Nepal is going through a period of great transition as it adjusts to a new reality with a Maoist government at the helm after years of brutal conflict. There are many challenges ahead for the country’s institutions and its people including drafting a new constitution, reintegrating ex-combatants and building the capacity of the state to govern.
Improving ordinary people’s security will be vital to ensuring that the peace holds and sustainable development takes root to most effectively lift people out of poverty. But doing this successfully will require addressing the real needs of ordinary Nepalis across the country. With the UK being the leading donor of development assistance to help reform Nepal’s security sector, it is well placed to play a leading role in supporting Nepal fulfill this ambition.
The findings of a recent Saferworld/Interdisciplinary Analysts survey of public perceptions of safety and security in Nepal were presented at a meeting in London (on Jan. 14) chaired by Mark Lancaster, Secretary, All-Party Group on Nepal. The results of the survey will be analyzed before looking at what the UK can do to most effectively support peace, security and sustainable development in the country.
The survey of over 3,000 people across Nepal found that the number of people who think the country is “heading in the right direction” has dropped by 20 percent from 2007. People feel the police and security services are making efforts to improve the country’s situation but crime and social unrest are hindering economic development. There was concern that weak management of the border with India was facilitating the trafficking of people, drugs and weapons. Insecurity was particularly high in the southern Terai region where people are more afraid of crime and are more likely to think both that the government is going in the wrong direction and that it is not making any effort to make the country peaceful.
Several of those questioned noted that the successful Constituent Assembly elections in April 2008 represented a step forward. Since the elections were largely peaceful and there was an unexpectedly strong showing of the Maoists it was felt that a return to full-blown conflict is currently unlikely. However, the optimism that was noticeable in a survey in 2007 appears to be dissipating with people becoming less patient and keen to see more tangible improvements in their security.
Sudhindra Sharma, director of Interdisciplinary Analysts which conducted the survey, said: “Poverty and poor governance are key areas of concern. Unemployment is particularly high because many industries are having to close down because of a shortage of electricity.” He suggested that the provision of power plants should be put on the international agenda.
On tourism, Mr. Sharma noted that those visiting urban areas such as Kathmandu and Pokhra should be prepared for power cuts. However, since many tourists to Nepal are mainly there for trekking he didn’t think they would suffer too much from the shortage of electricity.
Another setback to the tourism, according to Mr. Sharma is the frequency of strikes by hotel workers and others in the sector demanding higher wages. He maintains that the government should put a lid on the activities of the unions if it doesn’t want vital tourism revenue to be affected. It seems ironic that Maoists who traditionally backed the unions should now be urged to clamp down on them.
Others who have worked in Nepal said a lack of roads and general infrastructure was adding to pent-up anger and frustration and the recurring strikes and other forms of industrial action were not helping the economy to grow.
On the positive side, the representative of the British government’s Department for International Development observed that the Maoist government had made progress in areas such as education and health and were making services available to people who had been excluded in the past. Women were also playing a more prominent role in public life. There were 191 women in the 601-member constituent assembly placing them in a position to have a huge effect in shaping the future of the country.
There was a general sense that the Maoist government was good at saying the right things but failing to follow through with actions. DFID’s approach is to maintain good relations with all sides despite some frustration at the slow pace of change. In the past couple of months conditions have become more tense and fragile. UK strategy will be to identify areas in which the government in Nepal could do with support to bring stability to the country, help make sure it gets things right and be prepared to exert pressure when it’s thought to be taking a wrong turn.