Development planning and social science

by Dr Lok P. Bhattarai

A vision of planned development was conceived in Nepal in the early fifties, with the main emphasis on agricultural modernisation perhaps as elsewhere in other developing countries. The understanding behind this idea was that traditional technology and management practices were unscientific and less productive, and to enhance the productivity of the sector new technology was to be imported, physical infrastructure (roads, electricity, and industrial prerequisites) was to be developed, and the skills of local producers were to be enhanced. A future scenario was imagined where there would be an abundance of food production to feed the population and to earn foreign currency from food-export; massive employment opportunities would be created in agriculture and associated industries, and the state would have a strong revenue base to pay for social services (i.e. health and education) and welfare.

In keeping with this dream, several consecutive national periodic plans put much emphasis on, and many resources into, the agricultural sector, followed by transport and other sectors. However, after pursuing that national dream for over four decades, this country witnessed a violent conflict which claimed many lives and caused the massive destruction of national assets. Unlike the utopia as described, the once food-exporting country in the region became a food-importing country. Neither the agricultural nor any other sectors have been able to offer sufficient employment for increasing number of youths entering the job market every year, and the government has no sufficient revenue base even to pay for basic services.

In retrospect of this failure, different lines of conclusions are being drawn depending on the evidence and perspectives one utilises. The civil bureaucracy, which was in the leading role to implement policies, often blames politicians for political instability and the lack of political vision and support. Politicians, mainly from those quarters who were in power over this period, often blame civil bureaucracy for its lack of competence and professionalism in delivering what it is supposed to deliver. There is also a somehow ‘neutralist’ view which estimates a more or less equal role of ‘policy-maker’ as well as of ‘implementer’ in this failure. It seems that the policy statement was unrealistically ambitious without matching the provision of the required resources. There was no functional mechanism that would make policy-makers as well as bureaucrats accountable for the decisions they made personally or collectively. Neither policy planning nor the implementation side really utilised the knowledge, expertise, and methodology of social science, and in my view that is something which best explains this failure above everything else.

In countries like Nepal, development planning is still considered to be just a linear calculation of the input and output of materials and assets, in which human dimensions are often neglected. The sectoral ministries, which are organised along one or another technological specialism, used to influence and control the periodic or annual development plans for their sector. For example, the Ministry of Water or Irrigation was predominantly controlled by water resource engineers, and agricultural scientists were often in the position to have a final say in the Ministry of Agriculture. And obviously, foresters’ knowledge was superior in the Ministry of Forests.

Surprisingly, the National Planning Commission, which had the apex role of co-ordinating and mainstreaming development, often remained ineffective, and turned out to be a rubber stamp for endorsing the development programmes proposed by sectoral ministries. Sectoral ministries were the de facto planners for their sector, not the National Planning Commission. While the planning commission often failed to give clear directions to sectoral ministries to come up with consistent inter-sectoral programmes, it also lacked sufficient access and motivation to utilise the social science knowledge required in programme planning.

Due to the structural reasons described above, development programmes were too often static mind-games that emerged from the manoeuvre of unreliably collected statistics and preoccupied assumptions. Rather than being based on the analysis of what its users (people) wanted and could manage, and what suited their situation, they were designed according to what scientists and engineers thought good and appropriate for people and the country (if not for themselves). This essentially meant that programme planning primarily served bureaucratic/technocratic interests instead of the everyday needs of the local people and their aspirations for development. In so doing, the first thing that was seriously lacking was co-ordination and exchanges between sectoral development programmes, as they hardly met each other at any level. Secondly, programme planning was seldom based on the understanding of whom they were planning for, where their beneficiaries lived, and what were the social, economic, cultural, psychological and political features of the country that provided both opportunities and barriers.

In the agricultural sector, planners were apparently puzzled as to why local producers did not want to adopt new crop varieties and operate in line with the crop intensification policies that the central government had devised. In fact, the small-holder families (which were the major feature of land ownership and land use in the country) would not dare to take the risk of mono-cropping, but instead preferred to disperse risk by sticking with diversified cropping. The market was not well developed, and peasants did not have the knowledge and confidence to operate in a more sophisticated market environment. Instead they would choose to maintain their resilience by adopting a subsistence mode of production as far as possible. It is noteworthy that government planning had rarely offered any strong viable technical and institutional alternatives for their indigenous ways of land use and their local agrarian wisdom.

Government policies regarding the forestry sector were also hegemonic for a long time, and driven by technological fallacy. In 1956, the government of Nepal acquired all the forests of the nation for scientific management, which had traditionally been done by local people. Guided by the enthusiasm of newly trained forest scientists, a policy direction was chosen which would separate people from their forests. But in reality, local people would need regular access to their local forests in order to maintain their agrarian production system. Crop-growing, livestock-raising, and foraging for fodder and firewood were interrelated activities and very essential for their livelihood. But the policy of nationalising the forests just disregarded local needs and realities. Consequently, people almost never followed the law, which was contrary to their needs, and the government realised by the late 1980s that the policy had failed completely, which later paved the way for a policy change. The new policy promulgated in the early nineties has allowed community access and accepts the public’s role in forest management and utilisation, and it is believed to have been largely successful in its goals.

There seems to have been one important element at the centre of all failures of development initiatives in Nepal over the past decades, and that was the ignorance or neglect of social science knowledge in development planning and management, or even at times its misuse.