There is nothing wrong with our senior bureaucrats and ministers visiting foreign countries. It’s always useful to observe how their counterparts abroad work, to get some useful training or to attend an important seminar on an area of their expertise. But such trips become problematic when they involve conflict of interest, questionable motives and waste of taxpayer money. A Republica investigation of 1,400 trips undertaken by civil servants in the past two months has revealed that over a billion rupees was spent on these foreign junkets. That these trips were wasteful is evident from the fact that they had been bunched together for the end of the current fiscal. If the bureaucrats didn’t use their travel funds by the end of the fiscal, the funds would be frozen. This is why there is a rush to travel abroad this time every year. Some go on taxpayer money. Most of them are sponsored by NGOs and our various development partners. But even in the latter case, instead of the donor funds going to finance a particular development project or social cause, as intended, the money instead ends up sponsoring expensive and often useless foreign trips of senior government officials.
Otherwise, what explains an official of the Ministry of Civil Service and Administrative Reforms going on a climate summit? Or a senior government official going abroad to observe a volleyball tournament? These are just two cases of abuse of authority and careless spending that Republica’s investigation has unearthed. But it is not just the lure of seeing new places that motivates our roving civil servants. They also get hefty travel allowances. For instance, government secretaries get a daily allowance of US $200 while travelling abroad, and joint-secretaries and under-secretaries get $175 and $150 respectively. This old culture that is reflective of the sense of entitlement of our senior government officials has been hard to break. Every year, the media reports on many such extravagant trips yet precious little has been done to stop them. It isn’t hard to see why. Those going on these foreign junkets are mostly senior government officials, who are, naturally, loath to pare back on their unearned privileges. And most of these officials have zero accountability to the people.
This sordid culture will not end until those making these unnecessary trips are made answerable. One of the ways this could be done is to ask any official who wants to go abroad to offer a foolproof rationale behind his or her intended trip to the concerned ministry or office. Does it add to the person’s professional skills and can those skills be leveraged for public good? Or is the trip important for some other reason, for instance in the import of vital foreign technology or knowhow that is unavailable in the country? In case of completed trips, perhaps the CIAA is the right agency to investigate. Any way we go about it, it is time to put a stop to this culture of unaccountability and impunity in our civil service, which does not sit well with the progressive image of new Nepal. In this Nepal, corrupt and wasteful civil servants should have no place.