Overcoming Public Policy Dilemma

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Dev Raj Dahal

Public policies, argues Joseph Schumpeter, are “based on ideology.” The politics of knowledge, therefore, seeks to accord primacy of the interest, ideology and purpose of certain social groups and their articulation through theories, doctrines and intellectual propositions, not freedom of choice of people. Nepali regimes of all hues have ad infinitum adopted macro-policies either borrowed from international institutions or negotiated in bilateral country cooperation frameworks and sheathing policy coordination and adaptation. Even over sixty years of planning exercise in Nepal it was difficult to achieve the policy goals of shaping society better off, easing smooth delivery of public goods and securing distributive justice embraced by the nation’s Constitution. 

External concepts and policy tools have buffered against domestic political differences of various classes of leadership. But each class of leadership in power separated the standards of native reality and rationality for its cultural relativism, regardless of its fitness to address varied problems. Each policy concept and political regime, therefore, succumbed to a sort of national amnesia, contextual insensitivity and lack of democratic choice for the Nepalis. Each made an assault on the predecessor regime and sought policy reversal. Framing of public policy in the image of social science theories or other nations without knowing the national preconditions has muffled democratic prospects, popular sovereignty embedded in Nepali constitution and people’s ideas, beliefs and worldview. It has sedated the roles of people, intellectuals, political parties, parliament and National Planning Commission.

Bounded rationality

The option left for Nepali policymakers is only to chew the borrowed ideas fabricated in a wholly foreign environment, not imaginatively indigenise universal knowledge, policy contents and ideology and move the levelling of national society to a progressive direction. National ownership of public policy becomes trouble-free only if people meaningfully participate and forge legislative links affirming their rights, needs and aspirations, exercise their philosophic reflection and historical experience and apply evidence-based formulae, not hilarious anecdotes. Yet, in an excessive partisan and patronage based political culture of Nepal, it is hard to link socially-determined public policies of the state to the provision, production and distribution of public good beyond what Herbert Simon calls “bounded rationality,” and set Nepalis free from the searing challenges of poverty, ignorance, joblessness, disease and denial of justice and dignity.

Only aptness of policy rooted in the internal standards of rationality informed by scientific canons can hone their cognitive awareness, instinct in social engagement, create opportunity and offer the possibility of transformatory lives, not determined by fate but by a faith in hard working and entrepreneurial skills, not in the rituals of revolutionary totem of political leaders but policy innovation to address the often-changing framework condition where public policies are executed. If history of planning in Nepal is any lesson the nation is ill-fated to replicate the whirlpool of de-contextualised knowledge that set generation after generation of Nepalis yield the same outcome. Competitive pressure from the people and scientific education reveal that the condition they are living in is not determined by their fate. It can be changed. In the national, provincial and local elections in Nepal party competition is determined not by either constitutional imperative and policy or ideological alternatives but by personal relationship, primordial considerations and glitzy rhetoric. Nepali politics is largely devoid of concrete policy context. Democratic politics has thus turned into bureaucratic rut, drifted into business direction and stalled the meaningful transformation of the public sphere where aptness of public policies is contested, debated and indigenised for execution. Oddly, the nation’s policy lab is controlled by an alignment of international institutions with senior bureaucrats, technocrats, consultants, businesspersons and top leaders across the party lines. This alignment perpetuates the same failed policy of trickle down, not bottom up. 

A variety of policy wonks still fail to understand why public policy of various sorts, even if well intentioned, does not work in Nepal and people find no stake in its success. This shows that none of the political movements of Nepal has offered the Nepalis an open moment to envision the long-term path of progress and shape public policies based on public opinion, embedded in the native realty of wide variety of ecology, population and needs and resolve their problem of progress in a non-deterministic, but fulfilling way. The outpouring of many experimental policy concepts, development assistance and implementing agencies associated with them has tapered off in a short span of time.

One obvious reason is: the thousand flowers bloom attitude of Nepali regime and tolerance to all kinds of development actors, some even lacking work ethics, integrity and performance credibility, skating the nation’s public policy in multi-directions lacking proper coherence of governance. 

There is a truth in saying, “You cannot climb a ladder of progress if its structures are crippled.” Nepal’s opening to the latest fad of globalisation forced its leadership to cut agriculture subsidies, privatise import-substituting public industries and broke the backward linkage of industries to agricultural modernisation and forward linkage to trade and commerce. Its ugly outcome is excessively import driven, remittance, aid-dependent and debt-ridden economy and loss of policy sovereignty in politics, law and policy making of parliament. Competition, the buzzword of planners for economic success, came to not anything. Only those nations and societies can compete who have efficiency, the fighting ability, not the one whose society, economy and polity are largely unorganised, informal and non-performing ones. 

Nepal’s weakness in rushing to acquire efficiency is attributed to its political culture of elites which is largely ascriptive, not achievement oriented, and materialist, not dignity-oriented and reflective of experience. The traditional art of data-crunching business as usual, rather than seizing the economic and technological spirit of the age, spur production, fulfil the essential needs of people and use surplus resources, both human and natural, in long-term infrastructural development rejuvenate the spirit of public policy. The nation also could not harness genuine competition owing to the family-bound, paternalistic nature of business and civil society. Thus Nepal’s weak social and political response to national maladies has increased huge costs for prosperity and tangled it in the vortex of great power geopolitics straining its policy of nonalignment.

Constitution’s visualization of the coordination of the state, private sector and cooperatives conducive to create socialist-oriented economy and egalitarian society suffered at the neoliberal legacy of policies. The dilemma of welfare state and neo-liberal policy insinuates all the indicators of Nepal’s development downhill trend. Policy makers and civil servants are busy in integrating SDGs into programme formulation despite the nations’ enormous diversity in ecology, economy, social diversity and aspirations of people. Its motto of “no one is left behind,” rings hope for the majority of people below the poverty line victimised by disciplinary knowledge that does not bridge the gaps between facts and norms.  

Economic globalisation has eroded the tax base of the state to finance its social policies and stimulate growth while the spread of coronavirus and global economic meltdown hit its remittance, tourism, production structure and job prospects. Still, one sees policy makers with no social learning about the looming effects of global geopolitical conflict and, therefore, they keep on linking its growing youth force to global labour market integration for their family survival, keeping the regime afloat and averting risks. Multinationals, as powerful competitors to states, are upsetting the historical social contract between the capital and the labour as well as the equilibrium of modern public life organised under the public, private and civil society. It has also upset the constellation of economy, state and citizenship in the national space.  

Without social cohesion and proper governance measures the medium of participation may shift from cooperation and competition to conflict. Successful public policies consist of a balanced mix of traditional instruments -- expansion of agriculture, small scale industries and forestry, investment in infrastructure, education and health and  modern, competition-oriented activities such as extension of competitive marketing, formulation of modern laws and public administration, new public management and governance, public-private partnership and adoption of information and communication technology to attune to the zeitgeist. 

Positive shift

Nepali policy makers should ponder on: What kind of public policy yields benefit to the nation? What are the successful strategies for policies that work better in a cutthroat business climate? What sorts of institutional arrangements are conducive for concerting large-scale sustainable development and overcoming critical obstacles? Are the new economic policies --neo-liberal globalisation and global labour mobility beneficial for the quality service to the Nepalis? What are the effects of global regimes on the spatial distribution of development? If payoffs are uneven for various classes and regions what measures have to be developed? 

A positive shift is essential in innovation, cooperation, traditional administrative services, etc. for effective public policies. There are, however, structural problems for Nepal -- lack of functioning institutions, increasing pressures for competition in a global economy; unsettling political climate, generational tension, pandemic, swelling trade deficits, high poverty and unemployment restricting the ability of peoples and the state to enhance national competitive spirit and access to information flows relevant for sound public policies.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)

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