For Nepal, January 22 looms as a decisive day in the nation’s transition away from political instability.
That’s the target for promulgating a new constitution that would shift power from the national government to provincial and local authorities.
Recent analysis at the World Bank suggests that the substantive work around the reforms will have to ensue soon after the political agreement.
Devolving central power in any country requires significant planning and effective implementation to prevent breakdowns in government services and to avoid dashing the expectations of citizens.
Such a transformation could be managed smoothly if the broader desire to better organize government functions and services is not overwhelmed by short-term political imperatives.
A look at how other countries have dealt successfully with similar challenges reveals some features that might ease the reform process in Nepal.
First, a special commission and other bodies accountable to the government could be appointed to lead the effort.
Governments at all levels will likely argue that resource allocations are inadequate, our analysis shows. There could also be tension and perhaps resistance within central ministries over the transfer of powers to lower levels of government. An institutional set-up could be designed to handle these challenges.
An overall coordinating council could be an effective catalyst, while a finance commission could balance national and local interests in designing a framework for government funding. Another panel could oversee the demarcation of provincial and district boundaries in the spirit of the political agreement.
For example, India formed a special commission for its local government reform efforts.
What was critical in experiences from other countries was that the institutional set-up for carrying out the reforms received prominent support from the political leadership to coordinate among ministries and, where necessary, overcome resistance.
Meanwhile, the government could plan how it will reallocate funding and other resources for the transition.
Compiling detailed data on costs, development needs, required regulations and staff deployment could provide the organizers with vital tools.
As part of its reforms, Indonesia identified what financial and human resources it used to deliver government services. The information shaped decisions on how to reallocate those resources, allowing for some staff to prepare in advance for the changes.
Countries that underwent successful transitions also scheduled a series of steps for transferring central government powers, with benchmarks to measure achievement.
The complexity of creating new layers of government at provincial and local levels could prolong the stabilization of services while ambitious initial decisions by new entities could potentially overwhelm finances and stretch capacity.
However, support for the reforms could be sustained if newly elected officials have functional responsibilities and resources to carry out their jobs. Initial limits on staffing and salaries could help while provincial and local governments gain experience.
Finally, Nepal’s civil service could adapt itself to a federal system, with public servants at all levels – national, provincial and local – meeting common standards.
In particular, Nepal’s diversity – with 125 distinct caste/ethnic groups and 123 spoken languages, according to the 2011 National Population and Housing Census – underscores the importance of finding and retaining qualified personnel who are attuned to understanding the distinct cultural characteristics of remote areas.
Nepal could ease the transformation by preparing now for the certain challenges ahead.
Takuya Kamata is the World Bank’s Country Manager for Nepal. The analysis referenced can be read in full at: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/20099.