Local government just got more “bad press” as the CIAA – the government’s anti-corruption agency – reported that citizens complain about corruption in the local government bodies more than in most other public institutions. This fiscal year, the CIAA has registered more than 20,000 complaints in total – a record on its own – and municipalities account for the biggest share: 23 pct. of all the complaints are about corruption in municipalities and ward offices!
In fact, this headline is only the latest in a row of less than favourable media coverage on local bodies in Nepal. In January, the CIAA released a survey which showed that in the experience of most citizens seeking services from a range of different government offices, local governments are nearly the most corrupt, second only to the Land Revenue Office. Corrupt in what way? Well, the CIAA has registered complaints such as the following, only too familiar from the past:
– local governments have overpaid contractors,
– they have manipulated tenders and practically handed out contracts in return for commission,
– misused municipal budgets for instance by inflating budget amounts and allocating money for activities outside the portfolio of local governments,
– carried out the work below standard,
– demanded commission for issuing citizenship certificates, birth certificates and other civic documents, and
– allocated facilities to elected representatives not authorised by the law – and more!
In March, it even came out that over 300 of the country’s 753 Mayors are in fact registered contractors, many others unregistered contractors. Numerous Mayors as well as Ward Chairmen were found to have handed out public works contracts to their own companies, just as some had rented out dozers and other equipment to their own municipalities, putting themselves in a position that can clearly be called a “conflict of interest”. Indeed, when local representatives use their power to enrich themselves, that is corruption par excellance!
It’s also true, however, that corruption is common in many other government offices out in the districts, if not in most. In February, the CIAA released a study that identified the country’s fourteen most corrupt public institutions at district and local level. Local governments were on that list too. But so were for instance the district education office, the district administration office, the electricity corporation’s branch offices, the land revenue office, and many others!
It’s common to hear about “corrupt staffers” out in the districts, but it’s not every day that a government agency reports on it. The CIAA describes in its report how corruption at various offices takes place. In general, staffers often deny citizens services unless paid a “commission”, just as they accept bribes in return for processing a case faster. Here are some examples:
– staffers at the electricity corporation may refuse to read a meter without a commission,
– a passport or citizenship certificate might require a bribe at the district administration office,
– the transport management office may refuse to renew a driving license unless paid a commission, or do it faster if paid a bribe,
– the survey office and land revenue office may refuse to survey or valuate a plot of land unless paid a commission,
– the police may ask for a bribe to begin a criminal investigation or to turn a “blind eye” to a case – and more!
The CIAA gives so many examples from an incredibly varied selection of government agencies that it’s perhaps irrelevant to talk about who is the most corrupt. Those who have the most frequent opportunities to demand commission and ask for bribes, or those who are in a position to collect the largest amounts, may appear as those who are the most corrupt. In fact, the CIAA’s observations would suggest that although the scope varies to some degree, corruption takes place almost everywhere across of all the different government agencies.
Or is the practice of corruption for some reason more rampant in the local governments? Well, the CIAA report on complaints about corruption does show that local government’s share of the complaints is not only the highest but also that it has increased: from 13 pct. in 2014-15 to 18 pct. in 2017-18 and 23 pct. by April this fiscal year. This growing share of complaints could indicate a trend of increasing corruption in the local bodies after the local election in 2017.
Chairman of the Association of Municipalities in Nepal, Ashok Kumar Byanju Shrestha, however, believes that the CIAA’s report is biased with the intention of discrediting and thereby weakening the position of local government vis-a-vis the federal government in Nepal. He sets forth that: “The issue of irregularities has been hugely generalised to show that all local governments are bad under the elected representatives. It’s wrong to paint all local governments with the same brush. I think it is an attempt to weaken the local governments.”
Could the federal government have an interest in painting an unfavourable picture of local government in Nepal, for instance in order to have a reason to hold back further devolution of power and resources to the local level in pratice? Well, to say this would be pure speculation.
The numbers could be understood, however, in a way that for other reasons calls CIAA’s conclusions into question. The number of complaints about the local bodies could be high because citizens perhaps deal with the municipality and ward office the most, and because these are in greatest proximity to them. Citizens can more easily and frequently see and experience corruption at this level than at the more distant government offices at district level.
It’s also possible that the increase in the number of complaints could be due to greater vigilance among citizens after the local election. Local people who may even side with one or the other party might be more motivated to observe and complain about a Mayor or Ward Chairman whom they have elected themselves or who belong to a different party. In fact, more complaints about corruption in local governments could be a sign of a healthy and intensified process of citizens trying to hold their elected, local representatives accountable.
We’ll leave the answer open. In any case:
Corruption of the type described in the CIAA report is not new to Nepal but has been well-known for decades. A mere glimpse at news coverage from the 1990s will show that also back then, when elected local government was last in place in Nepal, the debate was on over who was the most corrupt: the district line agencies of ministries and departments in Kathmandu or the local governments. The CIAA shows that the difference is in terms of degree, not substance, as corruption is pervasive throughout most government offices. So, rather than asking who is the “most corrupt”, perhaps it’s more pertinent to ask questions such as:
– why does corruption continue to be so pervasive across most government and local government offices,
– what motivates it: what leads politicians, staffers and contractors, not least, to be involved in it, and
– how can they be motivated to shift from corrupt to more formal, rule-based practices?
Indeed, many such questions could be raised in trying to set a course away from corruption to the system that even many politicians we have talked to would like to see. These questions are of course easy to ask – answers can be cheap too, while solutions that work on the ground are a wholly different matter. The CIAA report shows that corruption is at all levels and that it is systemic. So, attempts at addressing it might have to look at all levels and be systemic as well.