Public Policy Shifts
Dev Raj Dahal
Public policy is a rational means to attain the state’s objectives underlined in the Constitution of Nepal. It props up public interest and resolves societal problems. Democracy itself is a public philosophy driven by rule-governed leaders desiring to fulfil public needs and rights. Leaders acting solely for private gain devoid of public concern lose legitimacy. Effective leaders concert actions by crafting policies and mobilising human and material resources to achieve public goals whether it is managing public security, reducing poverty, supplying foods, health, education, drinking water, energy, unsettled accounts, or control epidemics.
Nepali public is expecting good governance capable of steering the state’s legitimate monopoly on power to formulate and execute public policies and determine national course of action. But Nepali state’s power to organise society, collect tax, circulate public goods, seek peoples’ loyalty, lift geopolitical leverage and rally global recognition of national identity and initiatives needs extra muscle. Only then can it beef up the constitution, legislative committees and parliamentary political parties’ institutional authority to set internally driven policy process enabling the mandate of leaders to realise the goals of Nepali constitution for welfare state and egalitarian society. The question is: How can the public good rally the synergy of all actors in mutual accountability and the vision of a stable, resilient and flourishing nation?
Duty to serve common good is the top civic virtue of Nepali leaders. Democratic governance is judged by normative and empirical criteria. Nepali policy makers and leaders since the fifties have, however, acted out many concepts, theories and ideologies fabricated to resolve the problems of entirely different societies. Their execution in Nepal, therefore, hit the state-society coherence. The nation’s policy shifts have moved in tandem with geopolitical incentives and imperatives. Use of positivist ken for long left politics of policy making with bureaucrats and technocrats as they were considered the most modernised sectors. This lured Nepali political leaders more to ‘power’ than ‘public policy.’
The failure of each public policy in Nepal to achieve the goals can be credited to policy makers’ skill on means, not ends, to link technical knowledge to desirable collective action. The uncanny challenges faced by Nepal at multi-level governance follow the same legacy breeding unequal effects on various spaces. Administrative blockage, political factionalism and social movements continue to strain the state’s outreach and exercise authority in society vital to the art of governance. Without a pluralistic policy consensus, improving the lives of Nepalis lingers.
The ability of Nepali state to attain autonomous capacity to formulate public policy rests on social learning aptitude of policy makers and skill in cleaning the imported policies and ideologies so that they fit people’s knowledge, needs and legitimate institutions, such as community, local governance and parliament to musters their ownership and stake. So far Nepali policy makers have diagnosed the nation’s problem of progress by disciplinary angle of single-cause determinant - traditional society, landlocked position, dependency, intellectual marginalisation, centralisation of power, gender inequality, social hegemony, fatalism, population growth, migration of youth, economic liberalisation, aid conditionality, etc. and prescribed corresponding solution. Latest fads of number-crunching growth, structural adjustment and SDGs as shorthand for progress in no way provide guarantee for maximising welfare gains given dismal growth of labour market. Worse still, each policy discipline contests the knowledge of the other rather than engages in mutual learning to situate the policy in the Nepali context and duly reform it through social feedbacks.
Now, postmodernism, a craze of late capitalism, is here to deconstruct disciplinary knowledge, constitution and institution and society to construct antinomies between individual and society, freedom and authority and cultural relativism and process of global modernisation. Deconstruction threw entire previous policy paradigms into radical disbelief and brought mini-narratives to address diversity, differences and incongruities in peoples’ needs, beliefs and desires. The lesson learned from the global crisis of ‘symbolic economy’ is that if ‘real economy’ such as horticulture, agriculture, industry and ecology where majority of Nepalis are engaged becomes sterile, people suffer from the signs of livelihood crisis, climate change and economic and political malaises.
The inability of policy wonks to invent choices and formulate apt policies has devalued the leaders. It ignited social movements of women, Dalits, indigenous people, minority, civil society, workers, professionals, etc. They demand power, participation and respect. It awakened policy makers from their disciplinary doze and flirt with social justice, social inclusion and proportional opportunity to reduce rich-poor disparity. This awakening also questioned how the paternalistic habit of policy making based on externally-induced theories and ideology made them indifferent to Nepalis but amenable to alien conditions, aid, advice, methods and executing agencies.
The sovereignty embedded in Nepalis requires a shift from recipient of welfare benefits to participant in governance. The policy making has to recognise people’s right to progress and the rollback of Nepali state affronts their sovereignty. Democratic progress is built on bottom up process of ‘active citizenship.’ It is an entry to the public realm and vital to gear up the performance of governance though the representation of people in public policies affecting them. A policy cannot be public if it is set without popular consent. The execution of policy entailed either through public channel or in collaboration with private, community and voluntary sectors. It helps to capture the spirit of public political culture out of the rival traditions of policy making and enforce the accountability of policy makers to people so that policy makers can learn about the changing local realities and reshape new inter-subjective framework to cope with interlinked challenges. Nepal’s least developed status has provided its leaders and policy makers a chance to reflect on their collective failure to uplift the society to progress. It is a chance to assess whether externally induced policy based on industrial or post-industrial culture can be apt to largely agricultural Nepali society. A stakeholders’ policy think tank embedded in native society and careful of nature, culture and zeitgeist is needed to indigenise policy.
Solution of Nepal’s diverse problems is less likely by the use of only linear, Cartesian or social scientific project-based premise. It splits the whole system of political economy into disciplinary parts and sees the complex reality of Nepal’s lack of favoured progress through reductionist prism. Only the post-Cartesian wisdom rooted in systemic life sciences can link nature, culture and human spirit into a macro frame of sustainable progress. Public policy now presumes an equitable, job-creating and ecologically resilient economic growth sustained by investment in productive sectors, such as education, health, agriculture, industry, infrastructure, renewable energy and communication for the fulfilment of Nepalis’ objective needs and subjective freedoms.
In this context, the Nepali state’s partnership with private sectors, civil society and global community is vital to shared pledge enabling the polity to do core governance functions. The inclusion of the universal principles of ‘balance,’ ‘fairness’ and ‘common good’ invented by global summits are vital policy gears to enlarge Nepali state’s roles, citizens’ demands on leaders and unfold people’s choices in the sphere of labour, work and enlightenment.
Public policy has now moved beyond ‘rational choice’ to impact assessment at various spheres—ecology, politics, society and security. It has offered judicious roles for Nepali state in infrastructure, public goods, justice and regulatory regime in which it can determine and enforce the rule of law and equip leaders to endorse binding measures of public policy on what works. Since majority of Nepalis stands between the capital and the labour, policy response for progress must capture the middle ground by accepting the power of global market to spur innovation, efficiency, competition, investment and productivity growth in a framework of welfare state.
Obviously, progress can be achieved only if contribution of each actor fists into the polity, makes everyone connected through social inclusion which also minimises the losers. The stability of democratic polity rests on the supply of public goods. Nepal’s commitment to human rights, humanitarian laws and constitution prompt the leaders to formulate and coordinate policies, allow elected bodies to mediate them and balance the public, private and cooperative sectors based on their relative gain. The pursuit of justice of Nepalis spurs an intrinsic right to human dignity. An economy cannot grow without social support and ecological sustainability. Coping with change entails Nepalis lifelong learning of problems and formulation and execution of correct public policy. As their lives have become increasingly complex, only a free discourse of diverse options can help evolve a systemic view on public policy.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)