Mainstreaming Policy Research

October 25, 2021

Mukunda Raj Kattel

At the end of June last year, I got an unexpected call from Dr. Bishnu Raj Upreti, whom I had known as a conflict-management expert, a prolific writer and an untiring mentor for young researchers, to join Policy Research Institute (PRI), a government think tank, which I had heard about only in passing. “I am happy to hear that you have returned home,” he said, after some common chit-chat. “I invite you to join PRI. Let’s work for the nation together.” Dr. Upreti, now the Executive Chairperson of PRI, explained passionately what PRI can do and achieve. The way Dr. Upreti presented left no space for me to say ‘no.’ Unaware of what I could bring to this organisation, I was not in a position to say ‘yes’ right away. I asked for some time – two weeks, to be exact – to decide. I had no option but to pick this middle path.

Dr. Upreti called me again a week later and repeated the same signature catchphrase: ‘let’s do something for the nation.’ Encouraged by his burning zeal for policy innovation and unusual conviction that PRI can make a difference, I decided to join this new field of profession putting aside my human rights advocacy and activism of the past 25 years.

Big strides
Sixteen months on, I find my foray into this uncharted realm of ‘policy research’ both eventful and enlightening. I am now aware of the moral imperatives of policy research to transform political aspirations into actionable policies. I am also aware of the political bottlenecks that stand in the way of policy research. How to level up the gap between these two facets is challenging. However, as the PRI leadership has demonstrated, in the face of conviction, courage and persistence, a challenge turns into an opportunity.

To me, the formation of PRI – on 26 September 2018 – signals a visionary departure from the norm of Nepal’s traditional policy architecture. As I read the Executive Order that established the organisation, I find, at its core, the vision to anchor Nepal’s policy-making on research-generated evidence of what has worked and what has not. Doing so requires situating every piece of research in the existing legislative environment as well as the bureaucratic culture institutionalised over history. It is, by all means, a daunting task.

However, where there is a will, there is a way. To approach the colossal task objectively, PRI charted out its five-year strategy by engaging over 250 policy researchers, experts and analysts. Among other items, the strategy collates some 200 research themes to deliver between July 2020 and June 2025, the period covered by the strategic plan. A roster of experts has been developed by reaching out to some six hundred experts that can be mobilised in various tasks of a policy process. Many rounds of policy dialogues have been held to identify – and firm up – research priorities within the broad themes presented in the strategic plan. Around 35 knowledge products have been published, both research-based and experience-grounded, addressing one or the other pressing policy issue.

If the reflection of the policy stakeholders present at the fourth founding day of PRI – on September 26 – is any guide, these small steps have been exemplary. Participating in a dialogical conversation held as part of the celebration, vice-chancellors of different universities, professors, researchers, practitioners, former diplomats, retired civil servants and other dignitaries commended PRI for the institutionalisation of a public policy journal – the first of its kind in Nepal – and a ‘policy honour’ that recognises personal as well as institutional contribution to policy research and advocacy. They found these measures pathbreaking towards policy innovation in Nepal. They were also happy at the PRI publications brought out over the months, which they hailed as a stepping stone to onward progress. They committed their support to PRI in its venture all along, indicating that PRI has been emerging as an organisation with a difference.

The Vice-Chancellor (VC) of Kathmandu University – Professor Dr. Bhola Thapa – supplemented these unparallel words of support and solidarity with an announcement that the university would institute an endowment fund dedicated to policy research. Accepting PRI’s ‘policy honour’ and a cash prize of Rs. 50,000 for the university’s outstanding contribution to policy research over the years, VC Thapa said the honour has created moral pressure on him to do more and announced: “Kathmandu University will use the prize as a seed-money, add Rs. five million to it and establish an endowment fund.” The fund is believed to set a milestone in policy research and innovation in Nepal. Big strides, they say, often begin with small steps. Kathmandu University reconfirmed this saying.

Professor Dr. Suresh Raj Sharma, who graced the event as the Chief Guest, was even more categorical. The need for policy innovation was never so urgent, he stressed. “This gathering is a case in point that the future of policy research is bright even though it is not a priority area of Nepal’s decision-makers.” Sharing his personal experiences, encounters and impressions over the last six decades, he said, “There is no dearth of good policies in Nepal. What Nepal continues to suffer from is the conspicuous absence of honesty in policy implementation.” Why those responsible for policy implementation go unpunished for defaulting their main responsibility should also be a topic of research, he underlined.

Listening to these seasoned policy stakeholders and drawing on my own experience over the 16 months at PRI lead me to conclude that there exist two outstanding constraints that need to be resolved to realise policy innovation in Nepal.
First, Nepal’s policymaking has, on the whole, been a marginal exercise. It is reclusive in process, written by external consultants or a group of officers based on emotive reasoning. Policies developed in disregard of evidence or data do not deliver. They either overlap with existing policies and become obsolete or offer solutions that do not resonate with the need on the ground. This culture of policy marginalisation should be discarded outright. Policymaking should be a mainstream political undertaking involving a process that is participatory and inclusive of all concerned.

Second, Nepal’s budget planners and allocators are found to be very conservative when it comes to budget allocation for research. They either have research aversions (for reasons that need demystification) or lack the awareness that research requires investment. This reticence or ignorance stands against the tide of time. The sooner it is changed the better. Or else, policymaking continues to remain a hollow exercise.

(A PhD on human rights and peace, Kattel is a senior research fellow at Policy Research Institute.