Having grown up through Nepal’s Civil War and the fight for democracy, Pratik Kunwar has seen first-hand what civic engagement looks like at its best and its worst. Through the support of the Lab, he aims to encourage all Nepali people to become active citizens and collectively hold government accountable. By Kibo Ngowi.
The devastating earthquake of 2015 was a major turning point in the history of Nepal which sent shockwaves throughout the country and forever altered the lives of millions. For Pratik Kunwar, this event was the spark that would send him on a path into civil society. At the time, he was in Malaysia pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in International Business Management at Nottingham University.
“It changed my trajectory completely,” he says. “I took the first flight back to Nepal and literally had to skip my graduation so I could go home to see my family and volunteer in the rebuilding process. Before the earthquake, I was going to follow my passion in international business but seeing this tragedy really got me thinking about my purpose and what I could do with the limited time and energy I have in this world.”
In truth, Pratik’s interest in civil society had actually began at a much earlier age through his childhood experiences. Raised in the middle of the Nepalese Civil War of the nineties and noughties, Pratik’s family frequently had to move to avoid getting caught in the crossfire and at one point even had to flee the country.
“So, I have seen first-hand what bad civic engagement looks like, when citizens are misinformed,” says Pratik. “But I’ve also seen what good civic engagement looks like, through the democratic processes, and all the protests done to end the civil war, abolish Nepal’s 240-year-old autocracy and bring in a Democratic Republic.”
These formative experiences inspired Pratik to not allow Nepal to repeat its historical mistakes and to ensure that civic engagement became the driving force behind the country’s democracy. “There were multiple threads that converged at once,” says Pratik. “Technology started to become more accessible to people, the country’s population became increasingly young and we adopted a new Constitution, so my friends and I decided the timing was perfect for a digital initiative promoting civic engagement and public accountability.”
The Meaning of Governance
Shaasan is a word which means “governance” in many South Asian languages including Nepali, Bangladeshi and Hindi. It’s the first project of Pratik’s organization The Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the one he is developing through the support of the Lab’s Accountability Incubator program.
“Shaasan will be Nepal’s first digital civic engagement platform,” says Pratik. “Its main purpose is to engage citizens and hold governments accountable. We do this through an app which helps map problems across specific areas through crowd-sourced data from active citizens.”
The app will allow citizens to take a photo or 30-second video highlighting a specific public service delivery problem in their area which could be anything from waste management to road maintenance. This photo or video then goes to the different responsible authorities and organizations that have an interest in whatever specific issue is being raised.
“So, you’ve uploaded the information; now what? Well, we know the information has been sent to the proper authorities so we track how quickly and effectively they respond to the problem,” explains Pratik. “Then we give them a scorecard through which citizens grade them on certain subcategories of performance. This process will put the power in the hands of citizens to hold public authorities accountable.”
The app itself is still in the development phase but he and his team have been focusing on offline initiatives that will help make the digital component a reality. The main goal of these activities is to capture the attention of Nepal’s large youth population and encourage them to become more politically aware and active in civic issues. To generate that interest, Pratik’s team organizes community meetings, civic workshops, panel discussions, street theatre performances and group surveys about topical community and national issues.
“When we carried out surveys asking young people if they would be interested in using an app designed for holding public officials accountable, we got an overwhelming 99% yes response,” says Pratik. “So, the offline is there to undergird and support what will eventually become the digital platform.”
“I first heard about Accountability Lab with the start of the Integrity Icon campaign in 2015 and it was really famous,” recalls Pratik. “Everybody was talking about it but at first everyone was also very suspicious because Nepal being Nepal, we didn’t believe you would find a single accountable person. But we saw these stories and that changed everybody’s minds and that really piqued my interest. Lots of friends and mentors have since become fellows or joined one of the other programs.”
So, Pratik was well acquainted with the Lab when he decided he wanted to become an accountapreneur but one thing particularly appealed to him about the incubator program. Out of the many accelerators and incubators in Nepal, most are devoted to entrepreneurship and it’s rare to find one that nurtures and supports civic-minded initiatives. It also presented an opportunity for him to connect with the kind of community that Accountability Lab fosters, not just in Nepal, but globally through the many countries where the Lab operates.
“We were facing challenges on multiple fronts but one of the biggest we needed support with was the funding plan,” explains Pratik. “We have only had two meetings with the Lab so far but I can already see the value of joining the program. For example, they have simplified the fundraising process and helped with proposals at every step of the way.”
The second biggest challenge Pratik faced involved getting access to the civil society network, especially to organizations involved in accountability, transparency and civic engagement. He found this network hard to access, especially because, as a business graduate, he had come from an educational background that hadn’t exposed him to civil society work. But only a few months into the program, Pratik says the Lab has already helped him connect with many amazing organizations and people.
“One thing I would love to add is that there’s a certain reputation about Accountability Lab in Nepal. They’re seen as one of the pioneers of bringing transparency and accountability forward so vividly in the public domain and the work they do is really commendable,” explains Pratik.
“Every person in every sector I’ve talked to about the Lab has spoken positively about their work in reducing political apathy and increasing citizen engagement, especially through Integrity Icon – shining a light on public servants that would have remained hidden. But one thing I think people forget is that they’re also fun-loving people and in just the two months I’ve gotten to know them, I can personally vouch for their good taste in music (laughs). I can tell I’m going to enjoy being a part of this community”