February 17, 2015 Sujeev Shakya

Why Things Fail

The complaint about ‘political instability’ is one we have been hearing for the past 65 years, ever since Nepal began its flirtation with democracy. Perhaps, the most constant factor in Nepal has been political instability. However, the time has come to really examine what constitutes political instability and to see what can help accelerate economic growth and development.

We tend to blame ‘multiparty’ democracy for introducing elements of political instability, as we have had 22 prime ministers in the last 25 years, since multiparty democracy was restored in 1990. During the 30 years of the so-called ‘stable’ partyless Panchayat era, no prime minister ever completed his five-year term and we had 14 prime ministers in 30 years! So where does this instability come from? Do our societal traits have to do something with it? Is it our quest to ‘give everybody a chance’ that dominates our thought process? In the corporate world, shareholders ask that auditors be changed every year. Board members of some banks want to rotate the position of chairman every year. Many institutions want leadership at the helm to change each year, be it for professional or voluntary social organisations. So is a short stint at the top a societal trait?

Institutional perils

In Nepal, be it during the Panchayat years or post 1990, it seems that we want to replace everyone holding a certain position once the prime minister changes. In recent weeks, ambassadorial positions and promotions of bureaucrats have been decided upon by the coalition in power, rather than through any rational system. Short-lived governments have made institutions change leadership in a short span of time and brought in ambiguity in policy making and inconsistencies in policy execution.

We see prime ministers in Japan and Italy changing at regular intervals too, but the leadership of all institutions do not change with them. In an interaction with Yves Leterme, former prime minister of Belgium during his visit to Nepal, he pointed out the importance of stability in key institutions. He was narrating his own story of being the longest-serving caretaker prime minister in Belgium for nearly two years and how institutions did not suffer during that time.

Therefore, we in Nepal need to explore how we can look at the institutionalisation of key government functions and not let them be decided at a whim by frequent changes at the top.

Party preference

The feudal structure and practice of giving out of jagirs by erstwhile kings and nobles in the past have had a deep influence on the way government appointments are made. Political parties, like the erstwhile kings, think that they have inherited all the positions and they own them. So it is their prerogative to make someone an ambassador or a secretary or even a police constable. Since earlier kings did not have any benchmark or productivity and efficiency-based tools to judge performance, they relied on chakari, a form of sycophancy, or hearsay, ie, verbal reports by their trusted folks, to judge performance. The system has yet to change and rather than starting an efficient system of performance evaluation, the political parties have decided to implement the inherited archaic system of ‘ramro manche bhanda afno manche’, ie, it is better to have your own person than a good person.

This system prevails across many of our professional associations, NGOs, business organisations, and social institutions. The fact that elections to leadership in Non-Resident Nepali Associations in New York or Hong Kong are fought along party lines in Nepal speaks volumes of how this party-based division is ingrained in our system.

Therefore, my humble submission to parachute missions and consultants coming to Nepal has been to understand the country’s social fabric and history before resorting to clichés like ‘Nepal suffers from political instability’. One needs to appreciate the fact that despite such political instability, Nepal has progressed tremendously in the past 25 years in terms of lifting people out of poverty and bettering the lives of Nepalis. So poverty brokers can stay away from selling ‘political instability’ as a tool for their continued existence and instead, focus on how the issue of political instability can be dissected to help institutionalisation.

Problematic effects

The focus on the wrong perception of political instability and a failure to look at institutional stability has impacted proper regulation. This environment of pseudo-anarchy does impact many issues, including future investments in Nepal. Government officials are making free-flowing statements on television channels without accountability. People in government bodies with minority shares in private companies are becoming major impediments to the proper functioning of companies. The abuse of authority by using one’s position in a government agency is increasing. Similarly, there is no way of tackling yellow journalism through legal mechanisms, which is now starting to impact the media industry as a whole. There is no recourse on defamation as some folks have made this a business that is linked to pseudo-extortion. The fear of backlash on oneself makes the silent majority appease troublemakers in fear of the onslaught on oneself, rather than trying to think of what can be done collectively.

Institutional stability

Nepal needs to work towards building stable institutions based on leadership that is chosen on merit rather than relationships with the folks at the helm of political power. Nepal’s Investment Board is a classic example of how a government institution can be built by recruiting people who can deliver, rather than those who spend days lining up in the corridors of Singha Durbar. It is important to replicate such successes across many government institutions.

The multilateral and bilateral assistance community needs to really think of how they can help strengthen institutions and take the political influence out. Only then can Nepal function well, despite prime ministers changing with the calendar. Only then can Nepalis think of helping institutions inside or outside Nepal to further Nepal’s economic growth and development. The Nepal Economic Forum is going to start a campaign on this soon and we welcome people to join with us.

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