February 14, 2017 Sujeev Shakya

Challenging Mediocrity, Adopting Meritocracy

Over the last couple of weeks, controversy surrounding the appointment of the next Inspector General of Police (IGP) for Nepal has cluttered media headlines and discussions on social media. Two candidates have presented themselves and are allegedly backed by separate political leaders. Back when Nepal was run by the partyless Panchayat system, many of the appointments were allocated according to the proximity of candidates to the palace—merit did not matter. However, in this ‘syndicate democracy’—which is more redolent of what Pratyoush Onta refers to as a ‘partyfull Panchayat’—it seems the decision is made by political syndicates. Competency, track-record, ability—nothing matters. What does is who can push you. When it comes to appointments in bureaucracy, universities, diplomatic corps or security forces, it boils down to who you know, not who you are or what you can do.

Nepotism Over Meritocracy

A common Nepali saying claims that having your own people in place is better than having a good person (ramro manche bhanda afno manche); we Nepalis are following this cultural ethos to the hilt. From households to communities, from small businesses to large corporations, from small community groups to large organisations and from business cartels to political parties, this has been our modus operandi. While operations are run under performance contracts in many successful international organisations and democracies, many people we recruit and interview have not even heard of performance appraisals.

It should also be acknowledged that even the larger organisations in Nepal do not have a system of issuing employee contracts. People do not seem to understand that pay, emoluments and perks are linked to performance. Nepal’s labour laws treat everyone as equal and pay is not based on productivity. For example, whether a restaurant waiter spends all his time on social media and does a terrible job or whether he is efficient, the pay is equal. This is dictated by law. In a country where laws do not recognise productivity, the issue of merit becomes a difficult one to understand.

When hiring people in universities, the merit of candidates does not come into play. University boards are filled with people who have perhaps never attended classes in a university. At university convocations, people who have just managed to scrape through their own examinations deliver academic lectures to people who have slogged to earn their degrees. Echoing practices all over South Asia, Nepali leaders are bestowed with honorary doctorates galore, adopting the honorific ‘Dr’ without blinking an eye.

Characterised by an absence of understanding of standards to assess merit and knowledge in the workforce, the Nepali populace have resorted to other measures. People have developed a tendency to choose who they trust, and increasingly, who can outperform others in terms of the amount of cash delivered in a suitcase. This culture of placing your own person is a feudalistic trait that goes against the norms of a liberal open society where merit is the key determinant of progress to the next level.

Therefore, the issue of merit versus nepotism is something that needs to be tackled from the perspective of instilling change in our society so that it will accept people should be distinguished on the basis of merit and productivity rather than ethnicity, gender, caste, creed, or the money in the envelope. Further, the benchmark that is set should conform to global norms to determine the calibre of individuals or institutions.

Biggest Worry

A society that does not accept meritocracy as a means of appointing or recognising people cannot aspire to attain global leadership in any sphere. A society that does not believe in merit will then keep on producing mediocre people who are scared of competition. Then one starts to whip out the ‘hollow nationalism’ card to earn sympathy and rent seek.

So rather than trying to see how we can work with the Economist or the World Economic Forum to do an event, we will be more than happy to have the same people speak to the same audience. Rather than trying to adopt global benchmarks on accounting, legal, and institutional frameworks, we will want to operate with our own Nepali rules and further insulate our mediocrity. Rather than trying to open a stock market with billion dollar transactions in six months to match global standards, we will probably create home grown software that will insulate against insider trading or that ensures the people who want to adopt international standards are out of the competition. Rather than trying to match world standards in Nepal, we would like to change the world to match our mediocre ways of functioning. Our hallmark of mediocrity is based on the fact that we do not believe in a society that promotes meritocracy.

The biggest worry is the way Nepali society is spreading the feeling that mediocrity is okay and that meritocracy is something that we are not ready for. Last week when, I interviewed a host of young Nepalis, the manner in which they dressed, spoke, and articulated themselves worried me. It is completely at odds with the way the world is moving and far from the way young people in Bhutan, Cambodia, and Rwanda think about meritocracy and benchmarks. It’s high time we thought of how to fix this.

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