Moving beyond transparency to accountability in Nepal
How one civil society organization is using the right to information to champion open budgets
Championing better access to information comes naturally for Taranath Dahal. The chief executive of Freedom Forum, a leading civil society organization in Nepal working on government accountability, Dahal has been involved in social activism for decades. As a journalist across print, radio, and television since 1988, he knows firsthand the power of narrative to affect deep social change. Dahal and a handful of colleagues translated that knowledge into action in 2005 when they founded Freedom Forum. “Liberal democracy, the right to information, and free media is my main mission in life. Promoting transparent, accountable, and effective democratic governance is my vision,” Dahal said.
The organization’s work has been anything but easy. Nepal’s score of 41 on IBP’s 2019 Open Budget Survey places it among South Asia’s least transparent countries. Yet the country was an early adopter of right to information (RTI) legislation, first recognizing it in the 1990 constitution and then formally enacting RTI laws in 2007. This was a memorable moment for Dahal and Freedom Forum, as they were one of the main campaigners on the issue. Nevertheless, moving from the law to transparency in practice has been an ongoing battle.
Fighting for the right to information
Chief among the budget challenges in Nepal is securing high-quality budget data from the government, which is why Freedom Forum’s primary work concerns campaigning for the right to information. While Nepal has strong local, provincial, and federal governments, this can be a double-edged sword because civil society groups have multiple channels through which to direct their requests but also more levels of government from which to secure information. Nepal has 761 different units of government, 753 of which are local. “The Central Bank of Nepal has improved the quality and accessibility of data it gathers but other parts of government still do not produce good data,” Krishna Sapkota, policy adviser to Freedom Forum, explained.
The connection between RTI and public finance is a strong one. According to Dahal, RTI is a key part in creating transparent and participatory public finance and can contribute significantly to exposing and reducing corruption and misuse of public resources. “If a country has no RTI laws, we cannot achieve the goals of open budgets and open government,” he said. “Such laws are also necessary to ensure the public has access to the data and information needed to be informed and active citizens.”
But the success of the RTI laws was short lived, as Dahal and his team quickly realized that RTI alone is not enough to ensure government accountability and transparency. Nepal’s complex government system makes it hard for people to access the information they need to follow the money and ensure it reaches those who need it most. Information on paper is simply not enough in Nepal.
So, Freedom Forum turned to the media; a sector Dahal knew well. Through collaboration with media organizations, Freedom Forum realized that collective work and training was the best way to push for accountability and achieve results. What began as RTI requests transformed into a plan to build up reform allies who could shine a spotlight on the information and ensure follow through, including the media and oversight actors like the public accounts committee and national audit office.
The plan has proven successful, especially with media partners. As part of its efforts to increase RTI, Freedom Forum has worked closely with journalists to uncover stories. The organization’s strategy for generating media stories from RTI requests is to act as an intermediary. Freedom Forum handles the RTI requests and analysis, and then works with media organizations to get the story out to the public.
Building civil society’s budget advocacy skills
Dahal also knew they needed more groups to join and sustain efforts to fight for accountability. Globally, including in Nepal, few people understand how budgets work, yet this is key when asking the government the right questions and using that information to hold authorities accountable. To bolster understanding of public finance among civil society, members of Freedom Forum participated in 10 weeks of budget training with IBP to create a cohort of 35 robust accountability actors from 20 civil society groups who use budgets in their advocacy work. Sapkota, the organization’s policy advisor, was a co-facilitator of the capacity building and training.1
“Our primary challenge is human resources,” said Sapkota. “There are a limited number of people in the country who understand budget processes. Through our work on the Open Budget Survey and the budget trainings, IBP has helped us build local capacity and increase our resources for civil society organizations. The Open Budget Survey, in particular, has provided us with a framework to expand our advocacy on budget accountability,” Sapkota said.
COVID-19 changes the narrative
Throughout the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the challenge of governments mismanaging vital public funds. These dynamics were on clear display in Nepal, where the government formulated and executed COVID-19 fiscal and policy responses with virtually no citizen participation. This challenge, however, also emboldened the growing movement of groups seeking more open and accountable budget practices in Nepal, including Freedom Forum.
In June 2020, a group of youth activists launched the Enough is Enough movement and took to the streets with non-violent protests demanding spending information and accountability from the government in its handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The grassroots movement quickly galvanized public opinion using social media platforms to rally large numbers of people in demands for public accountability. More than 200,000 people joined the group’s Facebook page.
Enough is Enough and its supporters leveled allegations at the government of irregularities around COVID procurement. The pressure resulted in the government agreeing to disclose the requested details and launching an investigation into the mismanagement of funds. The parliamentary public accounts committee opened a formal investigation into potential corruption over allegations that government officials procured essential medicines and health products at inflated prices, taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee set out to check mismanagement and fiduciary risks and to safeguard against irregularities going forward.
The PAC set up a subcommittee to take on the case and the PAC then wrote to the Ministry of Health and Population to ask for clarity on the process by which a specific controversial procurement contract awarded to Omni Business Corporate International had been handled, including available documentation. The PAC encountered some obstacles in the form of limited information provided by the Ministry of Health and Population (some relevant documents intentionally failed to reach the PAC), but allies from the media were able to collect the documents from informal sources and share them with the PAC Secretariat. The PAC found that even though the Minister of Health and higher-ranking officials had been assigned the power to purchase, they had not been involved in the process. Instead, the chief advisor to the minister had negotiated and authorized the purchase, which was against protocol. The PAC also investigated whether the quote for the goods had been acceptable, which they concluded was not the case. A preliminary report by the committee implicated Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal and chief advisor Dr Khem Karki in irregularities in the procurement process. This investigation is now in the courts and the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority will issue recommendations to the PAC when a verdict has been reached.
To date, the PAC’s investigation has resulted in a recommendation to the Ministry of Health and Population (and the government in general) that if a fast-track procurement process is to be used, a minimum set of rules and procedures must be followed to ensure that the quality of goods is assured and prices are not inflated. The committee has ordered the same ministry to immediately correct its procedure to ensure competition among prospective suppliers. The PAC has given direction to the PPMO to strictly adhere to the procurement act and regulations when goods are purchased during emergencies. Meanwhile, a report by the office of the auditor general, “Special Audit Report on Covid-19 Management”, was published in August 2021. It confirmed the PAC’s findings of irregularities in the procurement procedures in relation to the contract awarded to Omni Business Corporate International.
“Enough is Enough was a landmark moment for civil society because it showed that citizens can make demands of the government and be heard,” Dahal said. This moment is an example of the positive results that can be achieved when civil society, the media, supreme audit institutions, and public accounts committees work together to hold governments accountable for their promises.
Buoyed by success
Enough is Enough demonstrated the power of civil society organizations to create change, and Freedom Forum’s legacy paved the way for that to happen. Perhaps for that reason, Sapkota speaks of a “mood of opportunity” in Nepal and remains optimistic that Freedom Forum will continue to teach new generations of civil society actors how to constructively engage with government, demand better data reporting, and ensure that public funds are spent in the most equitable way possible.
For his part, Dahal is optimistic when he speaks about the future. The emerging partnership between the media, civil society groups, and oversight actors is playing a role in holding the government to account in Nepal. As more people become involved, a deeper understanding of budget information can be leveraged to drive change.
- Since 2020, IBP has worked with Freedom Forum through the Collaborating for Open and Accountable Budgets initiative, which aims to strengthen the capacity of civil society groups to actively engage in budget processes and advocacy to build the conditions for transparent, inclusive, and accountable public budgeting.
Image 1: Freedom Forum Chief Executive Taranath Dahal is awarded the ‘Shashtika Basnet Right To Information National Award’ in recognition of his contribution to the promotion, practice, and protection of the right to information in Nepal, on 31 March 2019. Freedom Forum
Image 2: Freedom Forum chief executive Taranath Dahal meets with Than Prasad Pangyani, coordinator of the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability program, to formally hand over the National Strategy & Action Plan for Citizen Engagement in Public Financial Management in Nepal, in Anamnagar on 6 March 2022. Freedom Forum
Image 5: Minister of Health Bhanubhakta Dhakal. Twitter