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Planning and Poverty Alleviation in Nepal

- Dev Raj Dahal

The information revolution has challenged the concepts and paradigms, which traditionally shaped the culture of centralized planning. There is growing recognition of the sovereignty of people, making them both shaper and creator of their own history. This changed environment is pregnant with new possibilities for direct democracy. In more general terms, the information-induced associational revolution is opening the political space for participatory development and redefining the whole system of relations between the society and the state. Indeed, technological and social change is so momentous and accelerated that it is also generating newer types of risks and challenges in the society without solving the old ones. Along with the existing gaps in wealth, income and access to public services, new gaps have emerged. For example, inequality in access to information technology creates a digital divide posing further problems for the leaders in their quest to make the society a shared enterprise in the new borderless world of information. This relative loss of leadership capacity involves a corresponding loss for its support resulting in institutional decay.

Paradigm Shift

The paradigm shift, induced by the information revolution, is most obvious in the culture of planning-- from paternalistic, centralized and top-down to participatory, decentralized and bottom up. This has made a new form of democratic legitimacy possible in planning decisions and exercise. Collective decisionmaking by the members of society was finally possible. Therefore, how can people use the benefits of the information revolution to construct their own economic, social and cultural model of planning that is mediated by indigenous needs, knowledge and interests?

Planning is meant to seek solutions to problems in public life or to supply a rational foundation for specific forms of development goals. It tries to close the gap between the normative ideals of development and the empirical condition people are caught in. In the developing countries, there is still a widespread optimism about the capability of planning to shape the future of human beings. This makes planning a visionary exercise which serves as a systematic guide for action. A good planning, in this sense, can be a rational tool for sustainable human development. Good public policies and strategies springing from a planning exercise aim to shape the course of its progress that is both just and efficient. One might, however, ask: Should human beings be subjected to the science of planning, fads and models in the name of development? Or, do people have the political choice to plan a course of action, to meet their desired specific needs, in a manner that is comfortable with the general human nature?

Planning is about the choice of public policies, but these choices are not infinite. Although public policies are public goods, the questions regarding choice are essentially political questions decided by the political class. For example, Who does the planning? How is it done? Who sets the development priorities? Who are the target groups or beneficiaries- which class, region, gender or groups of society? Who bears the costs? etc. It is also about the process that creates winners and losers. The nature of the state, the ideology of the political class and the allocation of power and resources are important political considerations that affect the culture of planning. Formulating fair and effective public policy in the glowingly networked society is an enormous challenge and one that would not be overcome just because planners have begun to recognize the inherent complexities. They will be heading in the right direction if they keep the national public interest at the forefront.

The trade-offs of the methodology of planning is also a political question. It is again the political decision that determines whether planning should be top-down or bottom-up, short-term or long-term, sectoral or holistic and centralized or decentralized. Bureaucrats and technocrats are only the means in the process as they are the ones that respond to the incentives and opportunities given by political leaders in policy implementation. Politics cannot be replaced by science, however artistically utilized. But, science can become instrumental in advancing human welfare. Modern planning and policy making is not a mechanical process designed by professional experts. Planning requires more than scientific knowledge, as that scientific knowledge is insufficient to coordinate the relevant knowledge and power needed to make it serve the people.

Planning is, therefore, a part of politics designed by its stakeholders to achieve a cooperative mode of problem solving and gaining national strength. A good planning is intrinsically public, or democratic, and has a positive outcome for the poor. A good planning helps to manage market failures by making alternative arrangements for the delivery of essential public services. It builds the collective capacity of the poor to liberate them from the shackles of poverty and shape political and social opportunities for their empowerment. In other words, planning provides the basis for people to enjoy their legal and constitutional rights. Therefore, an important objective of anti-poverty programs is to develop the political capacity of the poor.

A sound planning, thus, is a participatory process because it builds the stakes of the poor in development outcomes, entitles them with the ownership of polices and programs and enforces the corresponding accountability. Ownership of programmes is essential as it prevents the risks of polarization and guarantees the sustainability of development. And, planning also supports the coalition of the pro-poor and the poor and gives them access to, and benefits from, the processes of the political economy-- production, distribution, control and sustainability. Since poverty means powerlessness, the politics of a successful planning for poverty alleviation involves the political will of the holders of power and authority in society.

The use of governance for subordinating the state to the market forces has made Nepal largely a subsidiary state where the poor subsidize the rich, the periphery the core and the rural the urban areas. The logic of 'market-friendly' planning has not only perpetuated the core-periphery polarization but also made development restrictive and exclusionary, keeping the majority of the poor out of the whole process. The failure of planning in Nepal to meet its objective of poverty alleviation has also to do with the non-implementation of the often-inadequate pro-poor policies. It is not so much the lack of resources as is made out to be.

Planning is, therefore, a medium of social justice that can congregate people around the state and establish their participatory rights in the use of political power for planning. There is a strong correlation between politics and resource allocation for development. If we look at the Nepalese electoral politics, we find that Sunsari district gets more funds than the whole of Karnali zone for development. Size of the geographical territory or interest representation in planning and decision-making can have an inverse relation with the transfer of resources from the centre, if politics is not supportive. Application of the same argument on the Dalits, the marginalized and local government units make Nepalese planning more pre-rational than rational. Consequently, planning has not been conducive to the expansion of production for employment-generation, poverty alleviation and social integration. This leaves advocates opposing the victimization of the weak pleading for universal values like democracy, human rights and social justice.

Poverty Alleviation

Poverty in Nepal largely depends on structural factors, especially on the modes of ownership, production and distribution of productive assets, which have their own dynamics. But, the dynamics is determined by the choice of application of development policy by the political class. For example, the declining forces of production in the country-- in agricultural, industrial and service sectors-- can be attributed to the wrong policy choices of the political class whose allegiance and priority often oscillates, between the general masses during elections and a specific comprador class after elections, causing instability at the level of policy, planning, and politics regarding poverty alleviation. The political class has not been able to capture the middle ground of the Nepalese political economy that stands between capital and labor.

Unable to confront the main intellectual challenge posed by the dominant development paradigm of the day and incapable of indigenising development policy, Nepalese planners from the very beginning of planning history have yielded to the power of exogenous knowledge for national construction, regardless of its effects and relevance on national and local life. The planning process thus became not only dismembered from the Constitutional vision, the public philosophy embedded in it and the social contract that obliges the government to "protect the weak against the strong," but also from the feedback of stakeholders. One can easily detect the effects of the "revenue-oriented", rather than "production-oriented", economic policies on the polity, society and the people. On the lives of the poor struggling to climb upwards, their consequences have been lethal.

This suggests that wrong policies mirror the motives and mentality of the political class in power and the wrong instruments they use to foster patronage politics. Many programs run by non-poor politicians-- like the Constituency Development Fund, B. P. with the Poor, Ganesh Man Peace Campaign, etc-- are geared more towards expanding their political constituency than alleviating poverty. The political culture of the Nepalese political class, that emerges from the aristocratic and feudal segments of society, is more status-bound than entrepreneurial. Therefore, how can the politicians be committed to invest the economic surplus in Nepalese production, job-creation and social integration?

Similarly, Nepalese planners never acted on the principle that knowledge and beliefs are socially located and socially constructed. The whole process is rooted in the Western social science theories, application tools and intellectual assumptions, which have their roots in the Industrial Revolution. The planners, therefore, have failed to grasp the diverse realities created by the predominantly agrarian society of Nepal with its myriad of hierarchies. As Nepalese planners took Western knowledge in historically and socially neutral terms and imposed it on the Nepalese society they, consequently, devalued the existing local, practical knowledge gained from long experience of trial and error. Critics point at the domination of the planning commission by "non-organic intellectuals," to borrow the phrase of Antonio Gramsci, when they blame the whole planning exercise for not only being de-contextualized but also counter-productive to local development. On the contrary, planning for poverty alleviation requires a great level of indigenization and a high level of deliberation and consultation with the stakeholders, not the perpetuation of the idea of self-superiority. The National Planning Commission has been staffed with numerous people with no record of achievement and no vision of the task that suddenly befall them. The culture of planning in Nepal is thus being overwhelmed by enemies from both within and without.

After the onset of the information revolution, the centralized state-centric planning of Nepal was seen to be suffering from its inability to innovate, adjust and deliver. When market-driven planning finally replaced it, it too suffered from its own consequences-- increasing levels of poverty, inequality, dependency, ecological degradation and rebellion. The primacy of market forces over all aspects of social life has not only questioned the legitimacy of planning, but also registered the failure of governance in expanding the miniscule market, coordinating the multiple actors of society and capturing the necessary synergy for development. The general failure of planning and its particular defeat in the battle against poverty have given the planning commission of Nepal a chance to re-examine its objectives, to revise its means and to reconcile its traditions with the experiences and exigencies of the Spirit of the Age. It is an Age that requires the use of planning in process management, connectedness, relationships and contexts, not turning the country into a scene of confrontation and the people into a commodity to act as fuel for the fires of geopolitical manoeuvres.

Beyond the Planning Commission

Planning has to take into account the polycentric and multi-level governance actors-- the state, the market, the civil society and the international regime. The polycentric system does not mean democratic, where public power is proportionately distributed among the governance actors with the necessary checks and balances. New governance patterns have replaced the old hierarchical national political system by the dynamic restructuring of competitive and networking forms of governance. An increasing number of non-states, non-governmental and civil society organizations are taking up public responsibilities, changing the earlier dichotomy where the state is regarded as public and the private sector as non-public. The state is, therefore, facing an adaptation problem-- from its earlier mono-centric problem solving mechanism to the polycentric order. There is a problem of coordination and communication among local, national, state, regional and global orders and orienting these vectors of governance to the poverty project.

This shows that planning and policy making are no longer the prerogative of the National Planning Commission (NPC). The regularity of the Nepal Development Forum and similar policy dialogues indicate that NPC has to share its policy regime with the state, the market, the civil society and the international regimes, especially the donors. The planning and policymaking processes have, therefore, become more complex and interactive. But, the sharing of the policy regime has not established a culture of mutual accountability, for success or failure of policies, regarding poverty alleviation. It has posed difficulty in orienting planning towards pro-poor governance. An incentive for collective action by the poor themselves, from bottom-up, and support by friends of the poor, from top-down and outside-inside, needs to be in place. Such a system needs planning that is capable of linking the Nepalese production and distribution of wealth and power to the objectives of equity and justice.

(Based on concluding remarks as Chairperson in GEFONT/ILO Seminar on PRSP)

Source: GEFONT

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