lived UML government introduced a grant of unprecedented size – 300,000 Nrs. – for the local governments at village level in Nepal at that time, the Village Development Committees (VDCs). One year later, the successive government under Nepali Congress leadership followed suit by not only raising the VDC grant to 500,000 Nrs. but also by launching a wholly new grant for MPs: the Constituency Development Grant. This grant gave each MP 400,000 Nrs. a year for local development in their own, respective constituencies.
The Constituency Development Grant was to be used in coordination with the local government bodies in the MP’s constituency. But soon it became clear that the MPs would manage to allocate the funds chiefly in favour of their own voters, party workers and other supporters in their constituencies rather than to the benefit of for instance “those most in need” or “the most number of villagers”. Their motivation to favour supporters? Channeling down funds to supporters in the constituency was not least a way to sustain local support!
Today, the Constituency Development Grant has not only changed name but also grown in size. The MPs now receive an annual budget under the so-called Local Infrastructure Development Programme of no less than 60 million Nrs. This amount is still to be used like the old grant for development work in the MP’s constituency and in coordination with the local governments. But as a new thing, the regulatory guidelines explicitly prohibits the favouring of voters, party workers and other supporters precisely to bring this old practice to en end.
But is the old practice about to end? The Office of the Auditor-General has looked at the fiscal year 2016/17 and found that many MPs still used the grant once again chiefly to the benefit of their own party, affiliated sister organisations and non-governmental organisations in their constituencies. Apparently, the old practice of favouring local supporters goes on unabated!
The MPs may in fact have good electoral reasons to be quite responsive towards the needs and demands of voters, party workers and other supporters back in their constituencies. Indeed, enquire in almost any village out in the districts and someone will soon explain that he or she voted in hope of seeing the MP return after the election and do something good for the village, even for one’s own household. Those who got benefits would often praise the MP, whereas those less fortunate would typically regret having supported the MP in the first place.
Here’s a quote from an interview with a villager in Kavre district some years ago which in our experience will illustrate the view of many others still today: “We voted for the MP thinking that he would do something good for the village. He even promised to build the road and the school… But after the election he never showed his face. So we shall never vote for him again.”
To be sure, not all voters or party workers judge their MP by the amount of benefits which the MP channels down to their particular community or household. In line with an MP’s formal role, some supporters rather consider what the MP might have said or done to the benefit of the district or the country as a whole, be that to promote national development or fight corruption, for instance. But it is common for voters and party workers at village level to expect of their MP to “come back” and benefit them, and MPs seem to still respond to this.
It has become a matter of growing and critical attention that MPs in general spend large amounts of time and energy on benefiting supporters back in their constituencies as opposed to focusing on national issues and legislation in parliament. The MPs justify their focus on local issues saying that an MP has to balance between the two levels – the constituency and the national level – precisely because supporters back in the constituency expect them to do so. As noted in a recent news article, the MPs feel a need to channel down benefits “so that they can deliver on the promises they make in their respective constituencies during elections.”
“We have assured our people of development. People didn’t choose us just to make laws; they chose us also in hope that we would support development works [in their local communities].” Met Mani Chaudhary, MP, Nepal Communist Party (NCP)
But in the elections, could the MPs not abstain from promising particular benefits to voters, party workers and other supporters in the constituency and instead explain to them that as national legislators they need to concentrate on national legislation, not on solving particular local issues? It would appear that still today it is difficult for the MPs in practice to ignore the expectations or demands of local supporters out on the campaign trail. So, they respond.
Yet, could the MPs not channel down benefits on the basis of more objective criteria at least, such as “who needs it the most” or “where the most people benefit”? Well, the practice of favouring segments of voters, party workers and other supporters, such as party sister organisations and non-governmental organisations, even contractors and other businessmen, is found not only among MPs. It’s also an old and common practice among local politicians themselves, as a recent review of a large-scale micro-enterprise programme reconfirms: a large part of the funds under the programme had been handed out to “party henchmen”.
Will regulatory guidelines be enough to make the MPs part with the old ways and begin to allocate their annual grant on the basis of more objective criteria instead? It’s hard to be optimistic from the point of view of those who wish the old practice to end once and for all. In fact, it can even seem likely that as long as voters, party workers and other local supporters of importance to the MPs’ political future continue to expect or demand particular benefits for their own village or local group, as opposed to general benefits for the district or the country as a whole, it may be difficult for the MPs to end their old ways, even if they wanted to. Failure to respond to supporters in the constituency can mean loss of critical, local support!
Or as a party worker once told us about the relationship between MPs and supporters in the constituency: “If the MP says no to help us, we will also say no [to support the MP in future].”
The immense change at a formal level in Nepal in recent years – the transition from a unitary setup to a federal state, the restructuring of local government, and the promise in the latest election of a “new beginning” – is mixed with clear signs of a continuation of old practices in the relationship between MPs and their constituencies. How can this practice change and be done away with once and for all? The answer to this question – if indeed there is one – may lie in the deeper relationship between the major political parties and the population in Nepal in which patronage and other informal relations still play a big role, and in which a concrete promise to build a village road in one’s own area matters more than a national road policy.
Until this relationship is better understood – between how politicians mobilise local support, on the one hand, and what local supporters need and expect, on the other – it may be difficult to even begin to address the old ways in which MPs in Nepal relate to the constituency.
PS: Constituency Development Funds, as was the original term, are not unique to Nepal. Here’s a review of similar grant schemes in countries ranging from the Philippines and Malaysia to Kenya and Tanzania and closer to home, India and Bhutan, many of which have been subject to similar criticism. Constituency Development Funds have allowed MPs to in effect bypass the administrative system and local governments to some degree, mixing their role as legislators with that of an executive with little accountability as a result, as they hand out benefits to supporters in the constituency. Questions about the motivations of the MPs to focus on local issues as opposed to national issues are in the same way not unique to Nepal.
It’s not uncommon to ask, in turn, whether the interest of MPs in Constituency Development Grants are rooted also in “corrupt systems” in which MPs in collusion with local supporters misappropriate funds for personal enrichment. Such motivations would in some instances play a role in Nepal as well, no doubt, just as it sometimes can at any level of the government. But when the MPs demanded an increase of the grant in May from 40 million Nrs. to 60 million Nrs., was their motive to increase opportunities to misappropriate, or rather – as they argued – to meet constituents’ expectations for local development. Or a variable combination of the two? In our experience, a political need to respond to local supporters plays the bigger role.
It’s probably also true that if local governments in Nepal were in a position to better meet local needs and expectations – if vested with larger budgets and more staff, for instance – local people would have less reason to look to the MP for additional resources and help. Their needs would already have been met by their local government! Instead of continuing the old practice of channeling down benefits to supporters in the constituency, one argument goes, a better way would be for the MPs to help strengthening local governments through national legislation. But it’s a fact in the meantime that the capacity of local governments to meet local needs and expectations remains inadequate for a number of reasons. So, the MPs continue to be faced with local supporters looking for benefits – and the MPs in turn continue to respond.
If you have an opinion about the motives of the MPs, please share it in the comments. The motives and their causes could be important to discuss in order to address the old practice.
We appreciate your feedback!