New government Pitfalls Maoists must avoid
Now that the CPN-Maoist is at the helm of power, several challenges confront the party. First, since it is politically untested — unlike most other parties — people’s expectations of a Maoist-led government are high. Second, will they be able to avoid repeating the 1990 mistake of the NC-UML combine - by eschewing “jihadism” against the deeds of previous regimes. While Nepal remains a predominantly rural country, the first mistake NC and UML committed was to wreck the decentralised institutional arrangement created by the panchayat-era Decentralisation Act of 1982.
The legislation had created and empowered the user groups at the grassroots and devolved authority to the district level by bringing all the line agencies under the jurisdiction of the then elected body, the District Panchayat. It was this user group concept that was inducted into the forestry legislation as forest user groups in 1988 that went on to dramatically revive Nepal’s forest wealth in a decade’s time.
However, following protests by their cohorts in DDCs and VDCs, the Sher Bahadur Deuba government tried to reinvent the devolution in 1996. But two donors, UNDP and DANIDA, that furiously competed against each other to influence (read: dictate) the government’s decentralisation agenda, stepped in with wads of cash, and with the abdication by the Nepali
professionals, it ceased to be a relevant domestic exercise. The so-called Local Self-Governance Act of 1999 failed to restore the authority of the users. While billions of rupees were allotted for local development every year, poverty and unemployment continued to rise as most of the money was misspent.
The second challenge is to avoid the Khmer Rouge trap. Maoist leaders like Dr Baburam Bhattarai have been promising unrealistically high growth rates without explaining how they might go about achieving it. However, recalling the Cambodian debacle of the 1970s an observer had noted that “Grandiose and unrealistic visions led to failures, failures suggested subversion, perceived subversion fuelled paranoia, and paranoia sparked purges and ‘purification ‘ of masses”, resulting in the infamous “killing fields” of Cambodia.
Thirdly, as exemplified by the internationally applauded and domestically innovated Community Forestry, Nepal is not without success stories of her own. Today, the country is dotted with NGO-promoted and spontaneous micro finance initiatives working closely with the rural poor. For instance, the self-managed Small Farmer Cooperatives (SFCL) which now number 228 in equal number of VDCs in 41 districts, have helped its members make significant strides in fighting poverty. These co-ops now have large savings of their own which they lend for employment and income generation activities. Their unique access to bulk loans from the Agriculture Development Bank (ADBL) enable the small farmers to invest more and graduate out of poverty faster than under any other known initiative undertaken in Nepal.
However, two problems have dogged its much-needed up-scaling. While it never tried to wean itself away from its chronic dependence on foreign aid, its long-time benefactor (also initial architect of the SFCL concept), has lately been irresponsible in not implementing strong recommendations made by external reviewers for its expansion.
At the present juncture of Nepal’s history, the Maoists’ priority should be to create an institutional framework that provides the vast multitude of our rural poor an opportunity
to transform themselves into assertive stakeholders and to continuously engage in their own social and economic development. In order to make this happen three priority actions are necessary. Firstly, the so-called Local Self-Governance Act must be urgently revamped so that its focus is no longer on resource-wasting DDCs and VDCs but on resource-using user groups.
Secondly, the role of the National Planning Commission must be re-written so that our periodic plans serve as actual blueprints for accelerated national development.
Thirdly, half a century of foreign aid has relegated Nepal to the status of a poor and strife-ridden country. Therefore, its rules too must be fundamentally rewritten so that foreign aid becomes a good servant and ceases to be the bad master of the present. Thirdly, there is the heavily funded Poverty Alleviation Fund ($100 million). The so-called Community Organisations that it promotes for alleviating poverty, being devoid of backward and forward linkages, look more like the poorer cousins of the ADBL’s now obsolete Small Farmer groups of the 70s and 80s. Therefore, to optimally benefit from World Bank’s largesse, its role should be redefined so that the Fund works through the nationwide network of micro-finance based initiatives in order to root out poverty from the country.
Shrestha is a development anthropologist