Prosperity and justice in Nepal after COVID-19

In recent years, Nepal has gone through a long process of ending its civil war through a comprehensive political settlement and federal system reforms, including a new constitution, promising to usher in a new social contract that would foster more a more inclusive and peaceful society.

© Omar Havana/ International Alert

These reforms have been shifting historically rooted conflict fault lines, evidently based on power held largely by the dominant caste over larger ethnic and Madheshi alliances, and gradually unfolding new power dynamics at the sub-national level.

On the whole, risk of imminent conflict has decreased, with marginalised communities, such as the Dalits, the Tharu people of southern Nepal, and Muslims, gaining a sense of hope, even where they still disagreed with the new political settlement.

However, initial observations of the impact of COVID-19 indicate this could all change, as the pandemic may once again deepen marginalisation.

Narrative plays an important role in binding the social contract between state and citizen, necessary to gain legitimacy and sustain peace. The new social contract in Nepal was based on a narrative of future prosperity. The current government has been afforded legitimacy in part through its spending on infrastructure projects and enjoying high economic growth over two years. In these years, development or prosperity became synonymous with infrastructure projects, specifically road buildings.

But this infrastructural development became an “anti-politics machine”. This means there was little political space to counter or speak against these projects or to suggest alternative models. This infrastructure-driven idea of development gained a level of hegemonic orthodoxy.

The narrative of development of infrastructural projects and economic growth also silenced alternative narratives focused more on historical injustice based on caste, ethnicity, and regional identity. Notably several activists, who had previously been demanding justice, were enthralled by the building of roads, electric grids, public office buildings and newly expanding markets.

But, the COVID-19 pandemic saw cuts being made to generous infrastructure spending plans, primarily because the current pandemic is likely to reduce sources of public revenue collection. This necessary reduction will weaken the anti-politics machines’ networks, reliant on the perks received from this development model.

In addition, the pandemic has altered public perceptions around the importance of roads, markets, and remittance livelihoods. It reveals the state’s weak service delivery mechanism and its consequences in citizens’ everyday life, especially for marginalised people. It also exposes the underlying sharp divisions within Nepali society.

With this in mind, COVID-19 could weaken the new social contract, which provided a shield to the current establishment, and embolden alternative narratives, which prioritise ideas based on justice. This new shift could create new power and conflict dynamics, which seem to be tilted towards people who have been demanding more political, social, and economic justice.

However, there are three important factors which need to be considered in understanding the emerging conflict fault lines between development and justice in Nepal.

First, Nepal is country of minorities and fractured local power dynamics, so to build towards bigger mobilisation, alliances are necessary. As mentioned earlier, old alliances have been shifting. Therefore, it is important to see how alliances and new leadership might emerge around the idea of justice in new emerging power dynamics

Second, one of the most influential demographics playing an important role in setting the tone of the narrative in Nepal is the middle class, which consists of, in part, civil society, the private sector, and netizens. It is sometimes said that until and unless middle class interests are affected, this group never takes sides. However, in the last few years, the government has been aggravating the middle class by using the cybercrime law against government critics, drafting laws to curtail media freedom and taking decisions without consultation. It would therefore be interesting to monitor middle class opinion in the coming days.

And third, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, global and regional geopolitics are also shifting, and could also impact national power dynamics.

Regardless of how these three factors play out, in the days ahead in Nepal, fault lines are likely to widen, which creates opportunities as well as risks. In the short run, these risks include weakened law and order, sporadic mass mobilisation and organised movements. If not resolved, these risks might escalate into political instability and violent clashes.

To de-escalate potential emerging conflicts, aid agencies could play an important role in working side by side with the Nepal government and providing in-depth independent diagnostic analysis, expertise, skills and investment resources to transform the emerging dynamics in positive directions.

The experience of aid agencies in the past has not been very encouraging in terms of long-term investment to make society more resilient and peaceful, and current policies are not enough to address these emerging challenges.

Therefore, the sector needs to rethink its current aid policies and mechanisms. We need to see more investment in preventive rather than reactive, transformative rather than transactional and innovative rather than conventional interventions and projects.

For example, recently International Alert implemented a project called Sundar Shanta Nepal funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Within a short time frame, this small project developed a strong collaborative platform led by marginalised communities at local and provincial level, which helped to achieve several policy reforms on education management, including on improving the education of marginalised children (such as Muslims). Furthermore, the project conducted in-depth research to inform future work on federalism and peacebuilding in Nepal. It was a three years project was adjusted after the first year to match with the evolving context. Most projects do not enjoy this kind of agility.

To contribute to transforming emerging conflicts, sustaining peace and building a resilient state, aid agencies can do three things. First, build independent mechanisms to provide high quality diagnostic inputs on early warnings on emerging conflict risks and governance issues. Second, prepare leaders and local organisations to build a resilient, inclusive and peaceful society. And third, develop an enabling environment in the development sector to design diverse and innovative prototypes to test and learn rather than dictate projects to address abstract problems and transient numerical outcomes without tackling systemic constraints.

In terms of specific immediate steps, the Nepal government, first, needs to strengthen mechanisms with which to register grievances and seek referrals at all three levels of governments specifically focusing on the COVID-19 impact.

Second, provincial governments need to address the COVID-19 impact by allocating roles, responsibilities, and resources to enable a locally driven response mechanism. The new federal structure, in principle, offers excellent opportunities for such a decentralised response (and cases from other countries show the effectiveness of strong devolved structures in dealing with crises such as COVID-19), but it will requires mandate and resource allocation from the central government.

Third, the government need to accelerate multiple levels of dialogue and consultations using virtual platforms to all section of society. It is important to recognise and address voices from the margins as well, both across societies and geographies.

Fourth, it needs to support concerned agencies and civil society groups to protect the rights specifically of marginalised people. This requires a better partnership understanding between state and non-state actors in effectively mitigating the impact of COVID-19.

Investing in peacebuilding can help us save lives, even during peace time.

Find out more in International Alert’s series of seven publications on Federalism in Nepal: