By Soni Khanal and Sanjeeta Pant

Nepal is a largely patriarchal society with a hierarchical caste system. But fixing old problems and creating equitable government structures does not have to be an uphill battle. Initiatives such as Gov-HER-nance, a pioneering campaign initiated by Accountability Lab Nepal (ALN) in collaboration with female local government representatives in Nepal’s Dhangadhi sub-metropolitan city, brings in new voices and finds solutions to issues of gender equity, local development, and open government. Contrary to what citizens commonly believe, we have found that government representatives can be eager to collaborate with community members to drive change, and to work towards a shared vision of ‘samrachana sabaika laagi’ or ‘system for everyone.’ We also share below some lessons on the role civil society organizations (CSOs) can play to support inclusive policy making processes.

Local elected representatives and community members as agents of change

Government representatives are not necessarily opposed to inclusion- at times it is a lack of knowledge and capacity that act as the real barriers. When our team interacted with local representatives in Dhangadhi, they were already designing gender-friendly quarantine centers and had a larger vision of creating a gender- and socially inclusive city. “The pandemic further highlighted how necessary gender-related programs and policies are in local units across Nepal. Establishing separate quarantine facilities for men and women was a start which has now progressed towards creating a gender-friendly local unit in Dhangadhi,” says Sushila Mishra Bhatta, Deputy Mayor of the municipality. As a result, actions were taken quickly to roll-out such facilities in Dhangadhi while women and children faced abuse and violence as soon as the second wave of COVID-19 hit. Despite their enthusiasm, local representatives like Sushila often lack the resources and know-how to gather feedback or effectively disseminate policy information in the community. The Gov-HER-nance campaign, modeled after ALN’s successful Civic Action (CivActs) teams, supported Dhangadhi’s local government by providing a citizen feedback, dialogue, and community voice platform to ensure inclusion of socially marginalized communities in the local development process. 

Representatives in Dhangadi already knew that a truly inclusive process needs the involvement of community members from different walks of life. That is why they actively participated in identifying 9 Inclusion Fellows whom ALN trained on community mobilization and collecting feedback as well as other skills such as mobile filmmaking so that they could use visual storytelling tools to disseminate information in their communities. The fellows were local women, LGBTQI and members of marginalized groups, who face a number of challenges not necessarily prioritized by the government. For instance, the LGBTQI community in Nepal is ostracized and there are scant government mechanisms to cater to their needs. But even well-intentioned governments may fail to prioritize them, especially in the face of a global pandemic. Engaging a diverse group of youths from the community filled this critical gap. Fellows like Birendra Chaudhary, who identifies himself as a homosexual, and Rewati SK, a woman from the Dalit community, were instrumental in reaching out in their respective communities on a day-to-day basis and interacting with women and LGBTQI members to collect feedback on the COVID-19 response. Rewati SK notes how being part of this initiative has meant she now visits the ward office more frequently to gather information and has access to influential officials, including the Deputy Mayor. Similarly, the ward officials have asked her to reach out to other women in the Dalit community. 

We also identified the role civil society can play to foster collaboration between local governments and communities.  Key lessons include the need to:

Design creative tools to engage citizens. Governments often fall short in finding creative ways to disseminate policy information, neglecting to circle back to citizens on decision-making and listing policy documents on websites that are not interactive. Although government agencies are moving towards  using social media or digital tools, like this one, they lack a coherent strategy to connect with the public. The failure of these approaches to engage citizens around and through them brings into question the government’s commitment to these efforts. This is where CSOs can collaborate with the government to deliver public messages creatively- like the weekly Gov-HER-nance bulletins and radio programs, which contain information on different government mechanisms and services; debunk rumors around gender issues; and include real-time stories and voices from the community members on gender and social inclusion. 

Identify champions and make them role models. Throughout our work, we come across champions like Deputy Mayor Bhatta, who are committed to collaboration, communication with citizens and who take action to make cities inclusive and prosperous. When we have leaders like her within the government, CSOs, media and business can step in and find ways to collaborate in ways that can then be replicated elsewhere. For example, ALN’s work with Dhangadhi has helped feed community voices into the city’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) Policy which will soon be adopted. For this we organized community meetings, town halls, and youth camps (for leadership, campaign and advocacy skills), and stakeholders consultation meetings to identify social problems, gather solutions and generate larger consensus among stakeholders. Once finalized, the policy document can serve as a template for other local units that are working towards inclusion. 

Connect an agenda for inclusivity to large policy goals. Local representatives may look at inclusion in  isolation and not connect it with their larger vision or mission for their community. They may include  women and other marginalized communities only in policies that are directly targeted towards them, not realizing gender and social inclusion are cross-cutting themes that should inform every policy from infrastructure to healthcare to employment generation. CSOs can support local governments to understand the entry points for reforms and the connections across different areas of development and policy making. For instance, during community dialogues, local representatives were made aware of the problems that transgender people face when asked to produce sex change documents from hospitals to get their gender identity documents. Not everyone has access to formal health facilities, which leaves a large numbers of people in an essential identity crisis, marginalizing them further. 

Act as a convener to introduce new ways of thinking. Young people are likely to be most affected in the long term by any government policies, and are, therefore, the most important stakeholder. They also understand gender and social issues differently, and are more eager to raise awareness around them. Both the government and youths may not recognize this important role, and are not likely to be talking to each other. CSOs have the power to convene these two groups- like we did with the Inclusion Fellows and local representatives- to start difficult conversations around gender or social issues that are taken for granted. 

Finally, local ownership is key for any campaign to sustain beyond a project cycle. This point cannot be emphasised enough, and while this may sound very cliche in international development it is not necessarily practiced when designing or implementing project interventions. The Gov-HER-nance campaign has demonstrated how aligning government and local priorities as well as engaging local actors can lead to sustainable outcomes at the policy level. From its onset, the drivers of the campaign were local government representatives and the Inclusion Fellows. Ownership and collective effort by local representatives like Deputy Mayor Bhatta and community members like Birendra and Rewati are what is needed to bridge some of the gaps that currently prevent government accountability – with CSOs playing a catalyst role.