Mani Banjade and Basundhara Bhattarai
Public policies are probably the most contested domains in the society. Everyday, the media content is rife with one or another report on issues that are fundamentally of public concern – from COVID-19 response, overcoming malnutrition of children, women’s right to equal pay, to mitigating climate change impact.
For some time, we have been thinking about and experimenting with some methodologies through which policy discussions can be made more robust and consequential. Not to replace such contestations but to find way to embed these with some robust, substantive and inclusive dialogues informed by plural knowledges.
The two-part problem
There are two related issues where we see an improvement is needed. First, how science and policy can be linked better. While policy makers and the scientific community both are coming to recognize the need to improve the link between research and policy, realizing the link is still harder in practice. Scientists tend to start with a sense of curiosity while policy makers start from the problem of the public. It is good that this situation is changing – as scientists are looking at the problems of the public as matters of research, and policy makers are listening to the voice of science in addition to the voice of citizens they represent.
The second issue relates to internationally supported development practice in the developing world. We prioritise this issue much of the work around Sustainable Development Goals is related to this issue. It is also a truism that many public policies in the developing countries are created and changed through international development partnership. The problem here is the use of global narrative and universal templates, and not allowing local contexts and practice-based insights to be used in making and implementing public policies.
So how can these issues be overcome?
A Webinar featuring Nepalese experience
Over the past two decades, a number of methodological experiments have emerged in various sectors of development in Nepal to improve the link between practice, policy, and science. However, no systematic documentation and analysis of such efforts have been made yet so that lessons can be learnt.
In this context, a webinar on ‘Science-Policy-Practice in Development: Methodological Innovations from Nepal’ was organized by Institute for Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD) on 20 October 2020 in partnership with the following organisations:
- Institute for Global Development, University of New South Wales (UNSW/IGD),
- NITI Foundation Nepal
- ForestAction Nepal,
- Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies (SIAS), and
- NIMS College (Affiliated to Tribhuvan University), Lalitpur, Nepal.
The webinar brought together the experiences and insights from the processes, outcomes and insights from the Policy Lab and related methodologies applied in forest, water, security, and energy sectors in Nepal.
In this event, locally engaged research groups and innovative development practitioners shared their insights on a range of experiments they conducted in an effort to strengthen evidence–backed and inclusive multi-stakeholder processes in policy-making and implementation practices.
Moderated by Dr Hemant Ojha, IFSD, Australia, the panel included the following members:
- Dr Mani Banjade, NIMS College: Conceptual Challenges and Emerging approaches for integrating Science-Policy-Practice
- Dr Naya Sharma, ForestAction Nepal: Policy and Practice Lab methodology used in multi-level governance context of forestry in Nepal
- Ms Gyanu Maskey/Dil Khatri, SIAS, Nepal: City level water forums resolving water crisis and water governance issues in growing cities
- Mr Mohan Manandhar/Dr George Varughese, NITI Foundation: Deliberative deficits and the role of Policy Labs in Public policy making in Nepal
The Webinar featured three slightly different strategies of linking policy, practice and science:
- Researchers providing research inputs or research scholarship (less on direct involvement in policy drafting process but research and analysis offered to policy actors, who were directly involved in drafting of policy contents) (policy lab on forest policy) (Mainly the work of ForestAction Nepal)
- Researchers involved in defining and solving a practical problem, which required policies to respond to and working with local people and local governments in finding out a widely acceptable policy solution (Mainly the work of SIAS in municipal water governance).
- Inputs to policy reform: researchers took the role of policy brokering together with supporting reform process through legal analysis and research inputs (Mainly the work of NITI Foundation around energy and security sector policies at provincial level).
These experiences highlighted several key features of the experimental work on connecting practical wisdom with community voices, science, and policy:
- The richness and diversity of experience and knowledge of catalysing deliberative processes in Nepal’s policy and practices is an opportunity for wider upscaling both in Nepal and across and South Asia. Within Nepal, this methodological lesson can inform policies and practices at federal, provincial and local government levels.
- There is an opportunity to consolidate and sharpen analytical framework as well as practical tools in facilitative deliberative processes, fostering effective interaction among scientific evidence, policy actors, and multiple stakeholders with diverse stakes on public policy formulation and implementation.
- Community of practice around science-policy-practice is rapidly is evolving, which has the potential to take the approach to next levels. We recently shared the value and methodology of deliberation in policy-process with the Policy Research Institute of government of Nepal. They have also shown a great interest in formalizing this methodology. So, great space to contribute from epistemic community.
- The policy-lab and related methodologies in Nepal also demonstrate a more empowered and less colonized form of partnership with Western researchers and research sponsoring organisations. This approach to partnership can be strengthened to open up post-colonial approaches to international development, that recognize local context, local actors, and local knowledge as the drivers of development.
Messages from the Nepalese experience
Reflections on these features led to several important messages that are relevant to Nepal and beyond:
Deepening democratic politics resulting in the demand for critically engaged research in policy politics. The 1990s political change opened the civic space precipitously; civil society became stronger, while community associations emerged rapidly. Thousands of NGOs have been registered throughout Nepal. Many of them advocating for greater civic space in policy process. The space for civil society participation and democratic engagement expanded and deepened in both internationally supported development practice and nationally led policy processes. This period also saw the emergence of critically engaged and action-oriented intellectuals, most trained in Western Universities, come back and think and engage proactively in the practice of development and policy, enabled by the favourable change in the wider democratic environment. Public administration has also become gradually open to critical ideas, evidence and insights circulated through wider public discourse. Democratically elected parliaments have also come more receptive to expert analysis and practice based views on policy issues.
Critical action research – a vital for deepening deliberative process. Nepal’s natural resources management sector in particular saw such engaged and critical action research groups. They began to set up research NGOs and emerged as think tanks, undertaking policy relevant and academically peer-reviewed knowledge products, to influence local policies, while also contributing to wider scientific knowledge on the issues.
Analysis of work done by locally engaged scholars in Nepal reveal that there are a few important imperatives driving practice based and science-informed policy deliberations in Nepal include:
- Genuine deliberative practice has been missing in developmentalism at large, and with certain level of localisation (informed and engaged with local context and vocabulary), and local commitment and leadership, there is plenty of space for ;
- The dominance of Western framing of research is problematic for development as it has large become extractive in the name of objectification
- Many development policy processes have lost contact with context as technical experts define and shape public policies
Conceptual frontiers of ‘Policy labs’ emerging from experiments. Policy labs are conceptualised as deliberative forums where researchers and policy-actors including civil society representatives engage in critical dialogues, observation and analysis, in pursuit of defining a policy-problem and identifying an effective solution, ‘in a secluded space removed from daily hubbub and personal stresses to permit concentration and reflection’ (Foundation 2012). The policy labs acted as hubs for ensuring collaborative inquiry between researchers and policy actors by maintaining effective interaction between the two groups; ensuring a balance between problem analysis and solution search (Ojha et al. 2019).
So what? Where to?
Overall, the Webinar focussed on unleashing key methodological insights. It became clear that the main thrust of applying practice-based policy dialogues methodology in Nepal has been to challenge the settled wisdom around the mono-culture view of development practice, and to deepen deliberative processes so that the development practices don’t miss the merits of contextual and values-based engagement in defining the collective directions and modes of collective action. Even during the disrupted political landscape of Nepal for last fifteen years (Maoist War and subsequent political transitions), these locally engaged research and practitioners have pursued the approach to underpin science-policy-practice in various policy developments. However, how these works will evolve as stronger, more legitimate, professionally robust, and actionable engagements in future is an oopen question.