Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Bringing Back The Community Spirit

Dev Raj Dahal


The ongoing battle of humanity against the COVID-19 has settled a public policy question that development policy built on a deeply flawed model of the privatisation of public sphere, excessive dependence and connectivity has suddenly come to a grinding halt for the time being. So long as much of scientific knowledge about its perfect remedy finds no ballast of triumph, human life will continue to be in slippery slope, with no easy exit from lockdown. Breaking it will put human life, liberty and opportunity at risk.
The information flow from the worldwide web about the death and infection of humans from this virus brings an electrifying effect on the brains of living quivering their souls and leaving their destiny in self-piety. The looming crisis of livelihood for the poor inflicted by lockdown, economic decline, growth of poverty, joblessness and inequality marked a limit on the primacy of financial empire. Some decisive steps on the revival of agriculture, manufacturing, small-scale industries, education, health and public security can be a good response to prospective game change, cut peril and reduce advantage gaps in society.
The mounting concern about life, livelihood and survival has repudiated all the deterministic theories of economic development lacking moral reflection and democratic choice. It has opened the door to critical shifts in many areas demanding the resilience and rationality of actors, institutions and policies. It has also shifted adversarial politics to national unity and cooperation among political parties. The spread of virus and climate change contrasts the rationalists’ notion of building a perfect system of governance based on pure reason without knowing the multi-dimensionality of the life-world.
Noami Klein argues, “Crisis is an expression of power and priorities as much as hard facts.” The ongoing global battle against it is no exception to this fact geopolitical shift. Any creative response, however, demands generalised reciprocity and building responsive community at various scales of governance. Leadership can pull Nepalis up out of the maelstrom of crisis, bridge the divides of society and create common ground to facilitate social discipline and collective action. A responsive community based on proximity, culture, shared values, identity and rules of conduct can build a high degree of solidarity in their goals and means beyond self-absorbed technocrats, bureaucrats, consultants, businesspersons and elite politicians driven by short-term profits that disfigured Nepali democracy than long term universal perspective about the sustainability of freedom, justice and progress.
The scientific consensus is built on “community governance,” a term coined by Elinor Ostrom to resurrect the need for building sustainable social space for communication and consolidation of democracy and development from bottom up, balance rights-based reasoning for civic duties and increase commitment to value shifts to common good, not profits. Capacity building of ordinary Nepalis living at the grassroots level can create better stake for sharing the burden of risks and foster rights, needs and concern over the use of resources and opportunities than outsiders and above operating under a centralised model of politics, leadership and decision making. The COVID-19 will test the grit of Nepali political parties as to how far their leaders and cadres are engaged on political education, protection of life and liberty and visibility of the poor in policy intervention. The global pandemic is affecting Nepali life-world, society, economy, polity and international relations against popular hope of citizens for social, economic and political emancipation.
The Nepali government, as a guardian of citizens, has taken certain measures to contain the spread of coronavirus. It has imposed travel restrictions, fostered social isolation, border control, expanded health care and testing facility, quarantined the infected and those on contact with them, created emergency fund, bore the costs of treatment and provided the poor and jobless relief goods engaged daily in grinding their struggle for survival. It is regularly coordinating with the states and local governments, line agencies and departments on the expanded health care initiatives.
One unattended problem is how to secure the life and economic security of about four million Nepali workers abroad, bring them back and engage them in the productive sectors of the real economy - agriculture, animal husbandry, business and enterprises -- based on local resource endowment and compensate the loss of remittance, tourism and other economic activities. The efficacy of the government and administration depends on resource mobilisation, building public trust, efficiency and integrity and evidence based targeting of policies and programmes. Emptiness of contextual reflection and utilitarian, patronage-based and clientalist nature of service delivery practices will not shore up cooperation of all sectors of society and international community in this battle and enable the economy to rebound.
They have to constructively mobilise the strength and volunteerism of intermediary institutions and local community and discover common interests forging a sense of shared purpose in the wider sense of Nepali community and harness its heritage of mindfulness, affinity and compassion. The civic space of community can complement the shortfall of the state in awareness building, enforce general lockdown till the rage of virus recedes, bring the recalcitrant citizens to the code of conduct, maintain demand-supply balance and uphold transparency in social assistance to the poor either in cash or kind and console fury of the lesser folks for their disadvantages, injustices and wretchedness either at home, quarantined at the border or abroad.
Mobilisation of the intermediary institutional space of INGOs, civil society, NGOs, CBOs, citizens groups, federations and unions is vital to change their image of titillated onlookers into a wellspring of virtuous kind driven by social grace, altruism and moral compass. The partnership of the local government with private sectors, cooperatives and banks enable Nepali state to reach out to the vulnerable groups and work closely with the community of both hues—inherited and self-chosen. It can be considered critical factors to dynamise democracy and development.
In time of crisis their compliance with the rules and public-spiritedness are vital to avoid them acting as free riders espousing anti-state posture. Since the stake of Nepalis in the community is high it provides public good, builds social solidarity and organises cooperative action in order to solve social, economic and political problems in an optimal manner without alienating any side. Obviously, neither the hierarchy of government nor the anarchy of market creates sufficient outreach to serve the needy caused by lockdown, social isolation and remedial deficits. To make the government or market policies and programmes just and effective, monitoring and cooperation of citizens and their communities are essential.
The risks of climate change and COVID-19 pandemic have unveiled the fact that human survival is interconnected and cannot be governed by egocentric drama of powerful elites. Nature is cyclical and systemic, not linear or dialectical which shifts human consciousness from one phase to the next with a sense of balance. Linear view does not contribute to control either global warming and climate change or pandemic. The truth of life is to learn from the lessons of history, not unlearn. Civic minded citizenry in Nepal are already engaged in highlighting the importance of public health, social discipline, community welfare and universal compassion for the improvement of human condition.
The deregulation of politics and economy cares less to the provisions, production and distribution of public goods to all citizens as promised in the Constitution of Nepal. The constitutional and policy gaps in the past have intensified inequality prompting many weaker sub-groups of Nepal to aspire to get the constitutional rights to health, education, job and other public good against the power—drenched elites’ struggle for rent-seeking, profit, privilege and status quo. If powerful private elites do not become virtuous public citizens they will fail to maintain the harmony of policy and attitude between the Nepali public and their public officials.
The driving force of humanity now is not the self-gratifying ego but public interest, ethics and morality governed by enlightened vision of the interlinked world. The threat of global pandemic cannot be alleviated by resorting to savage view of human nature but by building robust communities at various scales of problems, cooperation across various political affiliations and use of preventive, palliative and remedial measures. Time has come to strengthen the structural apparatus of Nepali state, constitutional organs and public institutions of security, discipline and administration for their impartial and impersonal task performance, rule-based conduct and effective delivery of public good and services.
It is important to renew the trust of citizens in the government’s initiatives and improve the level of social capital to offset the increasingly dysfunctional regional and international system and craft indigenous base of progress embedded in its knowledge, ecology, culture, norms, values and resource potentials of society. Strengthening state-citizen interface is central to bind both in the obligations of social contract, the Constitution of Nepal, cherish sustainable progress and avert any pretext to slide to any kind of authoritarianism beyond the bound of constitutionalism.
Now Nepali communities have become pluricultures and their institutions and laws guide patterns of citizens’ behaviour as per new values, rules, codes and standards to adjust the future prospect of better lives. It entails reminding national leaders to honour their electoral promises and constitutional commitments and maintain an ethical life of integrity. Building entrepreneurship and innovation at community level enables the families, society and the nation’s ability to adapt to technological and climate change and compensate the deficiencies of social policies and programmes through intermediary institutions and complement the weakness of large-scale impersonal institutions - state and market. The task of politics is to strengthen the essence of community and intermediary associations so that they can reduce the feeling of crisis-induced fear and anxiety, excite the hope of future generations shared by all and bring the power to communities back in to make choice for local vision and chance for desirable social change and progress.

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