Notes from the Field

Using Better Evidence to Reform Nepal’s Hydropower Policy

December 11, 2013

Using evidence for planning and evaluation of policies and development interventions considerably enhances the capacity of organizations working for socioeconomic change of state and society, and their change interventions in achieving desired and demonstrable goals. While there exists a general consensus among those fostering change to invest and engage in evidence-based action, the focus is primarily directed to the role and capacity of think tanks (academic and research institutions) in evidence generation, synthesis, and analysis. Think tanks have increasingly flourished with this recognition and have provided much-needed impetus to the evidence-based approach to development planning. However valuable, this is only one source of evidence and the approach as a whole stops short of benefiting from practice-based inputs on the realities of evidence uptake and use in lesser-developed countries such as Nepal. This happens for a number of reasons, foremost among which is the low agency of development practitioners who actually engage in planning, implementation, and evaluation of interventions in generating evidence for the various communities of practice in and outside government. Evidence generation itself is poorly understood and appreciated, evidence generation is considered time-consuming and expensive, and evidence generated by practitioners is regarded as lower quality and of lesser salience.

This dislocation of practitioners in the realm of evidence generation and uptake can be remedied in many ways. One such way is by employing tools of deliberative communication and facilitation that can generate “workable” evidence without expending large resources. The Asia Foundation and local non-profit partner, Niti Foundation (Niti), adapted such a tool for the Nepali context, called the “Policy Lab,” where development practitioners together with academicians and researchers can collectively focus on their strengths of evidence generation and analysis to make better-informed decisions. This approach convincingly argues for the need to bolster the capacity of development practitioners in generating and analyzing evidence to ensure that it is used in development planning in a sufficiently accurate and practical way.

We first identified the hydropower policy landscape in Nepal as a subject of inquiry. Even as Nepal has the potential to generate upwards of 40,000 megawatts of hydropower, it has been stuck at generating less than 1,000 megawatts for over two decades. The country faces a crippling energy crisis and long hours of brown or blackouts during winter months. As a result of ongoing political and economic uncertainty, Nepal has so far failed to inspire confidence in potential investors to start investing in generation and transmission of energy.

Hydropower dam in Nepal

Even as Nepal has the potential to generate upwards of 40,000 megawatts of hydropower, it has been stuck at generating less than 1,000 megawatts for over two decades. Above, a hydro electricity station on the Bhote Koshi River outside Barabise town near the Nepal-China border. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

The Ministry of Energy and the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) are the two usual policy giants, with much of the associated policy deliberations guided by thin evidence generated by state authorities or thick evidence generated by consultants who were not embedded in the context via practice or experience. The resulting outcomes have failed to create widespread acceptability, and cater to the interest of selective government actors and some private sector players who stand to gain from distorted markets.

As part of its mandate to support policy engagement in Nepal, Niti worked to embed an inclusive, evidence-based contestation opportunity within the policy process as a way of changing the lop-sided dominance of state actors. In moving forward, this necessitated Niti’s approach to be policy intelligent. The need to augment quality of evidence for informed and effective decision-making drove Niti’s approach to champion plural sources of evidence, notably those that were repositories of evidence rooted in local practice. Niti, in its reform engagement, empowered the voice of the National Association of Community Electricity Users, which enabled collection of evidence that was grounded to the local context.

This approach brought together diverse stakeholders into a deliberative process of policy formulation. This promoted the contestation of evidence, ideas, and incentives of the key reform constituencies and allowed the identification of a minimum common agenda through which policy reform could be pursued. Reform constituencies ranged from government institutions (e.g., Legislature Parliament, Ministry of Energy), semi-government agencies (e.g., Nepal Electricity Authority, and the Electricity Tariff Fixation Commission), the private sector (represented by Independent Power Producers Association Nepal), and civil society organizations (e.g., National Association of Community Electricity Users, Nepal Hydropower Association, and labor unions).

This approach strongly suggests how intervention for policy reform and change can be geared toward creating the conditions for collaboration of stakeholders of diverse backgrounds and interests. Further, it is clear that supporting practitioners to generate, analyze, and present evidence for more informed contestation of policy alternatives leads toward better-planned and viable development initiatives. Such an approach enables the generation and use of quality evidence by recognizing the agency of practitioners while at the same time assuring more ownership, accountability, and relevance in policy praxis.

Mohan Manandhar is executive director of the Niti Foundation and Sagar Prasai and George Varughese are The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative and country representative in Nepal. They can be reached at mohan.manandhar@nitifoundation.org, sagar.prasai@asiafoundation.org, and george.varughese@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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