Chicken, Strikes and Power Cuts: Doing Field Research on Peace and Democracy in Nepal

This a guest post by Yvonne Blos, a young professional in the field of development cooperation. She is currently about to start a position on rule of law and governance issues in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.


In the context of a postgraduate course in development cooperation at the German Development Institute (DIE), I set off as part of a team of five young researchers to find out if and how the donor community supported the transition to peace and democracy in Nepal. It is part of a larger research project on state fragility at the DIE.

Nepal is a typical post-conflict country that struggles to achieve peace and democracy. From 1996 to 2006, Nepal suffered from a civil war between the Nepalese state and a Maoist rebel group. Overall, the peace process is seen as relatively successful: the Maoist army has been transformed into a political party and the monarchy was abolished. However, there have been some major setbacks and the current process is marked by political instability.

We tackled our research question through three aspects that influence and explain the success of donor engagement: the quality of donor coordination, conflicting objectives of supporting democracy and peace (understood as stability), and the relevance of regional players in Nepal. We found that two aspects of coordination are particularly relevant for successful donor engagement: the importance of a common goal of donor activities and a domestic lead agency. With regard to conflicting objectives between supporting peace and democracy, our research findings suggest that focusing on stability may be necessary in the early stages of a post-conflict process. At the same time, democracy has to be supported from early on, as an exaggerated focus on stability might lead to negative long-term effects. When it comes to the importance of regional players, it was difficult to find real evidence, as most statements about them were limited to mere rumors. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that China‘s and India‘s position matter for political decisions in Nepal. Thus, it is important to get their support for donor engagement.

Nepal4 Nepal5

During our field research in Nepal we conducted more than 160 interviews with domestic and international experts, both in Kathmandu and outside. One of the highlights of my stay in Nepal was our field research in Chitwan, where we talked to former Maoist combatants. Since this district does not receive much attention or development aid, the visit of a few German researchers received a lot of attention. In most villages we were welcomed with traditional dances, floral wreaths and red tikka powder. At night they even let us stay in the community and killed a local chicken for us to eat. Even though I have been a vegetarian for half my life now, I was not able to reject the food that was offered to us.

Codifying and analysing the interviews posed additional challenges in a country like Nepal, where electricity is in short supply. Due to a constant lack of energy, the government issues controlled power cuts. In terms of our research, these power cuts meant that we had to transcribe and code our interviews without electricity and internet. We brought extra batteries for our laptops, which had to be recharged as soon as electricity was available, but that did not always help to ensure smooth workflows; sometimes I was simply out of battery and had to stop working.

The objective of our study was not to conduct a classic evaluation of donor activities on the project level. Instead, the starting point of our analysis is the political process in Nepal. We analysed which impact donor support for peace and democracy has made at critical junctures (i.e. decisive moments) of the process:

  1. The Elections to the Constituent Assembly, which were held in April 2008. Its purpose was to elect 575 members of a Constituent Assembly, which should then pass a new constitution for the country. These elections are seen as largely successful, as they contributed to the stability of the peace process.
  2. The dissolution of the Maoist army in April 2012, which was a central condition of the peace agreement of 2006. The final agreement to demobilize the Maoist army was signed after five years of complex negotiations. Overall, the demobilization is seen as an important contribution to the peace process.
  3. The failure of the Constituent Assembly to pass a constitution in May 2012. Despite four extensions and an overall tenure of four years, the CA was not able to pass a constitution on May 27, 2012. This failure created a major political deadlock for the country.
  4. The institutionalization of peace and democracy at the local level. This process is still ongoing. In this context, a concentration of central-level processes has stalled developments at the local level.

Nepal2 Nepal3

When doing our field research in Nepal, a quick glance at the local newspapers helped to realize that the topics we were working on during our field research were terribly up to date. Upon our arrival in February 2013, Nepal had neither a government nor a constitution. As mentioned before, the Constitutional Assembly that was supposed to pass the new constitution after the civil war was dissolved without passing a constitution. Political parties and their leaders were divided over who should become interim president. Finally, in April 2013, a breakthrough was reached when the four major political parties decided that the Chief Justice of Nepal’s Supreme Court should become interim president. He then formed an interim government that was supposed to organize new elections for a Constituent Assembly, which have been announced for fall 2013. However, they have been confronted with boycotts from a more radical Maoist faction and other opposition parties who disapprove of the decision.

Since Nepal’s peace process is still ongoing, our recommendations fell on fertile ground and were appreciated by international donors and Nepalese experts alike. Moreover, it also made us feel as though we were really part of it all. To illustrate, on the way to our interview at the U.S. embassy, the radical Maoist faction called out a major strike, because the Chief Justice was announced as interim president the night before. Out of fear, the cab driver dropped us off too far away from the embassy. After we got into another cab we found ourselves facing a mass of angry demonstrators on the street.* Just before we ran into the crowd our cab driver turned into a narrow alley to escape the angry crowd. After a few minutes the crowd had walked past and we continued our way to the embassy, albeit 20 minutes too late…


* Bandhs (or strikes) are commonplace in Nepal. They are called and enforced mainly by left-wing groups, who force the people to lay off work and not use motorized vehicles. Everyone has to walk or take the bike. Strangely enough, in a terribly loud and smoggy city like Kathmandu, these strikes actually make for a nice walk, since the city is much cleaner and quieter on those days.

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