Stability, rule of law, accountability and good governance can be maintained only through honest individuals in and outside the government.
After years of war, natural disasters and political turmoil, the stage has been finally set for Nepal to pay attention to economic development, prosperity and stability. But stability, rule of law, accountability and good governance can only be maintained through the actions of individuals within and outside the government.
We have implemented a new constitution, decentralized power away from Kathmandu, and ushered in thousands of fresh faces at all levels of government. The Left Alliance of CPN-UML and Maoist Center, which swept the national elections, is likely to rule the country for the full five years term. We will have the first government to do so in over a quarter century if the new government gets to rule for five years.
But let us not forget that stability is not the only precursor for prosperity. Rule of law, accountability, and good governance are as important. Nepal still has a long way to go on these fronts.
Nepal is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 131st out of 176 countries, according to Transparency International index. Government officials plunder foreign aid with impunity and citizens routinely pay bribes to get their jobs done and avoid problems. Meanwhile, the politicization of bureaucracy means that civil servants are often preoccupied with impressing their patrons rather than the public they serve.
The poor have to bear the brunt of this. When bureaucrats balk at moving from Kathmandu to the countryside, rural people must undertake a long and perilous journey to access basic services. When officials pocket incentives for women to give birth at hospitals, new mothers die. And when foreign aid for earthquake preparedness gets siphoned off by corrupt officials, the devastation that follows stalls development for years on end.
Over the years, public officials have received widespread criticism across the country. They have been questioned for their unwillingness to provide efficient and hassle-free services to service seekers and for taking bribes. Even the institutions set up to fight graft—like the Commission for the Investigation for the Abuse of Authority (CIAA)—have been criticized for abetting corruption. This daily lack of accountability and transparency are at the heart of a trust deficit between those in power and ordinary citizens.
This dismal picture often makes people throw up their hands. “When the whole system is rotten, why try to hold officials to account? Why bother to try to change the system?” They say. Such feelings of helplessness are understandable. But they breed apathy. And too often campaigns to curb corruption cannot overcome this resignation to the status quo.
We believe it’s more effective to shine a light on the examples that go unnoticed. We need to promote honest state workers who buck the system every day to serve the public with integrity. That’s why we launched Integrity Idol in Nepal in 2014—to “name and fame” rather than “name and shame” public officials and to celebrate and elevate those reformers within public service.
This year’s Idols were a remarkable bunch. In his career as an assistant Chief District Officer of Baglung district, Sesh Narayan Poudel built a record of solving tough problems without waiting for the official green light. Another Idol, Shabraj Bam, revolutionized teaching math in Kalikot district, getting thousands of students to love a subject they once feared.
Then there’s Krishna Dhital, an agricultural extension worker who convinced skeptical farmers in Kavre to adopt a new technology that doubled their rice output. Srijana Tiwari, who fought courageously to protect the human rights of Nepalis working abroad. And Sabnam Pathak, who helped prevent deforestation in areas populated by marginalized populations.
More than three million Nepalis tuned in to watch the Integrity Idol stories on national television in the past few weeks and voted in droves for their favorite candidate. We engaged citizens everywhere through social media (Facebook, YouTube and Twitter) and creative outreach using film showings, theater plays and public discussions. In the end, Shesh Narayan Poudel was voted by the public as Integrity Idol Nepal of 2017.
The Idols have agreed to continue engaging with young people after the campaign to spread their ethos of integrity and public service. The Idols—both the five we celebrated and many others within the bureaucracy that act with integrity—provide a platform for a process of federalism that can truly transform governance in Nepal. Our idea is to shift societal norms bit by bit, changing the next generation’s expectations of how public servants should behave and what they should stand for. We hope all Nepalis can play a part.
Rays of hope
A key ingredient for this transformation is optimism. Once people feel that tomorrow will be a better day, they will let go of ingrained beliefs about their relationship with government, and they begin to demand more. The campaign sparked conversations in coffee shops, offices and classrooms about what it means to serve with integrity.
The time for such discussions has never been more urgent. We invite all to participate in this.
Hopes are running high that the federal and provincial elections will inject fresh ideas into the government and help move the country forward. Yet if we do not set higher expectations from our public servants and ourselves, even the best reform ideas won’t translate into meaningful improvement in Nepalis’ lives. Stability, rule of law, accountability, and good governance won’t flourish in Nepal through magic but through the purposeful actions of individuals.
Right now, Nepal has an opening to step out from the shadows and finally begin to develop its full potential. It would be a terrible shame to squander this opportunity.
Adhikari is Country Director at Accountability Lab Nepal, Sharma runs Integrity Idol Nepal