After World War II, developing societies around the world experienced a range of problems which included: economic and political crises; dysfunctional governments and institutional failures, causing excessive political pressures on public institutions; pathological disorders in bureaucracy; structural complexities in public service delivery; and rampant corruption in public resource management. In the late 1960s, several structural and pluralist approaches emerged to address institutional problems and inefficiencies in public service delivery, but these accentuated state-centrism and supported greater administrative and legislative powers among the established national political economy regimes. This not only crippled public services, but also strengthened the top-down mechanisms in decision making and bolstered upward accountability in the institutional structures. Mainly based on neoliberal ideology, ‘governance’, as a concept and as an application, gradually emerged and was utilised to address institutional crises, poor governing systems, economic vulnerability and ambiguities of service delivery.
In service delivery systems, the idea of governance reinforces institutional development and creates avenues for communities to embrace its elements, in improving local self-governing systems. This brings about a shift from government to governance, and supports greater sharing of power between the state, market and civil society, via new networks and partnership structures. Community governance, as an offshoot of governance, works to enhance service delivery at the grassroots by augmenting capabilities, employing participatory structures, building social capital and streamlining central-local relations.
In Nepal, the service delivery system is regulatory, top-down and elite-controlled, which adversely impacts upon institutional mechanisms and the governance system. Although governmental endeavours in improving the service delivery system were instigated over the last few decades through several policy interventions, achievements have been slow in coming and targets have remained unmet. This study has focused on issues that have implications for effective deployment of community governance in enhancing basic community service delivery in Nepal.
Using a mixed approach, 110 community based organisations (CBOs) in Nepal, representing community forestry users groups, community organisation development groups and women development organisation groups, were selected to participate in organisational surveys, focus-group discussions and in-depth interviews. The findings show that CBOs are uniquely positioned and their roles are supportive, in reinforcing community governance in many ways. First, they seek to unite the grassroots population into various groups to perform governance roles, responsibilities, powers and functions. Secondly, CBOs mobilise local knowledge and resources for the development of self-reliance. Thirdly, through rigorous facilitation of activities in communities, CBOs reduce government costs in the provision of development assistance. Fourthly, their active involvement makes possible effective amelioration of poverty, mainly in remote areas and marginal communities. Finally, these organisations ensure the practice of governance at the grassroots.
However, in terms of their nature and activities, the functional capability of these CBOs appears to be weak or, at best, moderate. Public access to basic services, participation in political and democratic activities, mobilisation of local resources, extent of economic activities, exercise of local power and other opportunities seem to be affected by institutional crisis, governance malfunction and unsound policies. The collaboration between state, market and communities appears to be power-based and top-down in orientation.
Further, the existing flawed institutional mechanisms of service providers, caste-based socio-economic structures of communities, lopsided community power structures, parochial political interest, and capacity and resource constraints, play restraining roles in the service delivery system at the grassroots. This existing process further strengthens patron-client relationships, bureaucratisation and centralisation. To eliminate these issues and increase the efficiency of the service delivery system, community governance can play a catalytic role in ensuring stakeholder participation and strengthening community control mechanisms.