Civil society, donors have 'mixed feelings' on Nepal's new constitution

Nepalese President Ram Baran Yadav (right). The country has adopted a new constitution that aims to be inclusive in all areas. Photo by: Ingmar Zahorsky / CC BY-NC-ND

For most policymakers and government officials involved in the drafting of a new constitution, last week’s promulgation by Nepalese President Ram Baran Yadav of the state document must feel like a long-awaited victory.

To some extent, this is true. The signing of the document concludes a seven-year process that, in one way or another, divided opinions and sentiments throughout the South Asian nation, including years of bitter civil conflict that killed hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Nepalese civilians fighting for their rights.

But while those involved in the creation of the country’s new constitution have breathed a collective sigh of relief, some civil society activists admit they harbor “mixed feelings” about the way Nepal’s new constitution was fleshed out with the idea of “inclusiveness” as a central tenet, despite cries of marginalization of some ethnic groups ringing loud on the fringes of the country’s development discourse.

“Across the country, it is a mixed feeling regarding the constitution. On [the] one hand, for many, it was a long wait and finally the moment … has come to fruition and it's real,” Rajendra Mulmi, chairperson of the Association of International NGOs in Nepal, told Devex. “However, there was also a feeling the constitutional process, especially towards its end was not able to accommodate the voices of the unsatisfied groups.”

Some of these “unsatisfied groups” include the ethnic population of the Madhes and Tharu peoples in the southern part of Nepal. Both groups comprise roughly a quarter of the South Asian nation’s population.

Mulmi, who also serves as the country director of Washington, D.C.-based group Search for Common Ground, shared that “it seemed the constitution was not able to accommodate their demands.”

“Constitution writing is never an easy process as it represents the foundations of a state,” Maja Kocijancic, European Union spokesman for foreign affairs and security policy, told Devex. “This process naturally requires time, inclusiveness and necessary compromises. Inclusiveness … means that the positions of minorities are addressed.”

Some of these positions include the Madhes and Tharu people's demand to base the determination of parliament representation on population number which, according to Nepalese Supreme Court advocate Hari Phuyal in his article in The Diplomat, have fallen on deaf ears. Other provisions that have earned the ire of these ethnic groups also include the segmentation of the whole country into seven distinct provinces in a more federal form of government.

Other issues also include the vague provision on the fundamentality of human rights, particularly of women, viewed by many observers as second class citizens in the predominantly patriarchal South Asian nation. Mulmi lamented this, saying that the constitution has failed to uphold equal rights for women, including on issues surrounding citizenship, and hoped the prevailing sentiment would not be one of exclusion that had fueled the civil conflicts of the past.

Taking part in the reconstruction

It is no secret for local civil society actors, international donors and even government officials that one of the silver linings of the devastating earthquakes in Nepal in April and May is that it gathered stakeholders and focused minds on the needs of the country.

Mulmi believed that had the temblor not struck “the promulgation of the constitution would not have happened in this space,” explaining that “what the earthquake did was it got all the leaders from different parties together, to share the responsibility and there was this collective effort that was needed to rebuild the country.”

Donors including the European Union share this sentiment, with spokesman Kocijancic explaining “that the shock of the devastating earthquakes … brought the Nepalese people together and provided crucial momentum in the adoption of the constitution.” One caveat for the EU spokesperson, however, was the hope that the efforts of stakeholders — including their own — did not lose steam, with considerable work still to be done to expedite the country’s rehabilitation and reconstruction following the disaster.

Foreign aid forms a major part of the country’s budget, even more so following the devastating earthquakes — comprising around 22 percent of the national coffers in 2014. The EU is contributing an additional support package of about 105 million euros ($117 million) for the country’s reconstruction after the earthquake, in addition to its initial six-year pledge of around 360 million euros from 2014 to 2020. Other institutions that have previously committed funding include the World Bank with $500 million in low-interest loans and the Asian Development Bank with a $600 million pledge.

Mulmi shared, however, that while foreign donors’ generosity is vital to Nepal’s development progress, there also has to be a level of respect from the donors in terms of streamlining programs that goes hand in hand with the government’s plans and priorities.

“The government wants the NGOs and [international groups] to streamline their work and contribute in the areas that are national needs and priorities deemed necessary by the government,” he said.

Part of this effort includes the adoption of a “one-door policy” in the wake of the reconstruction efforts, which establishes a unified agency where local and international groups can coordinate to work effectively and efficiently on the ground while endorsing engagement and management in a bid to make these groups accountable and transparent.

What do you think about the Nepal’s new constitution and the concerns of several stakeholders? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.