During my years with the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, I was responsible for the multi-party programme in Nepal. This turned out to be extremely rewarding for me personally. Six of the major political parties agreed to use a multiparty platform as a ‘nursery’ for dialogue. They used Danish inspiration to add ‘spice’ to their own way of doing politics. They took ownership of the platform, and they offered leadership to their country. It has been a remarkable journey, and it has brought me many new friendships. In particular this includes Shrishti Rana, the DIPD Representative in Nepal.

This article called OWNERSHIP, LEADERSHIP AND TRUST is one of many more in the book “Engaging with democracy globally”, published in December 2016 when I retired from the institute. The book kan be downloaded here: Engaging – 2016 – final

There will definitely be more articles from Nepal in the future! But first the summary of six years of experiences.

Scene one

A meeting room in the Shangri-La Hotel in Kathmandu towards the end of 2011. I am participating in my first meeting with representatives from six of the parties represented in parliament, organized in the Joint Mechanism for Political Party Support, or just JOMPOPS.

When the meeting is over, I know instinctively that I have decided that this should be the first multi-party partnership DIPD engages in. I will ask the board to support it, as soon as we have finalized a project document.

That day in 2011, I had no idea that five years later, I would look back on this activity as one of the most successful DIPD engagements. The beginning was far from easy, and Nepal as such was not considered an easy country to work in. Initial discussions were definitely not easy either.

“We have talked with the donors for several years, about how they could offer capacity development support for our parties. Now we would like to know when we can expect some action?” one party leader states.

I knew the history he was referring to, and I knew that I would have to answer this particular question before I returned to Denmark.

Very briefly, the story as I understand it is the following: A group of donors, including Denmark, had held meetings with six of the parties represented in the Constitutional Assembly elected in 2008. The meetings had taken place over a long period. Ambassadors had attended some of the meetings, indicating the importance attached to offering support for parties in the new Nepali democracy.

Just when an agreement on how to move forward seemed certain, the project fell apart. Donors pulled out with different explanations. For some donors, I believe it was an issue of changing priorities. For other donors, my sense is that they preferred a different approach.

DIPD was in a special position. We had started to operate only some eight months ago, and Nepal would be a good place to start. There was a long history of development cooperation between Nepal and Denmark; I happened to be somewhat familiar with Nepal; the Danish Ambassador in Nepal was optimistic and supportive, and the Embassy had almost finalized a project for support to political parties when DIPD was established.

“Yes, we will support JOMPOPS, if a project document is approved by the board,” I answered.

Not so long after my first visit to Kathmandu, the document was approved.

Scene two

In that first meeting in Kathmandu, I only knew the broad outline of the modern political history of Nepal that had brought the six parties to meet around the same table. Over the years, I became more educated, not least thanks to the explanations and presentations given to me by Shrishti Rana, our Representative, in Nepal.

Shrishti has always reminded me that understanding the story of Nepal’s democratic history is essential to capture the essence of what JOMPOPS can do. The following are some of the highlights she has emphasized.

In the early 1950s, parliamentary democracy was introduced. Unfortunately, it could not last long. The King usurped power, backed by the army. In 1990, following a widespread demonstration for democracy, the King was forced to relinquish power to the people. A parliamentary system was restored, with a constitutional monarchy.

Merely six years later, a radical communist faction known as the Maoist party waged a protracted armed rebellion against the state. Abolition of the monarchy and drafting of the new Constitution through an elected Assembly were their major demands. Since those demands were against the constitutional framework, the major political parties such as the Nepali Congress party and the Unified Marxist Leninist party could not agree.

In effect, the armed confrontation intensified. Around 17,000 people died. Thousands more were injured. Millions of people were displaced.

The majority of the people killed or attacked by the Maoist party were the members of the NC and UML parties. Similarly, the NC or the UML-led government were responsible for killing of many Maoist cadres.

In 2005, in a dramatic event, the King again usurped power, suspending the parliamentary system. This development pushed the major parliamentary parties and the Maoist party together in an alliance to restore democracy.

Multi-party democracy was yet again restored in 2006, following a massive People’s Movement mobilized jointly by the major political parties and the Maoist party.

Since then, the Maoist party has joined the democratic fold, competing in elections with other parties. However, the truth is that the shadow of the difficult bitter past coalescing into a deep sense of mutual distrust still overwhelms Nepal’s current politics.

That is, I believe, what makes the work of JOMPOPS both significant and impressive.

Today, parties with such a painful history are not only talking to each other, but are collaborating with each other for a common goal. If this collaborative culture percolates to the national politics, then it addresses one of the key challenges of Nepal’s democratic politics, defined by a lack of multi-party collaboration, even on the issues of the overall welfare of the people.

Scene three

A conference hall close to the harbor area in Copenhagen in the early part of 2013. JOMPOPS Steering Committee members discuss with Kisser, Rasmus, Jette, Leon, Rolf, Allan and other Danish local level politicians how a publication about setting up local branches should be presented, to ensure that the local level of political parties in Nepal can be developed in a democratic manner.

Yet another benchmark in a process that started more than a year ago, in meetings both in Denmark and in Nepal. What did the parties in Nepal feel they needed? What could the Danish side of the partnership deliver? What were other donors already doing? These were some of the basic themes in our discussions.

Having heard about the way Danish political parties managed a fairly tight net of local branches spread all over the country, thus ensuring that the priorities of the party could be discussed locally among the rank and file, the Nepali parties suggested that this should be a focus of DIPD support. They could learn from visiting the branches, when they came to Denmark; we could bring members of the municipal councils to Nepal for workshops.

It was suggested that we could develop a ‘guide’ as the basis for our work. Not a traditional donor manual that would show how to set up and manage a local branch, step by step, with all the details.

We wanted an inspirational ‘guide’ that would tell the stories about how eight parties in the Danish parliament actually organize themselves differently, some having a very centralized structure, others allowing the local branches more room to decide their own affairs, including local candidates for office. Many of the basic values of the different models were the same, but the Danish model was really one emphasizing different types of structures, as well as some differences or variations in the democratic cultures being pursued.

While the substantive theme was important, the process of developing the guide was no less important. We recruited a consultant to write a draft; municipal council members from six of the Danish parties were brought on board as resource persons; the Steering Committee members in Nepal were the final decision-makers.

This resulted in a rather slow and tedious process. Drafts travelled endlessly back and forth in cyberspace; a delegation from Denmark joined the Nepali members for a three-day workshop on the outskirts of Kathmandu; new drafts were written and shared; and then we all met in Copenhagen to agree on the final version.

Some months later, I travelled to Kathmandu together with Rolf from the Conservative Party. Together with leaders of the six Nepali parties and the Danish Ambassador, we officially launched the guide. We had invested almost two years of hard work in getting this far, but in the process the members of JOMPOPS had taken charge and made their ownership clearly visible.

Scene four

A conference center outside of Kathmandu at the beginning of 2014. A new three-year programme needs to be developed, submitted to Copenhagen, and approved by the board of DIPD. The JOMPOPS Steering Committee meets to discuss the priorities for the next three years.

Our partnership is moving into its third year, and we have come to know and respect each other, also at the personal level. This is clearly reflected in the atmosphere of the meetings. Contrary to what will often be the case in Nepal, our meetings are very informal.

Discussions are also very frank and to the point. This is something the Nepali have come to appreciate after their visits to Denmark. Some of them have actually started to conduct internal party meetings according to ‘Danish practice’.

This is my first visit after the November 2013 parliamentary elections that dramatically changed the strength of the three major parties. The Maoists used to dominate, followed by the Communists and Congress; now the Maoists have been pushed to third place, with Congress moving to first and the Communists staying in second place.

In addition to the three old parties, there are three parties in the platform representing the Madhes people in the lowland area bordering on India. They did not do well in the election at all, and they continue to be divided. However, as a historically marginalized community, they continue to play an important role in the constitution-making process, which continues to move forward at a snail’s pace. The international community is not at all happy with the slow progress.

“So can you guarantee me that you will have finalized the new constitution when I visit Kathmandu the next time, which is likely to be less than a year from now?” I ask them.

I have tabled this question routinely since my first visit. It is the key to what is happening in the political arena, and therefore key to what we can do. As long as negotiations drag on for month after month, our partners – and the MPs in particular – will be preoccupied with this. We need a final constitution, before we know for sure how the politics of the country will develop.

“I think so,” the Chairman answers with the smile of a fox. “But as you know, we have been disappointed more than once. It is also better that we agree on something that can be implemented, and it is not easy to agree in a country with so many diversities as we have in Nepal.”

True! The diversity is one of the reasons why we always have to think creatively, when we discuss how Danish experiences and ideas can inspire in Nepal.

Despite what some Danes may think these days, in a historical perspective, Denmark is an extremely homogenous society. With more than a hundred ethnic groups, and even more languages, it is not easy for politicians and citizens of Nepal to find solutions that can embrace all the differences and diversities in a convincing manner.

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the key challenges of the 21st century is how to manage the large number of diversities, inside nation states, and also among nation states, both regionally and globally. This is an area where we can learn from other countries – and Nepal is a country with a wealth of experience, including ways of managing.

The Chairman has lived with diversity his entire life, and struggling to protect the rights of his minority group has defined his life. He is not in doubt when he continues to talk to me, and somewhat surprisingly points to some historical experiences in the Danish political system that might be useful:

“We need to be able to find good solutions together, not only as human beings, but also as politicians. Maybe it would be helpful if we had more information about the way ‘coalition politics’ works in Denmark. We could learn from you.”

This was how the idea of a DIPD publication about the Danish way of doing coalition politics was born. It was a request from our partner in Nepal. It later turned out that other countries also felt they could benefit from it – so it was launched in Myanmar, Bhutan and Tanzania.

More than two years later, I returned to Kathmandu to launch the Nepali version of the DIPD reader about coalition building.

Scene five

A bus driving back from Bornholm to Copenhagen on a rainy night in June 2014. We are returning from the island of Bornholm, where delegations from Nepal and Bhutan have witnessed the People’s Meeting, a new feature of Danish democracy.

Everyone is tired after a long day of walking, listening and partying, but one of the Nepali representatives nevertheless starts to sing. Slowly others join in, and those of us not mastering the language contribute with the clapping of hands.

There is a feeling of the type of comradeship we all remember from going on a tour with our class back in school. The Nepali representatives know their own internal differences very well of course, because they reach back for decades, into very turbulent and violent periods of their history. Bhutan is a newcomer both to democracy and to the world of party politics, and although their differences are minor compared to those of their colleagues in Nepal, they have learned how conflict-ridden the business of multi-party democracy can be.

All of this seems to be forgotten on this nightly tour through the gently rolling fields of the Southern part of Sweden. The passengers in the bus have just witnessed how leaders and members of the eight parties in the Danish parliament have debated in a friendly and peaceful manner, but still with pointed and sharp arguments. They have seen Danish politicians move around relaxed and safe among ordinary citizens, some being received as celebrities, while others were not recognized at all.

During the dinner before getting on the bus, the atmosphere was elated. Our guests took the floor to thank us for our hospitality, and to highlight what they felt were some of the inspirational experiences they would take back to Nepal and Bhutan and share with their colleagues. The relaxed atmosphere; the surprising informality; the frank exchanges of policy positions; the mixing of parties and civil society; the joking between political adversaries.

“Singing in the night is our expression of gratitude, as well as a sign of how overwhelming we feel all the impressions have been. One day we will have a People’s Meeting in Nepal,” one of the leaders told me. “We really need to try and do politics differently,” he added.

Scene six

A hotel in Pokhara to the west of Kathmandu in the early part of 2016. This is one of the big tourist attractions of Nepal, where on clear days the snow-capped Himalaya mountains form an unbelievably beautiful backdrop. But there is only little time to look at the mountains. As always when we visit, our partners want to exploit our presence to the limit.

The visit is different this time. The Chairman of DIPD, Henrik Bach Mortensen, is part of the delegation. He has been chair since DIPD was established, and he has met with the Nepali representatives on their visits to Denmark, including the visit mentioned in scene four.

During the weeklong mission, we have the opportunity to meet with several party leaders in Kathmandu; we visit the areas of the city most devastated by the 2014 earthquake; we participate in the official launch of the Coalition Building reader; we meet with people working at the Danish embassy.

But the seminar-like meetings in Pokhara are the most important part of the mission. This is where we actively engage in the DIPD-approach of ideas that can inspire. The DIPD Chairman talks about the importance of leadership in politics, and many questions are raised. We also talk about women in politics, with many questions and comments being tabled.

When I listen to the discussions and compare them to those we had when we started back in early 2012, there is no doubt that things have changed for the better! More women participate in the discussions; more of the younger members dare take the floor and hold the old leaders to account; more ordinary members are no longer ‘afraid’ of the leaders at the top of the party hierarchy.

It is not easy to provide the hard evidence for such a conclusion, and it could be even more difficult to prove that this positive change is the result of DIPDs support in particular. There are many other influences and ideas at play in the global marketplace than what DIPD can offer.

“But we do appreciate the DIPD approach immensely, we trust you, and we feel respected,” the JOMPOPS Chair states in his closing remarks.

Scene seven

A conference hall in a hotel in Kathmandu in September 2016, five years after my first meeting with the JOMPOPS parties. Several of the top political leaders are present despite their busy schedules, and many mid-level leaders are in the audience.

There are also delegations from Bhutan, Myanmar and Denmark. From Bhutan, we have several MPs and the first female minister in the history of the country. She has been supportive of DIPDs work all along. From Myanmar, we have key representatives of the major political parties, including MPs. From Denmark, we have invited a former minister for gender equality and a former MP.

The occasion is the second regional conference about Women in Politics, as part of a regional project that has been added to the existing DIPD-supported programmes. While benefitting from the Danish ideas, the three programmes also saw advantages in sharing lessons from the region. The political histories of the three countries are dramatically different in many respects, but they belong to the same region and feel a responsibility to learn from and support each other.

Leaders express their commitment to push harder for equal representation of women in their parties; violence against women is highlighted as an issue that political leaders have to address, in the way the JOMPOPS members have tried to do with some encouraging results in recent years.

Women speak out with great confidence and conviction in the question and answer sessions. Things have changed. Today they do not allow themselves to be intimidated by male leaders.

Manu Sareen from Denmark, the former male minister for gender equality, and Lone Loklindt, the former female MP, share their personal experiences. What has Denmark achieved so far? Why have we been able to do this without quotas? Why have we not been able to reach a 50-50 representation?

scene eight

This is my last mission to Nepal as Director of DIPD. In my concluding remarks, I focus on our approach:

We know from half a century of global development that development never takes a linear course. It will move fast or slow in different phases, and it will for sure experience setbacks. We also know – and Denmark is a good example – that after 100 years there will still be targets we have not been able to achieve. There is never a definite end.

More than 20 years ago, I worked in Zimbabwe. What has stuck in my mind is the words of an old woman, who had never attended school. Standing in the middle of the crowd, with thick leathery wrinkles all over her face, she said: “You Danes know a lot. I also know a lot. I know what change is about, and I want change. I also want to be the one deciding what the change process should look like.”

Every country is unique, and the world needs the diversity represented through the many unique models and experiences. However, it is also true that one of the major challenges in the 21st century is how to manage diversity. This we can only do if we follow internationally agreed principles and values. Among these values are the human rights, and we have heard in the past two days that women’s rights are human rights.

Some may ask if signing yet another declaration or commitment will make a difference. In this case, I am not at all in doubt that it can make a difference. DIPD has seen the commitment and hard work from our partners in Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. We have seen dedicated Ministers and MPs and party officials coming together.

We feel privileged to have been part of this journey. We also learn from this! We also bring home ideas that can inspire when we return to Denmark! All of this is the true nature of a genuine partnership, and we need to protect this in the years to come.

The transformation from the end of 2011 to the end of 2016 is remarkable. To begin with there was an expectation that DIPD would guide and lead. Today the six parties have taken ownership, and they have added a strong dose of leadership.

Over the years, I have visited Nepal twelve times, so the few scenes presented here are only a part of what I have seen grow in this partnership. More important for the future impact and sustainability, however, are the hundreds of scenes that the six parties themselves have composed, not only in the capital of Kathmandu, but in towns and villages in valleys and on mountain sides of this country, situated at the feet of the Himalayas.

JOMPOPS has increasingly been seen as a collective effort, with the responsibility of chairing the Steering Committee on a rotational basis every six months as the key instrument. Still, individuals are important, and we have been fortunate in having smart, dedicated, hardworking and highly placed women and men on board from the start.

Another key individual is Shrishti Rana, our Representative in Nepal. A tiny young woman, who has a lot of experience from working with the parties. She has had the ability to maneuver the project through ups and downs; to adapt activities flexibly to changing political agendas in a strategic manner; and to never allow the member parties to forget that this would only work if they owned it, led it, and worked hard for it.

At the end of the day, it is all about trust. They trusted us to deliver some of the ideas they could see that they needed. We trusted them to find out how they could use these ideas in a very different environment. So far so good!