By Labisha Uprety, Master’s in Education Policies for Global Development (GLOBED) & Pramod Bhatta, Tribhuvan University
It has become almost a cliché to call Nepal a country in transition; but with rapidly successive political changes over the past two decades, the local media still finds merit in this label.
The end of the decade-long civil war in 2006 brought with it the end of monarchy and saw Maoist leaders organise as a political party. Not too long thereafter, agitation against the state from having suffered years of systemic discrimination reached breaking point for the south of Nepal and demands of federalism came to the forefront.
With the promulgation of a new Constitution in 2015, the country is now officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. The adoption of this title invites state restructuring into federal, provincial and local government levels. This is not to say that Nepal had not embraced decentralisation prior to this: functioning was divided between the centre, development regions and districts with the centre retaining ultimate authority.
Regardless, the country has taken measures to ensure its stride into decentralised federalism by holding its first local elections in 20 years. Local government bodies (village, and municipal councils) have been given several important responsibilities as prescribed by the 2015 Constitution, including management and regulation of basic and secondary education. Nepalese public schools have assumed a notoriety for poor education quality (often equated with poor results in national examinations), absent teachers and unaccountable administration and management (Mathema, 2007).
Private schools, however, have seen a meteoric rise in their numbers, predominantly in urban areas. Their successful capitalisation on parents’ desires for an education in English (often achieved by punishing the use of any other tongue in school), seen as imperative for entry into the first world for higher education and better-paying jobs with higher scores on school examinations, and a perceived sense of accountability towards fee-payers is often used to explain their proliferation.
Public schools struggle with their steady pauperisation as those who can afford it often move out to private education, leaving behind the most economically and socially vulnerable; these groups are often devoid of the kind of social and cultural capital that could be used to question public authorities and demand change. In light of this, decentralised governance and power devolution is expected to bring voters closer to their government officials, thereby enabling a more transparent and accountable relationship, which is hoped to have ripple effects in improving sectors including the education system.
Power devolution: previous experiences and possible consequences
Nepal was previously characterised by a unitary decentralised system – whereby power was consolidated in the centre, but administration was decentralised. For education, this meant the creation of District Education Offices under the Department of Education, which was further headed by the Ministry of Education.
A further notable instance of education decentralisation occurred with Nepal’s adoption of the World Bank funded Community School Support Project (CSSP) in 2001; majority of public schools were handed over to communities as schools were seen to be failing under centralised governance.
Communities were to take an active role in management of these schools, now called ‘community schools’, in form of School Management Committees (SMC). This handover was expected to help address the absence of a link between the school and the guardians that affected accountability of these schools (Carney, Bista, & Agergaard, 2007).
The global rhetoric of decentralisation is thus fairly established in Nepal. When used however, under a guise of empowering communities to successfully atomise state involvement without even capacitating said communities, it becomes little else than blame-shifting. Successful power delegations or devolution to lower governance level authority also does not automatically translate into better service delivery.
In fact, the aforementioned CSSP concretised local political infiltration in public schools as School Management Committees were subject to elite capture of local politicians; entry was subject to sponsoring a child and becoming a ‘guardian’ or donating a certain amount of money to the school. This led to nepotistic teacher appointments based on political party alignments, and reports of misuse of funds allocated to these schools (Rijal, n.d.). In general, public schools are seen as breeding grounds for local politics, causing an increase in favouring of private schools instead.
With the new federal arrangement, the expectation is that power is to be devolved to local governments for making policies, and plans on various public services, including education. The danger here is of course that this is being done without actually training local bodies to be able to build their own policies.
Additionally, as local laws must be in line with provincial and federal laws, it is not likely that local bodies will take the initiative to plan their policies beforehand as federal and state laws are still being discussed. Possibly citing this problem, the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration has released a number of model policies which local bodies could use to design their own policies (Democracy Resource Center Nepal, 2018).
This practice is in turn subverting the problem by giving ready-made resource instead of capacitating local government officials to take their own decisions. Local municipal offices will also have a much smaller number of education experts as compared to previously existing District Education Offices, which have now been relegated secondary coordinating role between local and higher levels of governance.
Recent reports have highlighted on how younger and lesser qualified staff were being sent to take on these roles in municipal and village councils, who have little to no experience of policy drafting (Karki and Bhatta, 2018). These non-considerations could defeat the purpose of the massive state restructuring exercise.
Education is constitutionalised as a concurrent responsibility of the local government, provinces and the state, but the problem remains that this concurrence has not been well-defined yet. For instance, it is unclear under whose responsibility teacher management is part of. Currently, salaries and benefits are to be dispersed by local bodies but it is unclear which governance level would exercise hiring, firing and general management of teachers. (Karki and Bhatta, 2018)
One of the most cited cases of drastic decentralisation – or more appropriately, ‘municipalisation’ – is that of Chile where public schools were placed under control of municipal governments. Most research does not seem to agree that these efforts resulted in largely positive outcomes – the Chilean education system was already doing well with providing access to education, but the reforms caused drastic inequalities, with quality education afforded to those only who could pay for it (Parry, 1997; Gauri, 1999).
Thus, when decentralisation becomes a mechanism for the state to wash its hands of its monitoring and supervision roles, local service delivery is unlikely to bring desired changes (Sheilds and Rappleye, 2008) – particularly when it becomes subject to malpractices such as elite capture.
Decentralisation of course, does have its merits and a whole, is seen as one of the ideal forms of democracy. A 2005 study on Argentina showed that decentralisation improved test-scores for those children who were in non-poor municipalities in well-managed provinces but had a negative effect on scores of children from poor municipalities in poorly managed provinces (Galiani, Gertler & Schargrodsky, 2005).
Decentralisation and power devolution have a lot to offer, but the concept is often romanticised theoretically with little heed being paid to prospective challenges. It becomes an ill-serving mechanism if in the absence of an oversight authority, it is subject to elite capture and poorly capacitated officials. Nepal’s federalism is still in its infancy but is already showing problematic concerns that need to dealt with before they become full-fledged problems.
Carney, S., Bista, M., & Agergaard, J. (2007). ‘Empowering’ the ‘local’ through education? Exploring community‐managed schooling in Nepal. Oxford Review of Education, 33(5), 611-628.
Democracy Resource Center Nepal. (2018). Findings on Functioning of Local and Provincial Governments in Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal.
Galiani, S., Gertler, P., & Schargrodsky, E. (2008). School decentralization: Helping the good get better, but leaving the poor behind. Journal of public economics, 92(10-11), 2106-2120.
Gauri, V. (1999). School choice in Chile: Two decades of educational reform. University of Pittsburgh Press.
Karki, S., & Bhatta, P. (2018). Education in a Decentralised Context: The case of Nepal. Oxford Policy Management. UNICEF.
Mathema, K. B. (2007). Crisis in education and future challenges for Nepal. European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 31, 46-66.
Parry, T. R. (1997). Decentralization and privatization: Education policy in Chile. Journal of Public Policy, 17(1), 107-133.
Rijal, M. (n.d.). Community-based School Management The Role Politics Plays. The Rising Nepal. Retrieved from: http://therisingnepal.org.np/news/12519
Shields, R., & Rappleye, J. (2008). Uneven terrain: Educational policy and equity in Nepal. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 28(3), 265-276.