Repair or despairThe next great need is strong reform of the public sector, if the country is to move forward on the road to prosperity
Why is it that we are still struggling with high infant and maternal mortality rates in Nepal? Why is unaffordable healthcare killing as many people as natural disasters? Why are migrant workers returning to the country in coffins? Why does it take years to fix the smallest potholes on public roads? Be it post-disaster or post-conflict, why are the rights of victims always disregarded? How is it that having strong laws are not enough to get people the justice they deserve? An unending chain of questions and concerns like these are indicative of the common reality of Nepali society. The plain and simple answer to all these questions is: the weak public administration is to blame.
Ironically, two of the very foundations of development—health and education—are in dismal conditions. Public schools are left with empty chairs and dilapidated structures while public hospitals rarely have doctors present. It is a fact that public institutions and public governance have become a subject of increased criticism in Nepal. Bureaucratic red tape and corruption have laid their roots in the public administrations of the state. The administrative body of state governance needs a serious push and massive transformation for stable and progressive development.
A well-governed public sector maintains stability and fosters overall development of the state. Enhanced governance through public administration is directly correlated to indicators of overall development. For instance, good economic management and aid contribute to economic growth, fiscal decentralisation promotes enhanced governance, and efficient and effective institutions and reformation of public institutions strengthens and elevates the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country.
The GDP is the fundamental benchmark for the development of any state and is guided and governed through the public administration. It is the public administration that is responsible for providing a better atmosphere for work, efficient taxation schemes, protection of fundamental human rights, and a sustainable environment for efficient and effective institutions and policies. Standardised principles of administration such as transparency, accountability, efficiency and participation are at the heart and soul of good governance; our country has failed miserably in institutionalising them.
Breaking the stereotype
The public institutions that are stagnant and sluggish have invariably failed to implement the policies of the state as a whole. The wave of socio-political transformation that the country witnessed in the recent past has had no effect on the governance of the country. As the laws and policies of Nepal have seen a massive transformation lately, the country is on the verge of introducing new laws and amending older ones just to keep up with the pace of the transformation. No visible variations have been witnessed on the public administration front, even after the adoption of economic and labour reform policies, the promulgation of a new constitution and a plethora of other important mandates and cabinet decisions.
Large parts of governance related activities have been delegated to the provincial and local levels. As such, reducing the prevalence of bureaucratic red tape and reforming the public administration needs critical attention and an integrated effort. It is high time that the administrative wings of the state break the stereotype and embrace practical approaches towards a progressive development of the state.
Approaches to better governance
Efficient governance through the reformation of the public administration entails comprehending two key principle approaches: a rights-based approach and a need-based approach.
For the former, governance led through public administration should lay an emphasis on regulatory norms and rules, thereby shifting the focus from the government to the citizen. Guaranteeing and safeguarding basic human rights and fundamental freedoms should essentially be placed as a priority under the agenda for policy implementation.
The public administration should always aim to fulfil the needs of society. The problems witnessed by Nepal are largely a result of political motives and vested interests overshadowing the aspirations of the people.
With minor fixes in the public policies of the state, it did not take long for a country like Bangladesh to get over the “basket case” image as remarked by political scientist Henry Kissinger, and move towards progressive economic transformation. Similarly, as Indian economist Amartya Sen rightly observed, it was not because of the lack of food but rather because of the weak governance and development strategies that thousands died of starvation in the Bengal famine of 1940 in India. As, development without transformation in the public sector seems impossible, attention should be given to the reformation and enhancement of the public administration in Nepal.
Devkota is an advocate specialising in the rule of law and human rights