What Nepal can teach us about social accountability

Nepal’s developmental success is perhaps one that is not told nor known enough. The country has seen primary school enrollment rates rising with gender parity, while child mortality rates have been declining. In 2010 Nepal received the Millennium Development Goal Award for reducing its maternal mortality ratio.

Social accountability refers to the actions taken by citizens and civil society organizations to hold governments accountable for the commitments they have made to realising the rights of their citizens and improving their lives.

Nepal also has extraordinary foundations for social accountability: quite progressive legislation; moves toward devolved power; and massive community networks despite formidable physical barriers. There are over 15,000 Child Clubs; over 1,000 village-based women’s committees actively addressing violence against women and children; over 50,000 Female Community Health Volunteers; thousands of community-based School, Health Facility and Water Supply Management Committees; and hundreds of thousands of social mobilizers. In addition there has been a proliferation of governance structures at all levels of government which, at least on paper, have provided space for children’s participation in local decision making.

But the after-effects of a debilitating civil conflict (1996-2006) continue to push Nepal’s politics along a fragile path. UNICEF’s recent analysis shows that two thirds of children are still deprived of basic needs and new poverty traps are developing, particularly in urban areas. Limited economic opportunity has increased migration, especially by men, in turn dismantling household structures, overburdening girls and women. The gap between the richest and the poorest remains among the highest in Asia and the effects of progress have not been distributed evenly across society.

The concept of social accountability is relevant to all of this because such initiatives – especially those with and for children – can help to extend services that make rights a reality (healthcare, education, etc.) to the children and families who may be excluded. A focus on social accountability is therefore crucial, if an inequitable country like Nepal is to progress further. Nepal’s social accountability for and with children is showing potential but there is plenty of room to improve.

I’d like to share three lessons based on UNICEF Nepal’s work which provide some insights into what is needed to advance social accountability:

Lesson number 1: Legislation can be a crucial entry point. In 1999, the Government legislated for decentralized governance through the Local Self-Governance Act 1999. Building on the strong foundation of civic engagement through the plethora of community networks, this legislative platform was an important window to advance social accountability. UNICEF seized the opportunity and, working with communities and government authorities, developed a national framework for Child-Friendly Local Governance which now guides how children can be placed at the centre of local planning and budgeting throughout the country.

Lesson 2: Given the many challenges confronting young people in Nepal, we are focusing government and civil society’s attention on the need to invest in adolescent girls and boys, including their expressed need for civic engagement and sustainable socio-economic integration. Constructive engagement of media, businesses, families and communities is vital also. Thousands of Bal Bhelas or children’s consultations are now occurring during local government annual planning processes. But we must promote constant attention to elite capture where the most disadvantaged children are not represented and to ethical participation and security issues, where children are exposed to the risks of reaction against their views.

Lesson 3: Engagement of political parties at all levels continues to be fundamental, especially at a time of tremendous flux in Nepal’s political landscape with currently no Parliament, no Constitution, and no local elections for over 10 years. We took a strategic decision to engage three Local Body Associations (LBAs) to be the capacity builders on child-centred social accountability with local government bodies. The LBAs have influential ex-political leaders as members and the legal mandate to develop the capacity of administrative structures.

Nepal's development success is not very well-known, but the country has made great strides in improving the lives of women and children.
Nepal’s development success is not very well-known, but the country has made great strides in improving the lives of women and children. © UNICEF/2012/Noorani

UNICEF, in collaboration with the UK National Committee for UNICEF, convened a two-day workshop in London on 3-4 March 2014, bringing together social accountability researchers, practitioners and child rights experts to discuss how civil society engagement can help accelerate results for children by holding governments accountable. UNICEF Nepal’s effort to advance social accountability with and for children was one of the initiatives profiled at the meeting.

Will Parks is the Deputy Representative of UNICEF Nepal. Before joining UNICEF in early 2007, Dr Parks held the roles of Strategic Communication Adviser to UNICEF and WHO, Public Health Adviser to the Ministries of Health in Samoa and Fiji, and Technical Officer in Strategic Communication with WHO in Geneva. Dr Parks holds a Doctorate from the University of Queensland, a Master of Arts from the University of Durham, and a Bachelors from the University of Southampton.

References: National Planning Commission, UNICEF and New Era (2010) Child Poverty and Disparities in Nepal: Towards escaping the cycle of poverty; UNDP (2013) The 2013 Human Development Report. The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World; UNDP (2011) The 2011 Human Development Report. Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All.

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