Podcast: Survey of the Nepali People – A Barometer for Federalism?

Published on June 23, 2021

By Sanju G.C

After a decade of civil war and years of subsequent unrest and political dysfunction, the year 2017 was a watershed moment for Nepal and its people, as the first local elections in 20 years fulfilled the promise of federalism inscribed in the 2015 constitution. But as a nation long rife with instability, the new Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal was entering an uncharted territory filled with unknowns, both known and unknown. It was under these circumstances in 2017 that The Asia Foundation launched A Survey of the Nepali People (SNP) to capture the nation’s experiences, perceptions, and aspirations as it stood on the cusp of this political transformation.

Last year, 2020, brought the third round of the SNP, which probes Nepalis’ moods and opinions on questions of both public and personal significance, including issues of governance and political participation, livelihoods and economic health, personal identity and social relations, security and dispute resolution, and the overall outlook for the country.

The SNP brings numbers and evidence to some very abstract concepts to create a barometer of changing perceptions as the people of Nepal become accustomed to their new federal set-up. The results of the 2020 round, conducted before the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, are now consolidated and available online, and with three years of longitudinal data, there are more stories to tell about how Nepalis are adapting to this period of dramatic change. Here are some snapshots of those results.

National mood. When asked about the overall direction of the country, Nepalis had previously expressed a guarded optimism, with just over half of respondents in 2017 (52.7%) and 2018 (51.4%) declaring that Nepal as a nation was headed in the right direction. In 2020, however, the national mood enjoyed a dramatic spike, as 65.6% now expressed optimism about the nation’s course. It can be speculated that federalism has been gaining traction in the popular consciousness. Moreover, Nepalis’ assessment of their own local areas has also been trending upwards, with 55.9% in 2017, 62.8% in 2018, and 78.5% in 2020 saying it was headed in the right direction.

Gender, identity, and social relations. Over the years, the proportion of respondents who declare a mother tongue other than Nepali has steadily increased, from 44.4% in 2017 and 51.0% in 2018 to 54.6% in 2020. This rising trend may be a reflection of federal restructuring and the expanded civic space for secularism, pluralism, and expressions of diversity within a system that confers greater local autonomy. A similar, and encouraging, upward trend can be seen among respondents who believe that intergroup relations have been improving over the years (figure 1).

Figure 1: Percentage of respondents who believe that relations between different ethnic, religious, or caste groups are improving.

When asked about gender roles and gender equality, a majority of Nepalis exhibit a favorable stance towards women’s empowerment. More than 72% of Nepalis in 2020 said that they would accept anyone—male or female—to lead the federal, provincial, or local government, a political party, or a private company, based only on their competency, and 86.7% of Nepalis think that the overall position of women relative to men has improved in the last five years.

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Personal safety and dispute resolution. As a nation once mired in armed conflict and political unrest, Nepal has made great strides in securing peace and safety. In 2020, 96.6% of Nepalis reported that their households were either safe or very safe, continuing the upward trend from 95.2% in 2018 and 93.8% in 2017.

When asked about justice and the best venues for resolving disputes, Nepalis increasingly prefer to approach agencies of local government for disputes over debts or land (figure 2). Respondents who preferred their ward representative or ward chairperson to resolve land disputes increased from 8.6% in 2017 to 32.0% in 2020. Those who preferred the mayor or chairperson of their municipality increased from 6.3% in 2017 to 12.1% in 2020.

Those who preferred to seek help from their ward representative or chairperson for debt-related disputes have also increased over the years, from 7.3% in 2017 to 29.1% in 2020. Those who would choose their mayor or municipal chair increased from 4.5% in 2017 to 10.9% in 2020. These steady trends over the three cycles of the SNP give an inkling of the trust-building taking place between the public and their new local institutions.

Figure 2: Percentage of respondents who preferred a ward or municipal official to resolve debt or land disputes.

Governance and political participation. In 2020, more than two-thirds (68.4%) of Nepalis were still unaware of many of the changes brought by the 2015 constitution. This political illiteracy was highest among females and those of low educational attainment. Just 22.4% of female respondents claimed to be familiar with the constitutional changes, compared to 44.1% of male respondents. Similarly, those with more education were more likely to be aware of constitutional changes, including political restructuring, secularism, protections for fundamental rights, etc.

Also of some concern, nearly three-fourths (71.6%) of Nepalis in 2020 were unaware of any development projects or budget plans by their local government.

Trust in institutions. In 2020, the media was the public institution trusted by most Nepalis (91.8%), followed by community-based organizations (90.7%), the Nepal Army (90.6%), the Public Service Commission (89.3%), and human rights activists (88.1%). The least-trusted institutions were political parties (56.2%), the federal parliament (34.8%), the provincial assembly (33.5%), the provincial government (32.9%), and the federal government (32.8%)

Nepalis’ trust in their local representatives, however, has been rising. In 2017, 69.6% of respondents trusted their municipal chairperson, and this rose to 80.4% in 2020. Similarly, 72.9% of respondents trusted their ward chairperson in 2017 and 84.6% in 2020 (figure 3).

Figure 3: Percentage of respondents who expressed trust in their ward or municipal chairperson.

The mistrust of political parties and federal and provincial institutions can perhaps be attributed to the continuing atmosphere of crisis caused by unrelenting political feuds at the federal level, the brunt of which is born by the new subnational governments and by Nepalis themselves.

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Service delivery. There was greater awareness of the services provided by all three tiers of government in 2020 than there was in 2018. Almost half of respondents in 2020 (47.9%) were aware of services provided by their local government, 20.7% were aware of provincial government services, and 27.3% were aware of federal services.

Healthcare (65.8%), tax-related services (42.5%), and government schools (36.5%) were the local government services Nepalis were most likely to have received.

Over the years, the share of Nepalis who believe that the federal restructuring has improved service delivery by their local government has steadily increased, from 34.8% in 2017 to 45.2% in 2017 and 58.6% in 2020. In one telling metric, the proportion who say they must travel longer distances for services since the restructuring has declined from 28.6% in 2018, to 13.8% in 2020.

Most respondents in 2020 said that local government has become more responsive than the state/provincial or federal governments. While 58.9% of respondents approve of the responsiveness of local governments, just 44.2% feel this way about provincial governments, and just 43.6% say this about the federal government.

With Nepal now reeling from a second wave of Covid-19, local governments have been thrust to the fore in mobilizing resources, relief, and recovery, and Nepalis are more willing to lean on local governments for services to meet their pandemic needs, as reflected in the SNP.

Nepal’s federal restructuring cannot be analyzed or understood in one, simplistic narrative, but A Survey of the Nepali People offers valuable insights into the federal system’s performance and responsiveness to people’s needs and priorities in many important dimensions. It is four years since those first local elections, a good time to pause and take stock. The SNP helps identify some of the salient themes of these first years of federalism; it provides hard data for the development and improvement of government programs and policies; and it suggests that Nepal’s nascent federalism has already begun to bear fruit.

For more information, please read the full report here.

Data visualizations from the entire SNP survey collection are available here

Originally published on asiafoundation.org. Sanju G.C. is a (former) monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning associate with The Asia Foundation in Nepal. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.