WORKING IN NEPAL 2014-2017
The photo at the top shows on the left the Chairman of DIPD 2010-18, Henrik Bach Mortensen, next to him is Shrishti Rana, the DIPD Representative in Nepal, and finally Bjørn Førde, then Director of DIPD.
During my years as Director with the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD), I was fortunate to also be the programme officer directly responsible for developing the programme with the political parties of Nepal. I am happy to conclude – based on the information presented in a recent publication by the DIPD office in Kathmandu and the network of political parties in Nepal called “Joint Mechanism for Political Party Strengthening” (JOMPOPS) – that this has been a successful investment from the point of view of DIPD, and also a very useful contribution to democracy in Nepal seen from the point of vciew of the political parties.
The report called FRIENDSHIP, PARTNERSHIP, OWNERSHIP – SNAPSHOTS OF SHARING IDEAS AND EXPERIENCES IN NEPAL 2014 – 2017 offers a detailed and intimate overview of the many activities that have taken place during the four year programme phase. While it naturally focuses on what has been achieved and worked, the report does not shy away from also highlighting what has been very difficult and at times not worked at all.
The whole report can be downloaded here: NEPAL POPULAR REPORT 2014-17 – Final BF
Shrishti Rana, the DIPD Representative in Nepal since the start in 2011, has written a wonderful article of reflection and analysis as an introduction to the report. Please read the whole text for yourself, but here is a small section from the end of the article which I find of particular interest, because it is useful for all of us working to share experiences from one part of the world to another.
The Three key Factors
When DIPD decided to engage in Nepal in 2012, the political context was highly fluid. Nepal was still in a complex political situation carrying the legacy of a violent conflict, which had destroyed any trust there might have been between the major political parties. Nepali Congress members and members of the UML party had been killed by Maoists during the war, and the security forces, led by the NC and UML governments, had caused the deaths of Maoist cadres.
Not surprisingly, bitterness between the two sides was very real. Even after the end of the armed conflict in 2006, grudges ran deep and, tellingly, the parties disagreed on crucial aspects of the peace process and the constitution-making.
The three Madhesi parties – whose members had also been killed by the alliance of the NC-UML-Maoist government during various agitations post-2007 – were bitter and angry with the three big parties. They were frustrated because they believed their various grievances related to increasing representation of the Madhesis at different tiers of the state structure were not being addressed, despite repeated commitments by the big parties. The three Madhesi parties themselves were also divided along caste, ethnic and geographic lines and lacked the spirit to engage in meaningful collaboration among themselves.
After the pilot phase, when JOMPOPS and DIPD were in a planning meeting to outline the activities for the 2014-2017 phase, I remember the JOMPOPS parties were arguing with each other on various issues. A senior external facilitator told me:
“You can’t be too ambitious in this kind of project. If we can manage to get these parties with such diverse backgrounds together for meetings, we can already call it a job well done.”
But, in practice, what happened exceeded all our expectations. The six parties not only came together but they worked together and stayed together. Today, when Steering Committee members meet, the atmosphere is always warm, like in a gathering of good friends, and they invite each other to their respective party events. These seemingly small changes have created a new political culture in Nepal in which political parties do not only compete but also cooperate in their common interests and respect each other despite their differences.
The political parties in Nepal now consider DIPD as a trusted partner, one of their “own”, and no longer an outside actor. When DIPD staff from Copenhagen visit Nepal, they are genuinely welcomed by Steering Committee members, sometimes even to their homes – a gesture that demonstrates they are viewed as close friends. And, now, the political parties themselves are approaching DIPD with requests for support in crucial areas; for example, in the training of newly-elected people’s representatives, which affirms the level of trust DIPD has been able to secure from the partners in Nepal.
Reflecting on what made it possible for the JOMPOPS-DIPD engagement to flourish in such a cordial way, a few things – actually, three factors – stand out in my mind.
DIPD’s experience in Nepal tells, first and foremost, that successful partnership must be based on genuine friendship. In this context, genuine friendship is based on mutual trust and respect. This was evident throughout the political party support programme in Nepal, as party leaders prioritised friendship over any technical considerations of the project.
In the past, although most international agencies providing assistance in Nepal claimed to respect local views and interests, in practice, they often failed to do so. That historical experience has made politicians particularly appreciative of DIPD’s you-know-best approach, which demonstrated genuine respect for local partners. This is the most significant factor contributing to the successful engagement between the Nepalese political parties and DIPD.
I must mention here the role of the then DIPD Director Bjørn Førde, who was able to create that friendship in a seemingly effortless, natural way. He always respected Nepal’s political leaders and, unlike some other international organisations, which blamed our politicians for everything, he understood their motivation and structural constraints. He also trusted them to make their own decisions, allowing them the space to make, and recover from their own mistakes. His affection and care for the people of Nepal sounded genuine, and it seemed to come from really accepting some of us as his real friends.
Under his leadership, DIPD was able to establish an enduring friendship with the JOMPOPS platform, now being sustained by the current Director, Rasmus Helveg Petersen. The new Director has adhered to the former Director’s policy of prioritising human relationships, and he demonstrates the same kind of respect for and sensitivity towards local partners that his predecessor had. Thanks to the leadership of these two men, the political parties have come to trust DIPD. That trust is the single most important factor responsible for the way it has been possible to create and foster the partnership without facing any serious strains or differences.
Another important factor that led to the success of the DIPD-JOMPOPS engagement is the flexibility, which was embedded in the design of the initiative and utilised in the implementation phase of activities. At that time, Nepal was experiencing multifaceted political transition, and events were unpredictable and changeable. The devastating earthquake in mid-2015 was followed by the Madhesi party agitation, which led to the blockade of essential supplies from India – making it quite difficult to conduct activities as planned.
To respond to such uncertain developments, DIPD adopted a policy of flexibility, enabling Steering Committee members to decide when and how to conduct planned activities, and even postponing some of them at short notice, if necessary. DIPD also responded flexibly to the need to change some parts of the programme, to adapt to the constantly evolving political context. For example, activities planned by JOMPOPS, in partnership with DIPD, initially did not address issues concerning Nepal’s new constitution-making. However, when the Platform decided it should contribute to that end, activities were revised to suit that purpose.
This flexibility was quite important because if DIPD had adopted a rigid approach and stuck to supporting only the activities incorporated in the approved project document, the changing needs of political parties in Nepal could not have been accommodated. Flexibility ensured that DIPD’s engagement in Nepal was relevant.
Top Leaders’ Buy-In
Almost all the Platform’s Steering Committee members hold senior positions in their parties. For example, a Steering Committee member from the Communist Party of Nepal, Asta Laxmi Shakya, is in the party’s Standing Committee – and, as such, she is its most senior female leader. Likewise, a Steering Committee member from RJP-N, Jitendra Sonal, is the General Secretary of his party and a Minister in Province 2. Out of 12 Steering Committee members, eight are currently members of Parliament.
The close and continuous engagement of such influential leaders in the project meant that party members at all levels, including the top leaders, could be encouraged to engage with activities. The most senior leaders of all the six parties participated in the relevant programme activities and kept themselves updated on the DIPD-JOMPOPS partnership. Steering Committee members and the DIPD Director met with top party leaders on a regular basis. These interactions helped to guarantee the support of top party echelons and parliamentary representatives. And, the buy-in and direct involvement of the senior leaders also helped to give the project further legitimacy and endorsement, which was important to the overall success of DIPD initiative in Nepal.
on a Personal note
Finally, I would like to reflect about my own personal involvement as Project Co-ordinator for nearly five years. When I was given the responsibility of facilitating engagement between the six political parties and DIPD in 2012, DIPD did not have any infrastructure in place here or prior experience of working in Nepal. The JOMPOPS platform was also in its infancy, and without any institutional support mechanism. More importantly, I was young and inexperienced. The political culture was strongly male-dominated. So, as a woman, I was not sure to what extent I would succeed in my task.
But the DIPD Director at the time, and some Steering Committee members, saw my involvement in the project as a way to demonstrate that young women can succeed in leadership positions, if given the opportunity. The hope was that I could become an example to encourage other young women to assume leadership roles.
Because of the opportunities I was given as well as their trust and consistent support, I was able to manage the DIPD-JOMPOPS engagement from 2012 to 2017 without any serious issues or questions about my competence. One of the Nepali Congress leaders was so impressed to see a young woman working with major political parties, and dealing with influential political leaders, that he invited other MPs to meet me in my office.
That day I felt like I was able to embody the important message that young women can succeed in any responsible, political role if they are given the right opportunity and right support, and to convey that message to the Nepalese leaders.
Of course, one of the reasons why I was able to deliver on my role should be attributed to the wonderful project team in Nepal – a team whose members are non-partisan and do not carry any political label. Non-partisanship was a consideration also in hiring consultants and resource persons for various tasks. Careful choice of people who could deliver the asked-for technical support without stepping on political toes mattered in successfully organising the events.
The project team got a further boost when in mid-2016 the Senior Adviser was recruited, who came with a long experience and rich political insights. He was my boss in my previous job. In this culture, many senior men would perhaps hesitate to work under a woman especially if they are younger. Yet, by agreeing to be a part of my team, he gave me great confidence to take up heavier tasks, as the year 2017 turned out to be full of.
Broadly speaking, JOMPOPS’s steady, hands-on guidance and involvement, the project team’s full dedication, and support from DIPD headquarters all went into making the Nepal project a success that I have been fortunate to be part of.
I hope we are able to keep up the good work in the coming years!