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Last year, as part of a research project, I spoke to a senior finance bureaucrat to understand how policy is made in Nepal. “Policies are national property,” he said. “They don’t belong to a political party or an individual.” On my way out of the building, I looked at the staff photos hanging in the lobby: one woman, hardly any social diversity. The irony did not escape me.  

I make a living off the development industry, where influencing governments on policy change is an obsession. It is the most coveted solution to problems, the ultimate way to create macro impacts, an indispensable strategic pillar. Policies are the real deal. But I had never heard policy described as “national property”, which invokes an idealised sense that it belongs to every citizen. If that is the case, and if government policies – when implemented – have a far-reaching impact for everyone, then why do the processes of policymaking continue to be elitist and exclusionary? 

Last month, I attended the opening ceremony of a national conference organised by a federal ministry. Held in the grandiose Rana-era architecture and décor of the Yak and Yeti, the event was a sea of suits, dhakas and some saris. The chief guest and the speakers –the prime minister, minister, opposition politicians, bureaucrats – were all men of so-called high caste Hill Hindu background. 

Across Nepal, powerful decision-making spaces are filled with such men, with their Hinduism-influenced cultural worldviews and effortless Nepali language skills. Their presence does not raise eyebrows or curiosity, their authority is readily accepted, their verdicts on problems and solutions go unchallenged, their incompetence does not determine their dispensability. They represent the institutional norm. Their experiences, expectations and inclinations structure everything.

Policymaking identifies problems and their causes. This is not an objective, apolitical exercise. What issues are considered worthy of attention and action? What is identified as a problem? Who are responsible for the problems? Whose experiences should be prioritised over others? In all these questions, the policymakers’ values, ideology, biases, worldviews, all come into play.

There is little opposition, and few dissenting voices against this homogeneity, because people with influence and authority outside state institutions are similar to those in the bureaucracy. In policy and program related discussions, the gender question does pop occasionally, almost as an afterthought. Like the conference venue, old structures remain intact, providing the larger setting for the dynamics of today’s society. 

A case in point are the controversial recruitment ads the Public Service Commission recently ran. To activists, analysts, and civil service aspirants, these further the state-sanctioned backlash against the inclusion of marginalised groups in state bodies. This may be unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court deemed it legitimate. Dor Bahadur Bista’s influential Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization, provides some compelling arguments for why Nepal’s bureaucracy is so exclusionary:

Outside the priesthood, which is an exclusive privilege of Bahuns, an occupation within the administrative bureaucracy is a traditional avenue of employment for the high caste i.e. Bahun Chhetri and Shrestha who, with the right afno manchhe connections, could expect a speedy placement regardless of actual need within the bureaucracy. Many of these high caste people regard such a placement as their natural right. The Nepali civil service, then, has a tendency to expand, not in response to an increase in organizational functions or productive need, but as a response to an increase in its popularity among the upper caste people as a source of employment. (p.154)

This helps explain why the institutional culture I described results in resentment towards reservations for marginalised groups. Writing in 2017 about the impacts of affirmative action measures introduced in Nepal’s civil service after 2007, researcher Kristie Drucza highlighted overrepresented groups’ discontent with reservations, and their efforts to narrow eligibility criteria for reserved categories and exclusionary behaviour towards those who do conform to the existing institutional culture. 

Inclusion is not just a number’s game or a mere occupancy of seats by different faces. It is about processes and actors, not just outcomes or impacts. Policymaking identifies problems and their causes. This is not an objective, apolitical exercise. What issues are considered worthy of attention and action? What is identified as a problem? Who are responsible for the problems? Whose experiences should be prioritised over others? In all these questions, the policymakers’ values, ideology, biases, worldviews, all come into play. Feminist theorists have long argued that knowledge is “situated” that is, it matters how and where the individual is located in the context of history and power relations, because  social positions determine life experiences and worldviews, what people understand as ‘reality’, ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’, and how they do so.

It has come home to me again and again in the informal conversations and interviews I have conducted over a year how much the social identities and worldviews of policymakers matter. We assume that “evidence based policy”, “facts”, “ground reality”, “international validation” and “best practices” are objective terms. But these terms are full of situated assumptions. 

Once, a senior bureaucrat explained how, despite challenges, Nepal did not have high levels of inequality and how living standards were not that different across Nepal. He explained that his father lived in Arghakhanchi and that he travelled frequently from Kathmandu to meet him there, as proof that Nepal’srural-urban divide is not stark. In Bardiya, a bureaucrat explained that conflict victims did not need a share of the municipal budget because “now everything is fine”. Instead, he said, the priority should  develop urban centres across Nepal. He was inspired by Seoul, where he had recently gone for training. These shockingly narrow understandings are passed off as “the Nepali context”. Social positions of power and privilege make people complacent, and indifferent to the lives of those in a state of permanent emergency, who are often invisible due to their social marginalisation, geographic isolation, language barriers and enduring inequalities. 

The word diversity only comes up — usually in a tokenistic manner — when planning focus group discussions or external consultations. It is a box you have to tick, if  funded by donors concerned with inclusive development. But there is no concern with diversity amongst policymakers, no acknowledgment that having a multiplicity of approaches, experiences and knowledge can help identify and understand problems. Policies made with no consideration of unequal power relations determined by caste, gender, age, sexuality and disability will, at best, legitimise rather than change the existing social order. 

For policies to really be national national property, we have to ask who needs to be represented, who needs to be able to speak and who might wait their turn? 

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