Towards open governance and civic participationThere is a long way to go for Nepal to build integrity in state institutions and eradicate corruption.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal indicated a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption a few months ago. However, corruption remains unabated in Nepal, as is evident in the Lalita Niwas land acquisition case, the fake Bhutanese refugee scam, the gold scandal and the loan shark dispute.
Over the past decade, the country has been at the forefront of reforms in South Asia in terms of the right to information, fiscal transparency, citizen engagement and asset disclosure, among other issues. However, the public does not trust the government because previous corruption cases have rarely led to justice, and the commitments made internationally have not always yielded concrete implementation domestically. There is a long way to go to build integrity in state institutions, stamp out corruption and buttress governance. This calls for joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which could benefit the country.
OGP is a network of more than 70 countries and 100 local governments working together to improve governance globally. Founded in 2011, its objective, in the words of Barack Obama, was to ensure that the government truly serves its citizens rather than itself. Nepal has been eligible to join OGP since its establishment but has yet to do so. Now, with a grand OGP Summit being held in Estonia on September 6 and 7, to which Nepal is invited, the country has an opportunity to do the same.
Nepal has much to gain by joining OGP. First, it would indicate to the world that the country is committed to open governance and willing to address issues like corruption meaningfully. At the same time, a commitment to an international process of this kind provides a degree of accountability because, as a part of OGP, Nepal will be required to develop a National Action Plan to address crucial challenges, which will encourage the civil society to push for progress. OGP is predicated on co-creating reforms between government and civil society and generating collective action.
Second, it would provide Nepal with access to a learning network. Other countries, as part of their OGP plans, have implemented long-fought-for landmark reforms. These include the beneficial ownership disclosure laws in the United Kingdom, Kenya, Norway and Indonesia; lobbying laws in Chile and Ireland; open contracting platforms in Ukraine; citizen participatory audits in the Philippines; and access to information laws in Brazil, Kenya and Sri Lanka. Mongolia has also made provisions to enlist citizens to report on the quality of public service delivery. In fact, OGP countries have made more than 4,500 individual policy reforms in the past decade by collecting lessons, building networks, making connections between reformers and supporting implementation, all of which could super-charge Nepal’s governance.
Third, OGP has a rapidly growing local programme, which is the same for local governments. As Nepal transitions from a unitary to a federal system and the government embeds sub-national structures, OGP membership can bolster new forms of civic participation in democratic governance processes. For instance, Nepal suffers from insufficient service delivery in rural areas partly because citizens are not always involved in designing and monitoring these services. In Kaduna state in Nigeria, the local government put in place a system through OGP by which citizens act as the “eyes and ears” of the authorities to report on the condition of public services, leading to improvements in healthcare and sanitation, among others. Nepal can learn from these countries, and once the central government joins OGP, provincial and local governments will also have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.
Finally, good governance is a challenge in South Asia, and regional cooperation is poor. Nepal has the opportunity, through joining OGP, to set new standards for the region, take leadership within South Asia and catalyse new relationships that could support economic, social and political development. With India’s turn towards authoritarianism, Pakistan’s political challenges and Sri Lanka’s periodic crises, it is now the time for Nepal to step up and set an example for the region to follow in democratic governance. Most importantly, Nepali citizens will feel the dividends, but this also makes political sense for the current government, given the push to improve transparency and accountability. Ultimately, OGP supports the delivery of promises that are in everyone’s best interests.
Nepal should declare its membership of OGP, but this commitment should lead to the formation of effectively structured plans and their implementation. For instance, the government must identify a lead agency for OGP that is mandated to coordinate across government ministries and departments and appoint a senior civil servant as the focal point. Embedding OGP within the Office of the Prime Minister would, therefore, make sense.
The government must then develop a National Action Plan in conjunction with civil society and with significant public input. They should agree on a timeline for developing this plan and publish it soon afterwards. Throughout the implementation period, there should be an element of continuous dialogue with civil society. As outlined above, the OGP Support Unit can broker support from multilateral organisations or other OGP countries. Finally, the government must facilitate independent reporting on progress through OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM). It provides meaningful and independent accountability for progress against commitments and generates recommendations to strengthen and improve subsequent plans.
Nepal has signed up to international conventions and policy processes many times but has de-prioritised implementation and sidelined reformers. This should change for the better now. Through OGP, Nepal has the opportunity to lead South Asia on issues of open governance and civic participation, and it shouldn’t miss this chance.