Trust Deficit

Comment

Political Economy of Disaster

The following article was published on May 28, 2015 in Republica. Please click here to be directed to the original article.

‘Fundraising’ has been a common response to show empathy towards earthquake victims and therefore has come to be equated with ‘patriotism’, especially among Nepali communities overseas. A number of gatherings are happening across the world to generate funds for Nepal. However, donors are keen to know how the money is going to ‘reach’ the needy amidst the controversy around the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund (PMDRF). I would label the failure to make earthquake funds effective a product of diminishing public trust in governance. A number of factors are at play.

As a consequence of opening up of market and society after the introduction of democracy in 1990s, the Nepali government started to lose its control over major societal and economic activities. In other words, the dark sides of representative democracy have come to overshadow its brighter aspects. The regulatory capacity of government has been eroding by the day as even basic social services such as health and education have been left to private sector. The ball of advocacy and capacity building has been thrown firmly in the court of nongovernmental organizations. People have seen this shift in responsibility as the government’s incapability and, therefore, the PMDRF has also been increasingly questioned over the past few weeks.
 The ‘trust’ issue with PMDRF should be viewed alongside the ‘government’ vs ‘governance’ debate. Government is a product of politics and mainly refers to the executive in general and the head of government in particular. Gerry Stoker calls government a formal and institutional process that operates at the level of nation-state to maintain public order and facilitate collective action. In many countries including the UK, therefore, people understand the government as Blair or Cameron government. We also have a similar custom in Nepal. A slightly broader understanding of government covers the executive, the legislative and the judiciary.But governance is broader and takes into account networks, markets and partnerships as its integral elements. In contrast to government, it is a product of public administration. R.A.W. Rhodes defines governance as a change in the meaning of government, referring to a new process of governing, or a changed condition of ordered rule, or a new method by which the society is governed. In a broader sense, governance not only covers government but also deals with how the government interacts with other actors—such as the private and not-for-profit sectors in the society.As growing distrust has been expressed over the functioning of PMDRF, Nepali politicians have failed to explain the notion of governance to their electorate. Despite a severe democratic deficit in the country in the last 25 years, particularly at the local level, people have been relying on ‘governance’ rather than ‘government’. But we have not been able to measure people’s trust in government as compared to governance arrangements.

Geert Bouckaert has identified at least three clusters of trust: society’s trust in public sector; the public sector’s trust in society; and trust within the public sector. Recent discourse over the channelization of PMDRF suggests ‘distrust’ in all of these domains. Firstly, Nepali society—both domestic and diaspora—has increasingly expressed dissatisfaction over PMDRF because it regards the public sector as corrupt and inefficient. As an alternative, a lot of illegal routes have been utilized to provide relief funds.

Secondly, public sector itself does not fully trust many societal initiatives. From this perspective, government authorities believe that private and non-governmental initiatives always try to avoid or refuse ‘regulation’. An example of this kind of trust deficit is the government’s recent decision to use the banking system to apply additional controls over donated funds.

Thirdly, there has been a growing distrust in the public sector because of its own mechanisms and processes. Public authorities including senior civil servants constantly act against national rules and regulations. (Recently, a government Joint Secretary expressed mistrust of the governance system.) Coordination problems among governmental organizations in the aftermath of the earthquake, particularly between Nepal Army and Ministry of Home Affairs, have bred more distrust. Our heavy process orientation and Weberian bureaucracy are other examples of how public sector is itself fostering mistrust of governance.

However, some attempts have been made of late to increase trust in governance over the last few weeks. For example, Swarnim Wagle, a member of National Planning Commission, released a note on what is and is not PMDRF, so as to enhance public trust on utilization of earthquake funds; Rabindra Mishra, a journalist and nongovernmental activist, asserts that his charity organization, Help Nepal Network, will cover administrative costs in handling of earthquake relief by itself; another potent article by Amit Dhakal on setopati.com highlighted how belief in governance can foster patriotism; Sukhdev Shah, writing in Republica, also tried to explain ways to increase trust in governance.

Moreover, the chaos of earthquake has been seen as an opportunity to build our nation from ground up, by the likes of Baburam Bhattarai, a former premier. But first we need to reform our liberal policies by adding additional and tight regulatory provisions, to better regulate both the public and private sectors. The role of government has certainly increased in terms of providing services, but it also needs to expand its regulatory reach. A comprehensive public sector reform, therefore, is the need of the hour.

In the age of network, partnership and collaboration, the government actors should be fully aware of the potential of private sector and not-for-profit sector. Unless all of these sectors work together for a single objective, the cloud of mistrust will only grow darker. The PMDRF is again a case in point. But even the darkest cloud, they say, has a silver lining. That will be the case if the prevailing trust deficit can be used to bring about sweeping reforms in governance.

 

 

Deekshya Nakarmi

About Deekshya Nakarmi

Deekshya Nakarmi is Communications and Outreach Assistant at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation. She is a student of Development Studies.

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