In 2018, Nepal, one of the world’s youngest democracies, held federal elections three years after the adoption of a federal system in the 2015 Constitution. This federal system, with three levels of government, is now responsible for fulfilling the aspirations of 29 million people and for achieving the SDGs and moving Nepal out of the status of being among the least developed countries.
This is a major challenge: twenty-five per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, more than half of the population lacks access to “at least basic” sanitation, and the country is ranked 124 out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. But as the country redraws its provinces and builds new decentralized institutions at provincial level, there is also an immense opportunity for Nepal to tackle its many governance challenges – including those pertaining to integrity and corruption.
This is a critical moment: with new institutions come new opportunities and new risks, especially where capacities of officials in the provinces are still in early stages of development.
New map; new institutions; new risks and opportunities
It is often assumed that decentralization processes will have a positive impact in reducing corruption and increasing integrity, due to their potential for increased representivity in decision-making. Research, however, highlights that in some circumstances decentralization can actually result in increased corruption. It is, therefore, a critical juncture in the struggle for increased integrity in decision-making.
In Nepal, new government agencies are now being set up in the provinces, where more than 60 per cent of the elected representatives are political novices. A lot of money is going to flow into these institutions, which will be responsible for providing essential services like healthcare, education, water, and sanitation.
As this process takes place, it is important to ensure that strong legislation and regulation are implemented and that governance is transparent. It is also crucial that roles and responsibilities be made as clear as possible — in decentralization processes in other countries, such as Kenya, we’ve seen that uncertainty on roles and resource transfers create integrity risks. Officials must be held accountable to ensure that basic services are inclusive and fulfill the tenets of human rights and are not undermined by corruption, nepotism, fraud, theft or many other possible integrity risks.
If there are weak governance mechanisms in place, corruption, malpractices, and collusion will thrive and public trust in the new structures will erode.
Transfer of knowledge and capacity to new institutions requires support and engagement
In the process of decentralization there is a risk that knowledge and capacity built up at the national level over years, including on integrity, is lost.
The Water Integrity Network (WIN) has been working for the past seven years with the Helvetas Swiss Inter-Cooperation and local partners, the Federation of Drinking Water and Sanitation Users Nepal, to support better WASH service delivery, especially to vulnerable communities. The focus of our Water Integrity Programme, which is supported by the Swiss Development Cooperation, is on transparency, accountability and participatory (TAP) practices for improving integrity in the WASH sector.
One major programme achievement was the incorporation of water integrity principles into the final draft of the Nepal Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene Sector Development Plan (2016–2030). In the document water integrity is described as the adherence of water stakeholders and institutions to the principles of transparency, accountability and participation, based on the core values of honesty, equity and professionalism. The plan also refers to the need for both vertical and horizontal accountability across the WASH governance structure.
Integrity, by requiring that public interest be paramount, provides the basis for accountable WASH projects and service delivery. For good accountability in WASH services and operation it is necessary that politicians, policy-makers and WASH service providers are transparent, accept responsibility for their actions, and recognize that they should be called upon to give an account of why and how they have acted or failed to act.
However, due to the decentralization, this national draft WASH sector development plan no longer has strong ownership within government and there is a risk that it might be abandoned. There is now an urgent need to translate the national policy principles into provincial planning documents.
Building capacity of local stakeholders
The Federation of Water Users and Sanitation Users Nepal (FEDWASUN) has been an essential partner of the Water Integrity Programme in Nepal. Special attention has been given to building the voice and capacities of its members around Transparency, Accountability, and Participation. FEDWASUN is a federation of water and sanitation user groups who are responsible for service provision and tariff collection at the local level due to the very limited capacity of government. They work closely with the government agencies. Due to the current changes in roles and responsibilities, FEDWASUN is being restructured but there is still no clarity how the new relationship with the government will evolve.
These changes, and the incorporation of new people into FEDWASUN who were not part of the integrity training, can result in the integrity capacity and focus of FEDWASUN being diluted or even lost. It will be important, at the local level, for the administration to collaborate with FEDWASUN to ensure that the capacities and knowledge of FEDWASUN members can continue to support the government agencies in strengthening integrity and governance in WASH service delivery.
Renewing engagement for sustained change
The Water Integrity Programme in Nepal has been supporting transition to the new federal structures, ensuring water integrity principles are embedded in action plans and that the capacity of right-holders and duty-bearers are enhanced. While the project was originally focused at national and district level, due to the establishment of the new provinces, the focus of the work needs to shift. Unfortunately, the current water integrity programme is ending at the end of July 2019, at a crucial time in Nepal’s democracy.
However, moving forward, Helvetas Swiss Inter Cooperation has committed to mainstreaming water integrity in their Water Resources Management Programme (WARM-P) to ensure that stakeholders are able to translate integrity principles into action and to transfer their learnings to other INGOs and CSOs involved in developing water user master plans.
WIN will also continue engagement on the topic of water integrity and explore opportunities to strengthen collaboration with partners on increasing integrity and reducing corruption in WASH. We are actively seeking new engagement and partnerships opportunities.
For Nepal WASH sector stakeholders to capitalize on past learning and get on track to achieve #SDG6, a top priority is to focus simultaneously on #SDG16 and tackle governance issues to strengthen institutions. The time to support integrity initiatives in Nepal is now.