A Great Shock to the Nepalese Political System
System shocks of great magnitude do not come often in the life a nation. But as operations in a devastated Nepal move from rescue to relief, will the government examine its lack of preparedness and the inadequate response of local governments during the earthquakes' immediate aftermath? The death count now approaches 8,000, 10 percent of the population is without housing, a third of the population is affected -- yet local media report that relief aid sits on the tarmacs. Red tape prevents its distribution to a people in dire need.
Victims of Nepal's previous natural disasters have not been compensated, though they received promises similar to the victims of the April 25 earthquake, and many of the most vulnerable fear that the government will once again fail to meet their needs.
Meanwhile, Nepal's leaders are asking the international community to fill the huge funding gap. Indeed, for the next three months, relief operations will be the top priority. But true recovery will require economic policy reform.
I have been involved in economic development programs in Nepal for the past 20 years, and what I read about the dismal record of the government before and during the crisis does not surprise me. Last year, Nepal's government agencies spent just one-fifth of their budgeted annual allotments. Why? What happened to the rest?
The population depends on so-called secondary service providers from outside the government for such basic services as land registration and passports. These gray-market external service providers are also the bribe takers, shielding their partners in the bureaucracy from detection and scrutiny.
Last summer I worked on a report concerning the Nepalese energy sector. Hydropower is one of the nation's natural resources; and a low-carbon, energy-efficient economy is a feasible objective. Yet no agency or political leader was making the necessary choices among project alternatives. Such failures cannot be attributed to a lack of professional competence in government ministries. High-level managerial capacity exists in central units of government such as the Rastra Bank and Investment Board.
To answer why necessary actions fail to be taken time and again requires us to understand the logic that frames local action in Nepal. For rural day laborers, businesses, and even bureaucracies, political parties and informal social networks are greater influences than are formal institutional relationships.
High levels of social fragmentation characterize Nepalese society, resulting in low levels of trust that prevent the collective action needed for managing public goods and the economy. Patronage, identity politics, politicization and corruption are terms frequently used by observers who report on their work in Nepal. While casual relationships among these four factors can be debated, their deleterious impact is undeniable.
Patronage refers to the tendency of local actors, businessman, civil servants, ministers and party leaders to approach one another either as clients or patrons. Decisions are made according to the criteria of relative social position, with the objective of either building a power base or participating in one. A client can expect to achieve his or her objectives more rapidly with a powerful patron than by using formal routes.
Identity politics creates the context for pursuit of self-interest. The Nepalese expect identity -- ethnicity, caste and family -- to outperform other social bonds. Group identity is favored over another identity in decision-making. Thus the Nepalese saying Hamro manchhe ("our man") is preferred over a ramro manchhe ("good man"). Collusion in making deals against members of other identities is expected.
The central public administration, for example, is dominated by Nepal's traditional elites: over 97 percent of the civil service is composed of Brahmins, Chhetris and Newars, who form the Kathmandu valley; yet these groups constitute only 35 percent of the population. The most vulnerable members of the population live in villages where local elections have not been held in 20 years and are managed by committees appointed by national political parties.
Politicization is a key influence on the time horizons of decision-making. What incentive is there to address programmatic concerns when governing coalitions continually shift, when key positions constantly turn over, and when elected and appointed officials know that before long they will either lose power or be transferred? Even the systems for transferring government officials from post to post are vulnerable to corruption, with officials buying transfers to lucrative positions, and non-compliant staff punished with unfavorable transfers. Expecting to be in power only a short time, political actors focus on extracting short-term benefits.
Underlying all of these patterns is an inappropriate and often illegal commingling of political with business and personal interests.
Will this national tragedy reawaken national purpose and bury with the rubble the behaviors and beliefs that have made the costs far greater than they needed to be? Actors that have failed to make necessary decisions and take socially needed actions in the past will hopefully change their behaviors.
But if no change occurs, then donors will need new tools to stay one step ahead of demands, conditions and bureaucratic maneuvering to ensure that a chain of accountability exists from budget disbursement to the millions of victims whose lives have been shattered.