The Good That Youth Do

Fostering a Culture of Active Democratic Participation in Nepal

Sarthak Bhattarai
Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal

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An activist writes “the Satyagraha Continues” on a pamphlet during the Hunger Strike at Patan Durbar Square. (Photo: Enough is Enough Campaign, August 2020.)

The Case of Enough is Enough Campaign

When a group of self-motivated Nepali youths started the Enough is Enough campaign on July 9th, 2020, they quickly began catching the attention of young Nepal, locked indoors during the Covid-19 pandemic induced national lockdowns, through viral posts and widespread digital support.

The campaign’s core team demanded the use of 100% PCR testing, opposing the less reliable RDT testing method employed popularly at the time, to determine the presence of the novel Coronavirus among the general population. Their demands also included provisions aiming to improve quarantine management operations, which experts believed were having the opposite of their intended effect as they became virus infection hotspots themselves due to unhygienic, crowded, and poorly managed isolation practices. Most notably, three of the campaigns leading figures started a hunger strike on July 22nd demanding their needs be met as soon as possible, which propelled the campaign’s popularity across digital domains reaching devices and communities throughout the country.

Today, Enough is Enough stands as a rare example of citizens coming together to demand action from the government in an environment of general apathy and mistrust in the authorities, not to mention — fear of the virus being at its peak at the time. The campaign was largely praised for its management by the public and a few key governmental personnel too.

In hindsight, it is rather interesting to reconcile the role of the Enough is Enough campaign in the larger narrative of the current state of civic engagement in Nepal. While the bulk of this kind of organization and engagement seemed monopolized by political cadres or formally registered civic society organizations in the past, this campaign stood alone in its success being led by an enthusiastic group of young citizens representing no institution but themselves and their cause. Leaders of the campaign maintained from the very beginning that the effort was born directly out of frustrations felt at the lack of expertise and scientific method in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Despite some controversies branching out from the movement since, this original agenda seems rather innocent and genuine even through today’s, many months ex-post. Equally strong a memory associated with the success of the campaign is the government’s apparent unwillingness to engage with the activists in its first few weeks. As Enough is Enough gained public support and media attention, the state did eventually take up initiative and signed an agreement on the demands set by the campaign, eventually stopping RDT testing.

Dr. Sameer Adhikari, joint spokesperson at the Ministry of Health and Population, who signed the agreement on the ministry’s behalf was quoted by the Kathmandu Post saying that they demands made by the youth activists were legitimate, and that they would help the ministry handle the pandemic in a more efficient manner. [1]

The Role of Civic Engagement in Macro-Policymaking

The example of Enough is Enough shows how a group of citizens voicing out concerns resonating among the general public can serve as wake-up calls for the government to make better decisions. Even if the delayed action can be attributed largely to intense media scrutiny and an incentive to save a falling reputation, the end-goal of achieving action was achieved, and by that metric, the campaign can be considered a success. However, the benefits of civic engagement mechanisms such as this one do not just contribute to policy making processes at the ground level. They also hold the power to influence decisions of larger scope — decisions that determine what the state does and how it looks from the outside. Researchers and authors Derick W. Brinkerhoff and Arthur A. Goldsmith suggest that the outcomes of civic engagement at the macro level can be expected to be very similar to those at the grassroots.[2]

Authors Khalid Malik and Swarnim Waglé posit in “Building Social Capital Through Civic Engagement” that states themselves acquire a measure of good-governance credibility when citizens can express and press for demands freely and legally. Furthermore, these engagements can also facilitate improvements in public service delivery methods and overall state capabilities through the transmission of information about the most pressing public problems directly to the relevant officials. Open discussion of policy goals and the overall process also ensures that concerns of the majority population are addressed instead of the interests of the small minority seated at the helm of power.

While civil society activism can undoubtedly help pressure governments to answers to the public, civic actions are most effective when the government treats them as its allies, rather than its enemies. Constructive state policy, deliberately designed to strengthen state-society ties, hold the power to enhance the role that civil society can play in the overall macro-real of governance activities. Unfortunately, circumstances on this front are not ideal in Nepal.

Walking Together

Citizen-led movements, while starting with seemingly strong momentum, are often seen fizzling out following a few bright spots in their early histories, either due to the absence of proper organization or due to direct backlash from both government as well as the general public. Organic movements, especially in the digital space, are often undermined as being unrepresentative of the sentiments of the general population, as terms such as ‘foreign-educated,’ ‘dollar-guzzling,’ and ‘elitist’ are used to disassociate the people from the cause at hand. However, the question is more of practice and culture, and a healthy attitude towards active participatory civic engagement can be fostered locally in communities through ward-level decisions and in individuals from a young age at educational institutions.

In the words of American philosopher and educator John Dewey, “Real problems, and not hypotheticals or academic exercises, are, always of real concern to students. Therefore, in addition to activities of writing and classroom discussion, typical of today’s public schools, students should engage in ‘active inquiry and careful deliberation in the significant and vital problems’ that confront their communities, however defined but especially their schools.”[3]

Creating a commonly accepted and subconsciously practiced culture of active democracy participation within schools will contribute to the preparation of future conscious citizens, ready to exercise their rights and voices in the larger political system. Such a culture can also foster a democratic environment where engagement and citizen roles can be understood by both public as well as government bodies and reflected in positive partnerships between state and society actors, perhaps the two most important roles students will play in determining the future of the government in their local, provincial, or national contexts.

Looking ahead, the current political landscape in the country is not very promising at first glance. While the nation’s political elite are keeping themselves busy in party break-ups, engaging in internal smear campaigns, and pushing for a drive to block all roads to an understanding (and perhaps fittingly, to most roads of the valley [4] itself), it seems that the general apathy observed towards citizen campaigns in Nepal will take a while to transform into a commonly accepted practice of active engagement. Still, there are signs pointing towards the right direction. If a youth-led, initially non-funded campaign like Enough is Enough was able to move the political needle in the unexpected and unprecedented context of the ongoing global pandemic, there may yet be hope for the future.

References

Malik, K., & Wagle, S. (2003). Building Social Capital Through Civic Engagement. In D. A. Rondinelli, & G. S. Cheema, Reinventing Government for the Twenty First- Century (pp. 143–161). Bloomfield: Kumarian Press.Inc.

Dewey, John, 2004 [1916]. Democracy and Education, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/civic-education/#CiviEducThroDisc

[1] Kathmandu Post, Aug 2020

[2] Malik and Wagle, 2003

[3] Dewey, 1910

[4] https://en.setopati.com/political/155097

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal and/or Centre for Social Change.

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