Nepal: How Good Governance Starts

By Elizabeth Pond

Nepali farmer Krishna Prasad Tripathi had a grievance. His neighbor's bamboo plantation grew to a height that shaded Tripathi's rice paddy and reduced his subsistence harvest. Tripathi said that Prawin, a pseudonym, should cut down the offending trees. Prawin refused. So Tripathi appealed to his local dispute-resolution panel, and he, Prawin, and the Village Development Committee each selected one of the certified mediators on the district roster to hear out the antagonists.

First, according to the set rules, Tripathi told his side of the argument, in mandatory polite language. Prawin was not allowed to interrupt. Then Prawin told his side; Tripathi was not allowed to interrupt. As usual in the dignified atmosphere established by the mediators, the two disputants were controlled did not shout at each other. 

After the facilitators visited the contested site together with Tripathi and Prawin to evaluate the situation first-hand, chief facilitator Lal Bahadur Gayak requested the adversaries to think through and state clearly what their core interests—not their maximal wishes—were. Stressing that the mediators were neither judges nor lawyers, he then asked the two men to suggest solutions themselves that might meet their interests.

After winnowing the options, the two reached a settlement: Prawin  would trim branches that hung over Tripathi's land by a specified date, under the observation of facilitators, but would not have to fell entire trees. The two parties signed the agreement, as recorded by the mediators, and shook hands. The facilitators then destroyed any notes they had taken during the confidential hearing and preserved only the record of the final pact, though a video summary of the case is available. All this took only a couple of hours.  

This is how the hugely successful village peacemaking movement works in Nepal. In the years since the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation launched its Community Mediation Program in 2002, the project has midwifed settlement in 80 percent of cases brought to it. And follow-up checks show that 93 percent of the 18,000 agreements reached so far have been implemented to mutual satisfaction, largely because the disputants themselves design their bargains and therefore "own" them. These accords—usually over land, insults, unrecorded monetary loans, or family quarrels—have on occasion reconciled brothers who had been estranged for decades. And they are far more gratifying than the alternative of an angry default cycle of grudges, revenge, and recurring feuds.

The achievement is quiet—and potentially transforming. It stands in stark counterpoint to all the negative "lessons learned" that are being dissected in myriad seminars these days about what went wrong with Western intervention in Afghanistan. It is not only making a more level playing ground and providing more equity for marginalized segments of society. It is also challenging peasant submission to hierarchy or fate. It is promoting democracy's precursor of individual social participation, and it is stretching assisted dialogue beyond emotion to more rational analysis as a basis for fair compromise.

As this is not yet rule of law, and as it does not take on criminal cases, it provides no recourse, say, for battered wives. But it does offer practical access to common-sense justice, in what would correspond to civil claims under Western legal systems. And it is even beginning to deal with milder forms of marital violence; in such cases it typically enlists a couple's children and extended family to help curb violence.

Within communities, the dispute-resolution movement is conferring new confidence on women mediators, who often discover an unknown talent for understanding and bridging two points of view. The movement—which last year was enshrined in law—is also empowering Dalits ("untouchables") like facilitator Gayak. In turn, Dalits' standing as conciliators is reassuring their own and other disadvantaged groups that they really can get a fair hearing in altercations. "With this program, society's view of people like me has changed," notes Gayak.

Far from alienating existing village leaders by bypassing them and eroding their authority, the conciliation program offers them pride of ownership. They gain prestige as they join the increasingly popular process and help it by providing modest funding, along with rooms or other dedicated space for dispute resolution. Their communities gain from improved caste, class, and gender relations. And all participants in the conciliation acquire an instinctive feel for social institutions that transcend personal patron-client relations.

This attainment is impressive for a land of scattered Himalayan valley kingdoms that was not unified until the Gurkhas conquered their hundred neighboring ethnicities in the late 18th century and most recently was ruled by a Nepali monarch until five years ago.

The Asia Foundation first modeled its mediation program on similar efforts in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Philippines and modified them to meet local customs, explains Country Representative George Varughese. At the time there was no good mechanism providing access to justice for the rural 80 percent of Nepal's population. Autonomous local government had been abolished a few years earlier. Urban courts were far away, expensive, slow, and intimidating. Traditional arbitration by a village headman had a built-in bias favoring the relatively richer and stronger side in any contest. And a society still in the midst of a decade-long civil war that would eventually claim 14,000 lives was more accustomed to decisions by guns than by cooperative justice.

The project began slowly, and it evolved through grass-roots experimentation and adaptation, recounts Preeti Thapa, one of Nepal's relatively few women lawyers and The Asia Foundation’s Senior Program Officer for Community Mediation, Conflict Transformation and Peace Building in Nepal. Relying on a good deal of role play, the foundation first trained a core of 70 trainers from 12 districts to go out, recruit facilitators from lists of candidates drawn up in local communities, and teach the basics of mediation. At first, in this patriarchal land, almost all of the candidates were men, and almost all came from the top castes.

The foundation insisted, however, that communities must "give special emphasis to marginalized groups like women and Dalits" among their nominees, and include such people as army veterans, female social and health workers, and schoolteachers on their lists. By now, more than a third of Nepal's 4500 certified mediators are women, and fewer than a half come from the highest castes.

Along the way there has been constant fine-tuning of the 8-day basic training of conciliators, periodic refresher days, and country-wide peer exchanges of experience. But the essence has remained the same. The neutral facilitators use a light touch. They do not propose their own solutions, but draw out compromises from disputants. They may ask questions for clarification. They may rephrase rambling points now and then to make them more focused. But above all, they listen carefully to what antagonists say and encourage them to listen to each other.

This approach makes the agreed settlements largely self-enforcing and self-perpetuating. "This is Nepali owned and Nepali driven," says Varughese.

Clearly the dispute-resolution program is good for peace and harmony in the rice terraces that cling to Nepal's steep mountain slopes. But can a change in the culture of dialogue trickle up to the national polity in a country that is only beginning to learn the politics of compromise for the greater public good?

Perhaps it can, judging from this month's surprise breakthrough agreement among Nepal's three main political parties—after three years of deadlock—on how to write the nation's post-monarchy constitution and reintegrate former Maoist rebels into civilian life. The agreement would have been impossible without growing flexibility, observance of some of the principles of conciliation, and, perhaps, a nascent culture of dialogue at the top.

That's how good governance starts.



Elizabeth Pond, an American journalist based in Berlin, is the author of The Rebirth of Europe and Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification.

[Photo courtesy of Ingmar Zahorsky]

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