Local Governance Fellowships Empower Change in Nepal

Published on December 6, 2023

By Pallavi Payal and Dhrubaraj BK

Young women from The Asia Foundation’s local governance fellowships program in Nepal. (Photo: Krita Raut / The Asia Foundation)

Since the adoption of its post-civil-war constitution in 2015, which mandated government decentralization, Nepal has been engaged in a bold, nationwide experiment in local governance. In villages and municipalities, now called upon to govern themselves for the first time, many of the skills required for effective local government—including legislating, policymaking, and delivering public services—are still unfamiliar. Aspects of Nepali society and culture such as the traditional place of women and historically marginalized groups, also pose challenges for democratic local self-rule.

Since 2021, The Asia Foundation’s Subnational Governance Program (SNGP), through its strategic partnership with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), has been offering fellowships to women from marginalized communities that place them in positions with urban, municipal governments. This pioneering program is designed to equip the fellows with in-depth, practical understanding of local government’s core functions, foster leadership and professionalism, and build human capital in marginalized communities for democratic participation and engagement.

The SNG Program’s overall objective is to create the conditions for stable, effective, and inclusive subnational governance that addresses the health and economic security of all, including women, people with disabilities, and marginalized groups. By providing targeted support and opportunities to these underserved communities, the program hopes to democratize access to governance and decision-making roles.

Ram Kumari Mandal, a member of SNGP’s first cohort of fellows, is the first woman of the Dalit caste in Mithila Municipality to have completed a higher education, and an inspiration for other young women in her community to pursue higher studies and build independent careers. “Participating in the fellowship,” she says, “has helped me to solidify my commitment to enter the civil service and acquire the knowledge required to pursue this goal.”

Ram Kumari from the first SNGP cohort making a presentation to the team. (Photo: Pallavi Payal / The Asia Foundation)

A central feature of the SNGP fellowships is the placement of participants in their own municipalities. This arrangement allows them to develop an insider’s familiarity with their own local governments. By engaging in day-to-day municipal functions, the fellows learn the ins and outs of the daily business of governing—service delivery, policymaking, judicial committees, and the budget and planning process.

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“Previously, I harbored fear towards government officials, and I disliked visiting any government offices. However, my time [as a fellow] at the ward office has been enlightening, and I no longer feel intimidated by government officials,” reported Krishna Gaha Magar, a fellow from Birendranagar Municipality, during a discussion with the SNGP team after working with constituents to secure services in her ward office.

In addition to practical experience, the SNG Program emphasizes theoretical understanding and critical thinking. Online discussions organized by the program examine various aspects of governance, law, social justice, and development. This combination of theoretical and practical knowledge, as Amrita BK from Bhimeswor Municipality told us upon completing her fellowship, builds understanding, confidence, and empowerment—perhaps the biggest takeaways from the program.

Salina GT from the second SNGP cohort working at the municipal service delivery desk. (Photo: Salina GT / The Asia Foundation)

Because the fellows are drawn from economically disadvantaged and marginalized communities, the fellowships include a stipend for travel and communication expenses. “For some of us, it marked the first time we felt economically empowered,” said Ram Kumari Mandal. “I even saved some money to study for the civil service examination.” While this was not a planned objective, the stipend illustrates the empowering aspects of the program.

By empowering women from marginalized communities like Ram Kumari, Krishna, and Amrita, the SNG Program is addressing the underrepresentation of these groups in Nepal’s still-young municipal governments. The fellows go on to become advocates for inclusivity and diversity, working to create a government that truly reflects the diverse voices of the population.

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The SNGP’s local fellowships are not just changing the trajectories of individual lives, but also shaping the future of democratic local governance in Nepal. Some of the fellows from the first cohort are now employed at NGOs working in the governance field, while others are studying to enter the civil service. Two individuals from the second cohort are now employed by their municipalities.

SNGP Fellow Merina Toppo working in the ward office. (Photo: Merina Toppo)

Another fellow from the second cohort, Merina, who hails from the marginalized Uraw community, used her assignment in a municipal ward office to help community members get better access to local government services. “The people from my community do not have access to local government. Most are unaware of the services provided there. Most do not have citizenship cards either. I have been able to facilitate their access to the municipality to obtain citizenship cards and other services,” said Merina.

By fostering inclusivity, breaking barriers, and nurturing a new generation of critical thinkers, the local government fellowship program is contributing to a more equitable Nepali society in which the voices of multiple communities are heard. As the fellows go on to pursue their professional paths, they take with them a better understanding of their communities and a commitment to making a difference. The Foundation’s SNGP is set to run until 2025 and has just welcomed a third cohort of fellows.

In this short video, fellows from the first SNGP cohort reflect on their experience.

Originally published on asiafoundation.org. Pallavi Payal is a senior program officer and Dhrubaraj BK is a program officer with The Asia Foundation’s Subnational Governance Program (SNGP), which is a part of the Australian government’s strategic partnership in Nepal. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.