South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Nepal needs to develop strategies, plans, and programmes to make optimum use of its own natural resources and thus avoid so much dependency on foreign aid. To bring about a lasting solution to the country’s problems, the connections between poverty, poor governance, and marginalization need to be carefully and urgently addressed.

Dr. Gyan Basnet

Development implies an intention to free people from overarching dependency and to replace it with self-reliance. But in contrast, it is a well-known fact that the debt repayment obligation of many developing countries has exceeded by far their ability to pay, and most of these countries have high poverty rates and face many serious social, economic, and political problems. Nepal is a country that has a huge foreign debt burden, and its total budget for development is dependent on the foreign aid, loans and the goodwill of donor bodies. Every year the dependency increases. So its people are caught in a poverty trap and, despite 40 years of planning and development effort, 45 per cent of its population today have an income of less than one US dollar a day. Poverty reduction should be the overarching goal of development, but Nepal’s efforts in that direction over the past five decades have failed to improve living standards. Despite promises made in constitutional, legal and institutional documents to provide the basic economic and social rights for citizens to be able to live in dignity, the majority of Nepalese people still do not have access to adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care or employment. This results from the failure of past development policies and plans to identify the root causes of poverty – primarily inequality, social exclusion and discrimination. The poorest are unable to benefit from a socially just distribution of income or from any active participation in the development process. Nepal needs to develop strategies, plans, and programmes to make optimum use of its own natural resources and thus avoid so much dependency on foreign aid. To bring about a lasting solution to the country’s problems, the connections between poverty, poor governance, and marginalization need to be carefully and urgently addressed. Development and poverty reduction programmes should demand improved public action to ensure civil service efficiency and accountability, reduce corruption and leakages, and accelerate decentralization as a means of achieving better delivery of services and greater community participation. A new agenda for development must incorporate measures to counter the denial of rights caused by poverty, corruption and unequal distribution of resources.

United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development 1986 (RTD) states: ‘The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural, and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.’ This definition of the RTD has a number of implications. First, economic development should be regarded as part only of the wider concept of development that incorporates the full range of human rights. Secondly, it establishes that there is an inalienable human right, the ‘right to development’, that cannot be taken or bargained away. Thirdly, there is a particular process of ‘economic, social, and cultural and political development’, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized. Finally, the right to development is a human right by virtue of which ‘every human person and all people are entitled to ‘participate in, contribute to and enjoy’ the very process of development. When these concepts are converted into practical policies and programmes that conform to and facilitate human rights and recognise that development is a right of the people of the country, then the ‘right to development’ can be said to be being realised. The right concentrates the development process around broad participation, empowerment of the poor, and the distribution of resources to all without discrimination. If its norms can be firmly embraced at the core of Nepal’s development programme and policy formulation it can revolutionise the country’s whole development approach.

Nepal has never yet explicitly mentioned the RTD in its institutional, legal or constitutional frameworks. Currently a constitution-making process is underway with the aim of giving the country a new dynamic constitution. Recognising the RTD as a fundamental right within the Constitution would have a number of implications. Its implementation, whether alone or in conjunction with all other human rights, would have to be effected in a ‘rights-based manner’, i.e. a participatory, accountable and transparent process with equity in decision-making and in the sharing of the fruits of the processes while maintaining respect for civil and political rights. The manner of its implementation would be as important as the result. Improvement could not be imposed from above: ordinary people would have to be involved in the decision-making. Moreover, the aims of the development should be viewed as claims or entitlements of right-holders, and they should be promoted by duty-bearers in line with international human rights’ standards of equity and justice. These standards reflect the very essence of human rights and are based on the concept of individual equality, fairness, and a just society. As Nepal is in political transition via a peace process and the formulation of a future constitution, it should now explicitly guarantee the RTD to its people as a fundamental right. Inclusion within the Constitution of socio-economic rights on the same basis as civil and political rights would facilitate a focus on social policy aimed at building the capacity of the poor and the marginalized in the population to become active participants in the development process. Nepal should devise strong legal mechanisms and policy formulations to ensure that the political and constitutional aspirations of RTD are achieved in practice. Laws and regulations should be used as weapons to achieve goals and to make clear the demarcation between duty-bearers and rights-holders, programme-by-programme and level-by-level from national down to the grassroots.

Despite constitutional, legal and institutional commitments, transparency and accountability in Nepalese governance are totally lacking. Corruption in developing countries reveals itself in the failure of institutions with responsibility for governance. As Professor Yash Ghai has pointed out: ‘power without defined goals and acceptable problems – and appropriate and effective accountability – (can) subvert the very purpose and aspirations of the people. Corruption negates the rights of the poor, depriving them of their right to participate and denying them access to economic and social welfare.’ Furthermore, inefficiency in enforcing legal norms and development policies and programmes in a realistic and practical manner, together with a narrow base of civil power at the grassroots level, have prevented the nourishment of an agenda of empowerment and led to a failure to achieve the fruits of development in the form of reduced poverty. An atmosphere of disrespect for the law ensues, and democracy fails to function. Corruption in Nepal is rampant: it is institutionalized at all levels of governance, and the political culture has remained largely unchanged even after the democratic innovations. Political instability caused by frequent changes in government has prevented the emergence of stable and durable long-term development policies. Nepal must therefore adopt long-term pro-poor policies, and it needs to establish proper mechanisms for checks and balances in governance. To realize the RTD would entail genuinely active participation by people at all levels of society. To bring about such participation, Nepal should first set firm goals and focus on target groups, giving special attention to the disadvantaged. Policies should aim for economic, social, cultural, and political growth that will benefit all, especially the disadvantaged and vulnerable. The views of the public, including those of special and organized groups, need to be sought, analysed, assessed, and incorporated into the planning. The aim must be to formulate development policies, set distinct goals, and empower people to participate and to mobilize themselves in various capacities in the development process – moreover, to enable them to make specific claims on that process in order to realize their rights.

The RTD is a comprehensive process, going beyond economics to cover social, cultural and political fields, and it is described as a vector of different elements comprising, for example, income, employment, health, education and opportunities in general including all forms of freedom. Thus, the RTD is a combination of rights that are dependent on each other and that, with a growing gross domestic product and backed by better financial, technical and institutional support, lead to an improvement in the population’s well-being and a sustained realization of those rights. The RTD sets a visionary agenda and is unique in its ambition and scope. It demands an enabling environment with guaranteed assurance of good and effective governance. The state must first have a government that is accountable, that acts against corruption, that ensures human rights are respected, and that provides access to social justice. Such good governance will encourage self-correction and enhance the quality and effectiveness of public policy-making. Moreover, if the norms of the RTD can be integrated into all levels and layers of development, and pro-poor policies granted a broad political, legal, and institutional commitment, the right, as an amalgam of all human rights and a foundation for social justice, will prove to be a powerful weapon for mass re-construction and immense social transformation in our country.

(Basnet, a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law, is an advocate at the Supreme Court of Nepal. He can be reached at: [email protected])