Recipe for failureThe proposed local jurisdictions are too large and they have too many responsibilities
The Local Level Restructuring Commission (LLRC) has recently released a report proposing to establish 565 local bodies including townships and municipalities in preparation for the federalisation of Nepal. The LLRC Chairman Balananda Poudel has claimed that the local bodies have been demarcated on the basis of sustainability, but that is incorrect. The ad-hoc and copy-paste way in which the size and number of local bodies have been fixed by mimicking the South African model is not good. The LLRC’s objective was to recommend the demarcation of local bodies by amalgamating 217 municipalities and 3,157 VDCs into sustainable local bodies. Although the commission claims that the recommendation is scientific and sustainable, it is not so. The delineation of local bodies has been done without analysing the political, social, economic and institutional contexts.
Nepal should learn from the failure of local governments in South Africa. The book by Prof Tom Koelble and Andrew Siddhiq entitled ‘The Failure of Decentralisation in South African Local Government’ should make decision makers think twice. It would be unwise to base our modality on the failed concept of South African local governments. The challenge before Nepal lies not only in the number and size of local bodies but also the provision of the Constitution Schedule-8 (relating to clause (4) of Article 57, clause (2) of Article 214, clause (2) of Article 221 and clause (1) of Article 226).
The constitution has empowered local governments beyond their capacity. Although the framework of the constitution is based on idealism, it has failed to incorporate the harsh realities that the process has to undergo. It would be wise for Nepal to base the modality on similar political, economic and social institutional contexts. Lawmakers have rightly chosen the South African modality of empowering local governments in the constitution, but they have failed to learn from the failure of local governments in that country. A patrimonial political culture, rent-seeking irresponsible leaders and bureaucrats, endemic corruption, lack of political will and vision, cadre deployment, lack of skilled and enthusiastic local level human resources, weak accountability and nepotistic culture are things Nepal and South Africa have in common. The failure of the system in South Africa with its large sized local bodies and similar devolution of power shows that the failure of subnational decentralisation in Nepal is inevitable and unequivocal.
The factors that lead to the failure of devolved local governments are institutional factors (which include capacity constraints, financial constraints, governance and community relations), structural factors and environmental factors. The main issue is the enormous responsibilities placed upon the shoulders of local governments by the constitution which is beyond their capacity and ability. There are very few people at the local level who are able to discharge the jobs that have been bestowed upon the local bodies. Not matching the rights and responsibilities with the capacity will create a service delivery and expectation gap. This gap will invoke protests and social chaos as seen in South Africa. According to the Civic Protests Barometer 2007-2014 published by the Multi-Level Government Initiative (MLGI), the number of ‘civic protests’ in South Africa reached an all-time high of 218 in 2014. Since 2008, there have been more than 100 protest incidents annually. Such a rise in violent protests is associated with dissatisfaction with local government services.
Structural factors include an appropriate funding model, appropriate regulations and mandates that are based on realism rather than idealism which are difficult to achieve. Environmental factors involve a weak economy, poverty and unemployment. These factors will not produce the desired outcome of decentralisation and lead to the failure of subnational devolution.
Evolutionary, not revolutionary
The geographical jurisdiction of the proposed local governments as proposed by the LLRC is too large to make service delivery effective. Simply enlarging the jurisdiction and devolving power to the local government will not deliver services as per the spirit of the new constitution. The effective use of the power conferred on these local bodies is more important. So the big bang approach of making a radical overhaul in the structure of local governments by reducing their number without learning a lesson from international experiences is inappropriate. The devolution of power to local governments should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary and it should be done by matching their rights and responsibilities with their capacity. Dumping a whole bunch of responsibilities including primary and secondary education exclusively on local governments will not only distort the national standard but also create rising inequalities among local jurisdictions.
Finally, among the most important aspects of the LLRC’s recommendations, the large local governments it has proposed is against the spirit of democratic decentralisation where decisions are made close to the people. The smaller the size, the closer the government is to the people; and the larger the size, the more distant the government is from the people. Large local governments diminish the vibrancy of local democracy. They reduce political representation and lower people’s participation. This will effectively retard local economic development with reduced economic activity and rising unemployment. It is of utmost importance that a proactive approach is used and the constitution amended to free local governments from the responsibilities which they cannot fulfil. Nepal cannot afford to wait for another 20 years to find out that the decentralisation model it has adopted has been a failure. And that is what is going to happen if the current proposed number of 565 local governments is implemented due to their overloaded constitutional responsibilities.
Prasai is a chartered certified accountant pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at SOAS University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies)