Gauging corruption at the local levels in Nepal

At the time of writing this article, multiple cases of corruption might be taking place globally; with some being reported while some ignored due to various reasons such as ignorance and lack of awareness about why, how and where to report. As profound as this issue seems, it holds high relevance in the case of Nepal too. Transparency has been a huge issue for Nepalis, from their personal to professional lives and from small to big businesses. Therefore, the government of Nepal is not a spare case. This is the norm that we have adapted to, and it needs an obvious breakthrough.

With a rank of 126 out of 180 countries in 2014, and 113 out of 180 countries in 2019 in terms of the level of corruption measured by the Corruptions Perception Index, it is evident that even though the ranking has improved, corruption is still pervasive and persistent in Nepal. The move into federalization in 2015 expected to bring reforms in governance mechanisms in Nepal, and naturally, it resulted in corruption and good governance being a major subject of detailed discussion. While there are arguments that federalism can work well to cure corruption by increasing participatory approach at all levels for public resources and for ensuring public accountability, there are contrasting arguments too, which suggest that federalism can result in breakdown of central control over resources, thereby creating an elite capture of development programs and spiralling corruption at grassroots level. However, an analysis underpinning corruption at the local levels, why reforms have been delayed and good governance has not been achieved has been shallow.

Delving deeper into corruption at the local levels

In line with the major objective of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), it conducted a study earlier in 2075/76 to gauge corruption at the local levels in Nepal and presented a report titled “स्थानीय तहमा हुने भ्रष्टाचारसमबन्धि अध्ययन” in 2076 to the President. The study collected data from 15 districts spread across all seven provinces and included 3000 respondents with a representation of 61% male and the rest 39% female.

The study indicated that 67.6% of the respondents were aware about growing cases of corruption at the local levels. It recognized and covered factors such as delays in the local level work, misuse of public property, abuse of authority by staffs, submitting false statements, altering documents or results published by a higher authority as several forms of corruptions taking place in local level areas in various forms like cash bribery, institutional changes and policy changes. No matter the specific type of corruption being practiced, the respondents stated that there are many social factors that promote and contribute to corruption at the local levels. The tendency to show high reputation in society by the officials at the local level offices, moral degradation among the employees, lack of awareness among people, skyrocketing market prices and yet no strict actions were taken against corruption were cited as some of the major factors among others that push corruption at the local levels.

The highest level of corruption was found in the planning and implementation process, with engineers, employees and executive officers, who have the most responsibility of leading and carrying out works, as being the most corrupt. 14.9% of the respondents had directly witnessed and been a victim to corrupt practices themselves.

As the report progressed, it revealed details like 90% of the respondents stating they were aware about the existence of CIAA as well as its functions and duties through sources such as newspapers, media coverage and chats with family and friends. However, although most of them were aware, not many had actually spoken against and reported about corruption because they believed that CIAA has not been able to bring any significant improvement against corruption at the local levels. Only 2% of the respondents answered positively while the rest 98% had never reported cases about corruption to the CIAA. A province-wise breakdown of the same has been depicted below:

Given the state of corruption prevailing at the local levels and the level of trust among the respondents about CIAA, the respondents vouched for the implementation of transparency, reward and penalty system, capacity development of local level government officials, use of new technology, performance of institutional roles and provision of citizen charter. They further asserted that CIAA can play a crucial role to curb corruption at the local levels by spreading awareness through campaigns, media, installing suggestion boxes and hotline number (107) of CIAA at the local government offices as well as rewarding the ones who report corruption.

Way forward as suggested by CIAA

The investigative power that CIAA holds has given it the necessary institutional arrangements to be able to conduct this study and present a report regarding the results. Thus, CIAA has attempted to draw a conclusion and suggest some recommendations to control corruption at the local levels.

27.3% of respondents in the study believed that corruption has increased more after local level elections. Thus, the study indicated that the current electoral system and the practices of spending huge amounts in elections have altogether contributed to corruption. Considering this, it has suggested the use of banking facilities and methods at the time of receiving donations for the political parties and its stakeholders to ensure transparency in the process.

Further, CIAA stated that there should be a clear criteria in the planning, selection and implementation process at the local levels as well as a way to ensure wide public participation (through public hearings) in the planning and implementation phase. If the governing body does not follow the Local Level Governance Acts properly, then there should also be a provision for punishment.

Likewise, it also suggested that there should be a system of e-attendance for local level employees along with a system of keeping records of works, backed by a reward-punishment system. Policy clarity was also requested by the CIAA so that it could gain the authority to investigate further improper acts of public office holders that were closely linked with corruption.

Besides, the study also recommended that subjects including morality, truthfulness, abuse of authority, corruption, etc should be included in the school curriculum, and a new way of teaching should be developed to impart knowledge regarding corruption from early on.

Concluding thoughts

The term ‘corruption’ and debates around corruption generate more heat than light regarding the statistical precision, the impact and the parties involved. Nonetheless, since debates should not regress to mere assertions, evidence-based research and policy recommendations should remain a priority. The analysis set forth by CIAA is in line with this and aims to make a tentative stab at assessing the level of corruption at local levels.

While there is a persistent feeling that nothing can be done from an individual level, discourses regarding these are an effort to show that local-level corruption need not go unnoticed. At the heart of every activity undertaken by the government lie its citizens. This is why, only when discourses are brought forth can citizens be more likely to stay informed, aware, civically engaged, and empowered to identify corrupt activities. Media can play an additional crucial role in this discourse to combat corruption by disclosing information to the local population and enabling them to question their government. In an enabling environment, greater transparency and policy reforms can thrive, and this is what Nepal needs.