Transforming Policy Process through Critical Action Research: Reflections from Nepal’s Forest Governance
Hemant R Ojha, Naya S Paudel, Sudeep Jana, Mani R Banjade, and Dil B Khatri
Theories of power have focused on how an actor dominates the other, and very little insights exist on how hegemonic relations can be transformed at diverse domains of political life. The effort to democratize governance requires not just criticizing who is hegemonizing whom , but also finding ways to transform these relations so that everyone concerned can have a voice in public policy, and that policy decisions are translated into practice. In unjust societies where political representation is exclusive and governance carries colonial legacy of techno-bureaucratic control, a question arises as to how public intellectuals and critical researchers from the civil society domain can spark democratization of policy processes. Are there any conceivable pathways through which critical social scientific community engage better with disadvantaged and marginalized groups on the one hand, and with the policy makers at different spheres of governance, on the other?
In this paper, we present our own experience in Nepal’s forest ecosystem and protected area governance as locally engaged researchers over the past decade, and also draw on the experience of those who played the same role earlier, in the development of community forestry program in the country. Our reflections on the experience shows that when locally engaged researchers are able to conceptualize ‘symbolic violence’ (In Bourdieu’s sense) and ‘ideological hegemony’ (in Gramsci’s sense) in everyday practice, and communicate the hegemonic logic of power simultaneously to marginalized groups and the dominant policy actors, there have been significant gains in democratic governance of forest and protected areas, eventually leading to improving social justice outcomes. We also demonstrate that over the past three decades, the critical intellectual practice itself has transformed over time – initially led by international scholars, but later taken over by the locally based researchers. Yet, a key dilemma of such researchers is that the services are largely paid by external conservation and development donors, and have to face valid questions on accountability in their research practice. The question then is – how state can still provide spaces for critical research so vital in transforming public policy and hence achieve social justice , inclusion and environmental sustainability.
Keywords: Forest governance, ideological hegemony, social justice, local researchers, Nepal