Nepalese Democratic Youth Council-NY, 16 February 2003

By Kul Chandra Gautam

At Nepalese Democratic Youth Council, New York

16 February 2003

I wish to thank the Nepalese Democratic Youth Council, USA for organizing this event, and inviting me to share some thoughts.

And I congratulate you,  the Nepali youth in America, for keeping the flame of democracy alive.
53 years after the advent of formal democracy in our homeland, democracy is still under serious threat, yet again.
We Nepalis are very good at blaming others for some of our collective failures. So when we say democracy is in danger, who do we blame this time?

These days it is, of course, very convenient to blame the Maoist insurgents. After all, after the 1990 people’s movement democracy was beginning to take roots, until the Maoists rudely disrupted it with their violent methods and outdated ideology.

One can also blame the political parties – as all of them are accused of betraying the trust of the people by giving greater attention to their own party or partisan interests than those of the people and the nation.10 democratically elected or constituted governments in 12 years did more to squander the opportunity to consolidate democracy in Nepal than any anti-democratic forces could have done.Yet others may blame the current King. His October 4thseizure of power, while perhaps well-intentioned, has been widely viewed as unconstitutional and undemocratic.And still others may blame the Nepali people themselves. As the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Some would argue, as the supporters of the Panchayat regime did for over 30 years, that the Nepali people were not ready for democracy yet.But there is no cookie-cutter formula for promoting, protecting and preserving democracy.

It needs to be experienced and perfected,  with trials and errors, and with patience and conviction.As Sir Winston Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the rest”.And that is why we need to have faith in democracy and build it with patience and conviction.But today, instead of extolling the virtues and pitfalls of democracy, I would like to speak to you about the prospects for peace and security in our troubled land.As Ambassador Murari Raj Sharma, our very capable Permanent Representative to the United Nations just reminded us, after 7 years of horrendous violence, we now have a cease-fire, and all Nepalis are praying for peace.Friends of Nepal in the international community have also offered help in a variety of ways.Last Fall, the Secretary-General of the UN expressed his concern about the deteriorating situation in Nepal and offered his “good offices” to help – if requested.Such a request never came from the Government of Nepal. But the UN, as part of its mandate to promote peace and security, human rights and development, has been following events in Nepal closely and remains ready to help.As part of that effort of the United Nations, as well as on behalf of my agency UNICEF, and personally as an interested Nepali citizen, I have periodically volunteered my support and informal advice to the UN and to the Nepali authorities. And some of my suggestions have been well received.As far as the current cease-fire and preparations for negotiations are concerned, these are being handled entirely by the concerned Nepali parties without any external involvement.If the Nepalis can sort out their problems themselves, that is, of course, the best way to proceed. But if ever some impartial, friendly external support were needed, I can assure you that the UN remains ready to help.And while the political negotiations are perhaps best carried out by the Nepalis themselves, we know that whatever the political outcome of the negotiations, Nepal will need to launch a major post-conflict reconstruction and development plan with sizeable international support.

The United Nations can be very helpful in that respect. We have had considerable experience in helping rebuild war-torn countries from Afghanistan to Cambodia, from East Timor to El Salvador, from Mozambique to Bosnia and Kosovo.This is an exercise in which I have personally offered to help, drawing on the experience and expertise of the UN family, our outreach to donors, and our track record of some good work in Nepal.We should be aware that while there is a lot of sympathy for Nepal in the international donor community, there is also, unfortunately, considerable lack of trust in Nepal’s management capacity, especially as it relates to corruption and accountability.Incidentally, the perception of corruption and inefficiency in Nepal’s development administration is even more widespread among ordinary Nepalis than among the donors.We will thus have a major challenge to attract substantial donor support for our programme of post-conflict reconstruction and development.

And let us not forget another key factor of timing – Nepal will be competing with many other post-conflict reconstruction plans of higher political priority for key donors – such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka … and who knows, perhaps even North Korea.Yet another challenge for us will be how to design a reconstruction package that will provide gainful employment opportunity and income for the Maoist cadres, who at present are paid for through funds looted from the banks and extorted from businessmen, teachers, officials and ordinary citizens.How will we do it?I see a promising potential for designing a massive rural reconstruction programme learning from Nepal’s own experience of the programme called “Let Us Build Our Own Village” which has been in operation for the last 10 years.Until recently, this programme allocated Rs. 500,000 (US$ 6,250) to each of the approximately 4,000 VDCs in the country, or a total of Rs. 2 billion (US$ 25 million) per year.Nepal should consider progressively increasing these village development grants, even upto quadrupling them to Rs. 2 million (US$25,000) per village.That would amount to a total of Rs. 8 billion ($100 million) per year for the whole country.

This may seem like a large amount, but it actually accounts for a rather modest 11 % of our total national budget or 21 % of the development budget, thus leaving a substantial percentage of the rest of the budget for other development activities.A well designed, credible package of such reconstruction proposal could easily be funded through a mixture of national budget and increased international cooperation.Even the whole package of $100 million a year for a country of 24 million people would be a proportionately small amount compared to what the international community is providing for many post-conflict reconstruction programmes, e.g. in Afghanistan, East Timor, Mozambique, etc. Even compared to current level of ODA for Nepal, this would only amount to about 25 percent of what it already receives every year.In proposing the quadrupling of such allocation, I  would suggest some significant modification in the purposes and manner of utilizing such funds, including the introduction of a system of incentives for villages to upgrade their infrastructure and basic social services, with measurable indicators.For example, we could institute a system of classification of all VDCs of Nepal into 3 or 4 categories based on some measurable indicators such as the percentage of girls enrolled in primary school or female literacy rate, access to clean drinking water, contraceptive prevalence, infant mortality rate, etc.Some of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), duly adapted to Nepal’s realities, would be ideal candidates for village development indicators for such a programme. If properly designed and executed, such programme could attract considerable international support, as the donor community is fully supportive of the MDGs.This programme could be developed in ways that would promote a healthy competition among neighbouring villages, ilakas and districts to upgrade themselves from one category to the next using the agreed indicators of basic infrastructure and human development.A system of rewards and recognition could be built into the monitoring and evaluation scheme to encourage VDCs to accelerate their graduation from one level to the higher category.Additional programmes could be developed to give particular priority to those regions and communities that are disproportionately disadvantaged, such as the mid- and far western development regions which are characterized by high levels of poverty, low human development, and pervasive gender disparity.

Special incentives could be provided for civil society organizations and the private sector to participate in such schemes. New modes of social mobilization could be introduced to make this programme more effective, drawing on best practices from different parts of Nepal and other countries.Using direct development grants to all VDCs to encourage them to promote goal-oriented, indicator-based development planning and implementation could be a very special way for Nepal to pursue the Millennium Development Goals.

This would also be a meaningful way in which relevant UN agencies and other donors could support Nepal’s efforts to promote community-based, results-oriented development outcomes.I would argue that such a programme of poverty alleviation, and infrasturcture development reaching out directly to local communities and empowering them, needs to be made the cutting edge of a major post-conflict national reconstruction programme.It would be an antidote to the frequent accusation that far too many development programmes in Nepal are concentrated in Kathmandu and a few major towns, either by design or by default.It would also counteract the widely held view – and reality –  that even resources meant for rural development often revert back to officials, contractors and commission agents in the cities or district headquarters through kickbacks, leakages or patronage.

The beauty of a functioning multiparty democratic system is that it helps ensure a pretty good system of checks and balances especially at the local government level. As everybody knows virtually everybody else in a VDC, it is practically impossible for a local leader to siphon off resources without being known by rival leaders. Chances of big time corruption are infinitely smaller at that level than in large-scale development projects involving contractors and commissions.Until good governance becomes the norm in our country, channeling more of our development resources to local development bodies, with proper guidance and monitoring, offers the best hope for  equitable development.

Friends, this is one among many possible examples of the kind of innovative development programmes that we will need to develop to assure the people of Nepal that democracy is not just empty rhetoric but it helps fill their empty stomachs and honour their human rights and dignity.As I said at the beginning, we in the Nepalese diaspora have a special obligation to help keep the flame of democracy burning brightly in our home land. Let us use our collective wisdom and resources to ensure that in the new era of peace, reconciliation and dynamic development, our new-found  democracy also delivers goods and services that our people back home so cherish and deserve.

Thank you.