Civic Role In Development

Dev Raj Dahal


Nepali society is in a steady process of change. The wind of change impelled by science is altering its social structures and rules of civic engagement. Nepal’s Constitution has rewarded an enabling milieu for citizens to engage in development. But the vitality for this needs knowledge, vision, desire and will for mutual aid. Institutional explosion in the nation has offered a non-party option of associational solidarity. It emerged as a revulsion against the burden of swollen political classes and their penchant for patronage. The guiding aim for citizens is to realise constitutional goal of an egalitarian society through distributive justice and detribalisation of social life.
Nepalis across the diverse social and economic strata engage in collective action in matters of public good facilitated by their solidarity. Other approach to engagement is induced from above or catalysed by civic bodies from grassroots as per value change. Human rights recognise personhood of each Nepali beyond the rationality of collective greed. Social and cultural forces exert influence for a new national construction on the basis of their expanded rights and welfare state which can build civic capacity for poverty alleviation, reduce income difference, spur public ventures and nurture full citizenship. Diasporas go beyond national relativism of Nepaliness to widen development view and ignore the roots of native wisdom. In a democracy, self-awakening and action raise adaptive learning to change and reduce the cost of development. Rule-based civic stirrings across the party lines now stand for a common life of citizenship.
The seething cauldron of discontent of revolutionaries is subversive disposed to deconstruct the construction of state-citizens ties for a new way of life. Many constructions of activism in Nepal through the justification of contending development theories and ideologies are unsettling to autonomous development and civic culture built on bonding and bridging trust, common experience and mutual respect. Still, its syncretic culture offers social capital central to share the cost of development. Nepal has notably improved its education, communication, health, banking, market expansion, urbanisation and migration but remains slow in energy, production, trade and social progress vital to graduate to developing nation by 2022 and attain the SDGs.
Anticipation of a robust spell of high and inclusive economic growth needs a firm political course, massive scale of cooperation of private sector and international community and conversion of needs, interest and opinion of ordinary Nepalis into public policy. Mobilisation of local economic and human resources, diversified revenue and tax base to support the levelling up of the poor through distributive justice and voluntary public action against the raid over local common can propel self-directed prosperity, the leitmotif of development.
The Constitution provides the local bodies powers of self-governing polity and its vital elements- inclusiveness, transparency and accountability, if not responsiveness, to ensure good life. Still, the centre defines the rules, maintains vertical control over the provinces and local authorities on legal, financial and technical aspects and holds critical leverage despite peddling autonomy. In a diverse society only by up-scaling civic engagement can cut costs of progress. The right-based discourse in Nepal is politicising them and increasing their engagement in a myriad of institutions and activities of diverse scales- voting, writing letters to the editor, public hearing, deliberation, rallies, protests and social movements to realise their rights. But this discourse has prized lawyers and judges. The claim of rights expresses less concern for public good.
Similarly, the feeling for life has recognised a symbiosis between ecology and economy and production and exchange to meet survival needs. Political parties, civil society, NGOs and social media have improved the feedback between leaders and citizens. But the huge costs of their dependency, debt, delay and skewed or non-action in matters of projects are fading the national immune system. Auditor-General has suggested that INGOs need state regulation as they are running a “shadow economy” violating the laws, hiding huge money in banks and enriching kleptocratic networks thus reducing development indicators.
Though federal parliament has taken holiday from policy making and adopted all the policies originated from international institutions since the onset of modernity and democracy including the latest one the SDGs, local bodies are entrusted with the duty to execute most of them. They are, therefore, engaged in crafting policies, programmes and activities as per their needs, address their problems and steer development gear. Compared to States which act as intermediary, citizens’ direct engagement in local bodies is growing. Social inclusion of women, Dalits, minorities and functional interest groups of society in the elected bodies provide scope to participate, interact with authorities, influence policy outcome in matters of selection of projects, allocation of resources, infrastructure development, management of environment and supply of public goods.
Active civic engagement is culturally rooted practices of Nepal. What is innovated is the use of emancipatory democratic values-freedom, scientific knowledge, human rights, civic autonomy, political voice and visibility, solidarity and peace. They tend to ground Nepali institutions in universalistic ethics and unleash social, economic and political energies for democratic development. It prevents the citizens’ fall off of economic scale.
Assuming the public good as uppermost priority, development process can bring the state, polity, government, political parties, economic institutions and local bodies closer to citizens, increase their access to resources, institutions and agencies and enforce leaders’ accountability. In Nepal, public good and services are supplied by the state’s coercive means, private sector market exchange, co-sharing of cooperatives, voluntary mode of NGOs and community based bodies, donors’ food for work and direct engagement of citizens which is cost-effective. It bypasses bureaucratic rut as citizens are producers, consumers, stakeholders and beneficiaries of development and, therefore, better state-citizen ties can liberate them from being passive recipients of welfare benefits common in a paternalistic regime.
But the centre-periphery tensions over their jurisdictions limp local bodies as the later are facing barriers to positive civic engagement owing to bigger sizes of Gaon Palikas and municipalities, geographic isolation of certain parts, reluctance of district officers to shift their works to local bodies, under supply of public servants, poor infrastructures, convoluted laws, loss of production dynamism owing to the migration of youths abroad, inexpert local authorities in matters of mediation of interests, conflict between elected and non-elected leaders and corruption of power. In some localities weak market institutions and strewn hamlets hinder the supplies while in remote areas where the presence of government is limited to administration, NGOs, civil society and market fail to meet the hope of citizens for development dividends.
In some localities, returnee migrant workers are doing innovative production works, such as poultry business, bee-keeping, commercial farming, horticulture, milk production, meat supply, organic farming, vegetable production, cash crops like tea, coffee, etc. fulfilling demand-supply equilibrium. Exposure has provided them development insights of other nations. Nepal has also offered training on vocational and technical education to enhance the stock of human resource. But it is insufficient to optimally exploit the nation’s endowment. Citizens’ practical engagement in labour, production, trade, finance, investment, technology and distribution is primal entailing modern tools to meet competitive standards. Similarly, various projects such as education, health, drinking water, sanitation, agriculture, cooperatives, infrastructures, farming techniques and small scale projects also require upgrading of technology.
Nepali leadership often flips to new theory of development to solve the nation’s problems while citizens are socialised in unfilled promises. Each theory proved defunct to capture the diversity and complexity of Nepali society. Development experts, detached from social learning of the empirical reality, ignored the culture, knowledge and experience of citizens and remained insulated from the disturbing effects of their failures. Development rests not only on the use of capital, technology, market and materials but also human ingenuity to utilise what Elinor Ostrom calls “institutional incentive” without crippling the nature’s gift for renewal. It optimises the sustainability of development.
Constitutional checks are vital to control obstreperous actors who spoil these conditions and get private benefits at public costs. The leaders need to revamp the failing institutions owing to the corrosive influence of interest groups, partisan politics and weak management, share the burden and benefits of common good with all Nepalis, craft dense associations to cultivate public spirit and common life of citizenship beyond private profit. Dispersal of power is vital but not enough unless they cultivate the virtue and skill, acquire wealth, power and specialisation for engagement in the public sphere of local commons and raise the scale of self-governance.
A strong doze of civic education for Nepalis is vital to liberate them from the Hobbesian trap, engage them in the civilisation process to pacify the wild human nature and uplift the quality of life by building citizens’ civic capacity, mobilising local resource and cultivating human scale of community, society, organisation and national affinity crucial to cut the costs of development.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)

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