The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) has a particularly strong relationship with Nepal, going back to the middle of the last century. This gives the organization the edge when it comes to its civic education programmes, which have recently focused on explaining and offering dialogues on the implementation of the constitution including the decentralization process in various parts of the country.
2017 was a special year in the history of the young democracy. Polls were held on the local level, for the lower house of parliament as well as, for the first time, seven provincial assemblies.
During the civic education activities which FES conducted all over the country last year there were many complaints about the political set-up. “People said that it has just added another layer of machinery to feed with taxes, on top of the central government” remembers Annette Schlicht, Resident Representative of FES in Nepal. ”During the seminar our trainer-cum-facilitators could clarify on some issues and also show avenues for people to take any complaints or problems to the responsible persons on the local level.”
But communication works both ways with these events. “We bring information about the situation on the ground and what people are feeling back in our high-level discussions in Kathmandu, including government, political parties, and journalists in the capital,“ remarks Schlicht.
The organization’s close relationship with Nepal is underpinned by history and by a generally shared political orientation. As early as the 1950s, German politician Willy Brandt, a significant early leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), was a personal friend of Nepalese political pioneer Bisheshwar Prasad (BP) Koirala, who founded the Nepali Congress party and in 1959 became the country’s first democratically elected prime minister.
“The older generation of Nepalis still recognize the name of Willy Brandt and SPD […] but historic ties alone do not suffice to spell out what social justice means for the future.”
The organization’s most natural alliance was initially with Koirala’s Nepali Congress party. But also today, with Communist Party of Nepal in power and the Congress party in opposition, and other regional parties FES is finding a generally positive reception to its agenda of social democracy and just development.
“FES is not considered partisan”, Schlicht explains. “Our core values are actually anchored in the 2015 Constitution”, which has social democracy as a main pillar, she says. “This has allowed us to enter into dialogue with all parties, from Congress, the Communists, and other regional parties from the south.”
“The older generation of Nepalis still recognize the name of Willy Brandt and SPD, which is, of course, a perfect point of connect for us”, says Schlicht. “But historic ties alone do not suffice to spell out what social justice means for the future.”
Bringing together young leaders from Nepal’s trade unions, political parties and civil society organizations has therefore been a key activity in 2018. The Autumn School on leadership and democracy building combined lectures on constitutional issues and reflection exercises on how to develop leadership skills (link).
“Complaining about the political establishment is an evergreen in all activities”, comments Schlicht. “But when it comes to the point of speaking out as a young person and take positions, there is also a lot of reluctance and sometimes even convenience”.
The issue of youth is closely linked to another dominant topic in Nepalese life—economic emigration. With remittances such a critical part of the economy at 30 per cent of GDP, most of the discussion on this has centred around ensuring safe and decent conditions for migrant workers.
It would require not just some redistribution of money, but also generation of better employment opportunities within the country, so all these innovative people who are currently seeking work abroad can find their place inside Nepal.
“While this is of course extremely important, there is also a conversation to be held on why workers migrate in the first place,” says Schlicht. If 80 per cent of the 500,000 young people entering the labour market each year are leaving the country, this does not only have a negative impact on communities, but “is also not quite in line with what we see as a socially just sustainable economic development,” she says.
And it is not just the lower-skilled workers that are emigrating. At the moment, for example, Nepalis make up the third-highest proportion of foreign students in the US, and this from a population of less than 30 million. All kinds of step-in and scholarship programmes are adding to those numbers. And in Germany, they make up the second-highest number of au-pairs, excluding EU countries of origin.
“These people are missed in Nepal. Because maybe they are the ones who could generate some good ideas on business, on the economy, and on social development.”
Addressing this would be a huge task, but an important one. It would require not just some redistribution of money, but also generation of better employment opportunities within the country, so all these innovative people who are currently seeking work abroad can find their place inside Nepal.
But such initiatives might meet resistance from some political quarters. As citizens abroad cannot vote, there may be an incentive for the political elite to encourage migration. It draws young angry people out of the country, reducing their potential for disruption. But this also costs the country their potential for initiative.
In this difficult context, FES strives to initiate discussions for Nepal’s economic and social progress. In 2018 new ideas were floated in a conference on Foreign direct investment (FDI) and social justice. FDI makes less than 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), but is growing, and a divisive issue. The competition between China and India over resources, notably hydropower potential, receives frequent and politicized media coverage.
“At FES, our priority is to look at these large infrastructure projects, from hydro to trains, from the perspective of what aspects of social justice are included,” says Schlicht. If the projects are to live up to the slogan of prosperity and economic growth, it is important to assess what part of the population will benefit, and how this will be done.
Some of this of course takes the form of redistributive justice: If the government receives funds from increased economic activity and taxes, then there are more resources for public services such as schools and healthcare. But FES is also concerned about the projects themselves, ensuring decent work during the construction states, including the questions of who is employed by, for example, large hydro projects.
Here again, the longstanding impartiality of FES is useful, Schlicht points out. “No one suspects us of partisanship with either China or India.”
From this relatively neutral position, FES was able to hold one session on Chinese investment, and then another on investment projects from India, and see which benefits Nepal more. “This was a new approach that people really appreciated,” she says.
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