Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli returned home on June 16 from a nine-day visit to a number of European capitals. Both Oli and his office claimed the visit was a success. The PMO issued a long statement recounting his successful engagements, which looked more like a detailed itinerary. Surely the prime minister and his entourage had a busy schedule, yet the visit raised more questions than it answered.Let’s start with his trip to the United Kingdom. While one could argue about the wisdom of meeting outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, what sticks out as a sore point is Oli’s failure to meet the British monarch. Our mandarins should have pressed their British counterparts for a meeting with the Queen. The inability to ensure diplomatic reciprocity is a serious failure—particularly when even low-ranking British officials routinely meet our PM and the President.
Despite all the hype about marking 203 years of diplomatic relations, Oli had to settle for a meeting with Prince Harry, who is sixth in line to the British throne. By our prime minister’s own admission, the UK also cold-shouldered Nepal’s proposal to review the 1947 tripartite agreement governing the recruitment of Nepalis into the British Army.
The interview with the BBC was ill-advised too. Why would Prime Minister Oli agree to an interview that focused on the issue of traffic jam on the Everest? It would have been more fitting for the Tourism Department’s spokesperson.
Oli’s trip to France was also anything but memorable. He did not meet French President Emmanuel Macron and failed to sign the two agreements his minister for Information and Communications had pushed for.
Lapses during the Europe visit are a result of poor planning, lack of accountability and party functionaries prevailing over career officials. Overall, these are symptoms of a severe weakening of state capability and an absence of adequately-trained human resources in the public sector.
Post 1990 mess
There is a convergence of opinion on the erosion of the Nepali state’s capability post-1990. Anecdotal evidence suggests that seems to be the case in many areas. That process picked up pace in the post-2006 arrangement—as political accommodation and expediency took priority over state principles, expertise and experience.
Many argue that despite its flaws, and the uneven playing-field the Panchayat regime created, it did promote a certain level of meritocracy. They point to high-profile diplomats and planners the system nurtured; despite its authoritarian structure, it fostered a learning culture and even tolerated dissent within certain confines—while making long-term strategic investments that the regime considered important. I am no apologist for the Panchayat era, but there is no harm in picking good lessons from the past.
Broadly speaking, a state’s capability is its ability to govern internally while projecting strength externally—reflected in the nature and level of engagements abroad. Internal governance encompasses the abilities to deliver results for citizens, bureaucratic processes, and maintenance of social cohesion, ideally through democratic processes.
While the government’s ability to collect taxes and increase development spending in terms of sheer volume has increased since the 1990s, anecdotal evidence suggests a waning of state capability to deliver. Having a bigger revenue base and the ability to earmark an increasing amount of money for different projects is not enough; being able to spend it meaningfully is a better indicator of state capacity.
Even though this government projects bold ambitions, it has not made steady efforts to build state capacity to deliver on its promises. Again, some of us might be confused with the government trying to legislate on internal affairs better—as reflected in the rush to introduce different laws. But that’s not the same as having the capacity to turn those intents into reality.
The point being that there are inadequate human resources within the government system to follow through on the high-pitched rhetoric around prosperity and good governance—and the government is doing little to generate skilled human resources. For instance, railway connectivity seems to be our national priority, yet what has the government done in the past year to create skilled human resources to maintain and run a railway network?
Bureaucratic processes are in a shambles with neither upward nor downward accountability. And a massive increase in the number of political appointees continues to promote ad-hocism and short-term thinking. This has been further aggravated by a constitutional restructuring of the state—without the de-facto devolution of power to the provinces and local bodies. The state restructuring should have been followed by an informed push toward revamping the structure, size and work culture of the civil service. Ideally, this should have started with an honest organization and management survey by an independent third party—neither connected to the politicians nor to the civil service.
The net result of all these are systematic weaknesses in the state’s delivery mechanism even when there is a strong government at the helm. To be fair, the government inherited much of the problem and should not be blamed for the accumulated mess. But the tragedy is that it is continuing down the same path of short-term thinking that the previous short-lived governments were driven by.