‘Crucial days’ for Nepal. Still? Again? And for how long?

[Cross-posted from Aidnography]

Reading some of the recent articles on Nepal, I was faced with an almost philosophical question: What if the ‘transition’ from the ‘old’ to a ‘new’ Nepal wasn’t really a process, but a convenient discursive construction to keep people motivated and hide the fact that many of the Kathmandu-based elite still don’t have a ‘vision’ for Nepal? Or maybe there is no ‘vision’ at all in the 21st century if your country is lodged between India and China and exposed to global development models?
I have come across three articles recently that capture the current challenges quite well in their different ways. Seymon Brown and Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote a piece for the NYT (Nepal, on the Brink ofCollapse) and according to most observers gave a somewhat accurate description of the current situation, even if some claims about the risks of a ‘failed state’ may be a bit alarmist. Sara Shneiderman and Mark Turin’s letter to the NYT was a helpful qualification and addition:
‘Still, Nepal has made substantial progress in its democratic transition, which began only in 1990 and is unlikely to end now. Accomplishments include the creation of a genuinely open public sphere, in which all citizens can engage in wide-ranging debate; unprecedented political participation from previously marginalized groups; and the agreement on demobilization and integration of Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army.’
But in the end, I find it difficult not to get cynical when reading about the Constituent Assembly. Drafting a constitution is not rocket science, other countries have managed that task, too, and Nepal is not that different or special. A good constitution pretty much fits on a cocktail napkin and then other laws and political institutions need to fill the spirit of that constitution with life. I am not close to the ground enough to be able to judge how much ‘bottom-up’ driven these processes really are, but I think that the concept of ‘federalism’ is often used as a panacea that no matter what the final outcome will be it will ultimately fall short, as the Browns write:
‘However, instead of unifying the country, constitution-drafting has become a frenzied contest to secure special privileges for one’s own community’.
Federalism works best if there are different resources that need to be (re-)distributed and a social, economic and political consensus exists that the system is operating relatively fair and transparent and for the benefit of the whole country. Right now, most resources are Kathmandu-based and there will be a long struggle about who gets how much out of the main cake. Compromises between geographical regions, ethnic groups or other factors are imperative and I don’t think most groups are prepared for this as they struggle to prove their legitimacy and claims to the federal budget. And amongst all these debates, some of which have been going on for all of the six years since the end of the conflict, China is pursuing its model of ‘development’ in a similar way as it does in Africa. The BBC article (New roads bring change and danger to Nepal)
is just one reminder that while the Kathmandu- and international donor elites are talking, China is doing-for better or for worse. China’s influence on rural Nepal will become bigger than many Western donor effort and it may catch some of the primarily Kathmandu-based talking circles by surprise during their federalism workshops, peacebuilding conferences and marketing assessments on how Nepal should have another ‘year of tourism’.

Finally, I read an interesting piece in Republica by Pradeep Raj Giri (I haven't found a link yet and has to rely on a scan of the article) and I was startled by the first sentence:
‘Our country is in a state where everybody is eager to see the direction it takes’.
Well, to be honest this sounds very 2006/7-ish to me. In many ways, Nepal has been taken a direction already by deciding to ‘wait’ for a better future.
What those three stories indicate to me is that while there is a lot of soul searching going on about the ‘future direction’ of Nepal, the future is actually happening right now. It will be difficult for Nepal to carve out a place between Chinese, Indian and Western models of ‘development’ which are not that different in their foundations of economic growth, resource use and more consumption – all of which is happening in Nepal while some members of the elite cling to their power dreaming about a Himalayan Switzerland that is unlikely to happen.

One of my favourite blogs from Nepal by Chandan Sapkota just featured a piece on the changing imports and export and his observations are not very encouraging:
Sophistication of Nepali export basket is very low, Competitiveness of Nepali export items is going down [and] Due to huge remittance inflows, Nepalis are consuming at an alarming rate.
I know that Nepal has a great capacity of ‘muddling through’ and this seems the likeliest path for the country rather than any overly optimistic or pessimistic extremes. Maybe analysts need to read more Lindblom than Weber or Marx...

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Comment by Tobias Denskus on June 12, 2012 at 8:32am

Just two quick comments, Richard.

One is about self-reflexivity and liberal peacebuilding. Maybe I haven't made myself clear enough, but I don't think there are 'us' and 'them' constituencies involved. International researchers (like myself), international conflict advisors (like yourself) and basically everybody else is part of the liberal peace discourse in one way or another (What kind of research is acceptable? How is knowledge produced? etc). In the case of Kathmandu I often found it difficult to find out how 'homegrown' certain development and peacebuilding ideas really were. Passports alone seem to be too simplistic when people have studied abroad, experts have worked in different countries and organisations introduce different ideas that local and global 'diffusion agents' then take up, change or ignore.
I also found a brilliant article on the difficulties of assessing constitution making processes (Does the process of constitution-making matter? (you can Google for an open access version): 'This review has explored the theoretical and empirical relationships between the process of constitutional design and constitutional outcomes. On the theoretical side, we find a broad consensus in the literature about the importance of public involvement as well as an apparent trend in practice. Yet many of the assumptions of proponents of participation remain untested, and the precise relationships between participation and desirable outcomes of interest remain underspecified. In general, scholars have been far better at generating hypotheses relating process to outcomes than at testing them. Individual case studies have provided some insights, but large-n work has been hindered by a lack of data and by a need for conceptual refinement. [...] Our own analysis utilizing these data sources suggests an association between processes
that involve the public in the adoption of the constitution and the presence of rights and certain democratic institutions in the resulting document. This finding is consistent with the case study literature, although we are cautious about drawing conclusions about causality. However, we find little support for the claims about institutional self-interest on the part of legislatures that control constitutional design. Constitutional design processes are loaded with expectations about endurance, efficacy, the resolution of conflicts, and political reconstruction (Arjomand 2007). In the real world, however, most constitutions fail (Scheppele 2008). A key normative question is whether aspects of process can be manipulated to reduce the probability of failures, but this question requires much more positive work on the complex relationships among process, content, and outcomes.'

Comment by Vinay Jain on June 11, 2012 at 12:14am

It is interesting that you report on the basis of your PhD work on state in Nepal.

I find just one local Note from Pradeep Raj Giri you rightly exclaim his first sentence startling:

‘Our country is in a state where everybody is eager to see the direction it takes’. Despair of a Napelese!


With sad breakdown of Monarchy, open influence of Maoists, underworld influence, friendly ties with India too must have waned, and with given history of India's central power an aggressive gesture from its side may not be expected; then, the field appears open to China and Western interests in the only Himalyan Hindu nation. Why so much distant interest in this region?

As for democratic norms, Nepal may, perhaps, look for inspiration from tiny monarchial Buddhist Bhutan where the Monarch has been eager for democracy for betterment of Bhutanese.

You may find these aspects also of some value in your research work. It would be worthwhile if your work is impartially oriented toward interests of the Nepalese people.

Comment by Dr Richard Bowd on June 10, 2012 at 10:44pm

Hello again, I'd have thought a blog can be a succinctly analytical as one is able or willing to make it.  I fully agree political processes in Nepal are driven by a small elite in Kathmandu however I would disagree with your belief as to what a constitution is.  Given you are stating the international community's liberal peacebuilding is inneffective (as I could be alleged to be part of that liberal peacebuilding model I'd be interested to see your 'proof' you talk of) I find it confusing that you, from the West, find it acceptible to then place parameters on what a constitution is and should mean for Nepal. Does a consitution "just need to state 'everybody is equal'"? I would say, given the context of Nepal, no. This is also what the Nepal state and people for that matter are saying.  If you read Nepal's Interim Constitution you will see this is not just a document laying out borad parameters, why would the final constitution be the same? For Nepal, the development of a constitution is, in theory, a deeply symoblic issue representing a break away from the past, for that reason it is detailed; so in a sense the task is in fact to draft the entire socio-legal and economic framework for the country.

In a post-conflict environment the drafting of a consitution in cases other than outright victory will be a complex undertaking. Your belief that the consitution could be written on a cocktail napkin essentially implies there is a willingness and desire on the part of the political elite to work together and share power: There is not! Two key factors in the political anthropology of Nepal dictate this: the first being the key political parties do not want to share power, they position themselves to undermine the rest and grab as much as they can. The second, which relates to the first, is that the political elite want to retain the status quo as it is this that enables power grabs.  Unfortunately the combination of the two results in the rather ugly outcome of a political elite that do not want to share power, other than work together to maintain current levels of discrimination that enable them to extract from the system. This is why talks are so detailed because by keeping them detailed you are seen to be fighting for your patronage group whilst also making this so complicated nothing moves forward.

You are correct that there is no bright future waiting for Nepal once the constitution is drafted (if it ever is) but given this is a document that will redefine the way Nepali life is conducted it, again in theory, provides the basis through which the country can move through the various transitions it needs to (monarcy to democracy, rural based economy to something that can sustain its people, a caste-based system to an inclusionary one etc) and for that reason it is a document that in many way represents more to the Nepali people.

One final note, returning to your statement regarding the international community's liberal peacebuilding model. If you speak to any government official or political actors in Nepal, and I recommend you do so if you have not already, you will become aware of the fact that Nepal's peace process is "homegrown". Nepal's elite, and in that include her bureacracy, have made it and continue to make it very clear that Nepal itself is driving the agenda here. In many ways I would agree, the donor community seem to be completely fine with sitting back while amnesties protecting human right violaters are given out to friends and colleagues (including a Supreme Court convicted murder who until recently was a CA member) and the technical advice that may spill forth from a liberal peacebuilding model is not well received and the donor community do not seem willing or able to push for such elements a liberal peacebuilding model. The Nepali elite only imply the existence of a liberal peacebuilding model when they wish to bash the international community for the alleged conspiracy we are all involved in, including for example the push for an ethic-based federal system that the international community allegedly began.

Comment by Tobias Denskus on June 10, 2012 at 12:51pm

Thank you for your detailed comments, Richard. Obviously a blog post is not as detailed in its analysis as my academic articles or large parts of my PhD thesis on Nepal are. The newspaper articles are just one way of introducing the article-and I know that there are more and better ones, too. Not just for 22 years, but basically ever since the 'modern' development project arrived in Nepal a key discourse is 'adopt Western democracy and prosperity will follow'. Despite monarchy, civil war and political turmoil any political process is still led by a small elite in Kathmandu, very well accustomed to international debates on peace and development, and this elite is the main target of my critique. A constitution is a fairly general document that lays out broad parameter for economic, social and political structures. My feeling is that lots of energies are invested in the process, while key institutions from high courts to central banks or political parties have been and most likely will be underperforming. A constitution just needs to state 'everybody is equal' and, yes, that includes sexual orientation, religion, caste etc. I have been surprised by how detailed some discussions were when the task is to draft a constitution-not the entire socio-legal framework of the society. I probably didn't make my central point clear enough and I do apologise for that: My view is that there is no bright 'future' waiting for Nepal once a constitution is finalised, a new cabinet has been elected or the last Maoist fighter has been de-commissioned. Nepal's challenges, ranging from the expousre to climate change, population growth, unsustainable tourism practices and difficult economic position vis-a-vis her big neighbours will have an impact, especially on those who are outside of Kathmandu and relatively or absolutely poor. The international community's liberal peacebuilding model (which has proved to increase inequality among other things) has very little to contribute to those current debates and I wonder whether Nepal will move along a real or perceived 'transitional' phase for the foreseeable future while another young generation with high expectations will lose out because of the elites 'business as usual' attitute.

Comment by Dr Richard Bowd on June 10, 2012 at 12:19pm

I wouldn't normally comment on such a post but I felt I had to on this occasion given what I perceive as a very weak analysis and argument. It really seems like the author has little understanding of the context gathered only from cursory reading of a few newspaper articles which is disappointing; especially when commenting on the future of a country I have called home for the last two and half years.

The first comment relating the 'philosophical question' smacks somewhat of elightened naivety. How many countries in the world emerging from 220+ years of monarchy, a discriminatory caste system and ten years of civil war do so with a clear and definable vision and an accurate roadmap of how to get there? How many countries in the West implimented a working system of democracy within 22 years? How many did this in 22 year against a backdrop similar to Nepal? My prediction would be none, to all three questions. Why, then, would we expect Nepal to be the model of perfection?

The second point about the writing of a constitution, I'd be interested in knowing how many constitutions the author has been involved in the drafting of.  Surely the number would be quite high to be able to make such a statement as "Drafting a constitution is not rocket science, other countries have managed that task, too, and Nepal is not that different or special". I am sure the author's experiences of drafting a "good constitution [which] pretty much fits on a cocktail napkin" would stand him in good stead for his new role as Chief Constitution Advisor to the Government of Nepal which is surely now only a formality. Indeed other countries have written consitutions but have they done so with the challenges facing Nepal? If they have, what is the condition of that country and its people? No doubt the constitution on the cocktail napkin has been the saving grace of the country and its citizens are currently blissfully celebrating their newly found utopian existence. With a note of seriousness here, the writing of a consititution that aims to create a new, democratic, inclusive and fair country out of the ashes of a country held back by an uttery discriminatory social and economic system and divided through a decade long war is in fact an extremely complex task, especially when one takes into account the fragmented nature of politics in this country. Even if the author is right in that a good constitution can be written on a cocktail napkin it would certainly not be a democratic one and therefore what would be the point if it is only going to lead to further conflict as existing fragmentations and grievances are left unadressed? Like the author, I too am cycnical regarding the constituent assembly. However its failure has not been in spite of the ease of writing a constitution, indeed it has been due to the diffulty in doing so. That in conjunction with the ineptness of the CA members, their blatant corruption, endemic impunity and a donor community that unfortunately do not seem take the government to task for such behaviour.

The authors point on federalism in Nepal is relatively accurate, groups are not yet ready for this and a federal system based on ethnicity is likely to have no other outcome that communal conflict. However the percieved level of understanding regarding China's role is misunderstood - Nepali's and internationals alike are aware of the role of China.  Unfortunately, given India's role in the country it does seem likely that Nepal may be the stomping ground of a second 'Great Game'.

The authors final point on the article by Pradeep Raj Giri also seemed naive.  Would he not expect a country and a people that have waited 4 years for a consitution that promised so much yet was not delivered to be "eager to see the direction it takes"? While the author may find this "very 2006/7-ish" I am of the opinion it is entirely reasonable the citizens of a country emerging from a recent and past history that Nepal is doing, who have also been thrown into a state of disarray by the failure to promulgate the constitution, to being thinking about what may eventuate. If the author feels all should be fine and dandy in Nepal 6 years after a civil war, and that "Nepal is not that different or special", then I would like to pose this question: "Why has the 2008 banking crisis in the West not yet been resolved or is the fixing of such an issue more difficult than the recreation of an entire country?". The reason I ask is that I am of the opinion that that if we don't really know anything about a country then it may be more advisable for us to work on our own problems.

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