Social Science Baha
Official

Diversifying and Decentralizing the State: Affirmative Action as a Potential Tool for Empowering Local Communities

Susan Hangen

Affirmative action policies are usually conceptualized as ways of promoting social equality by increasing marginalized groups’ access to the state and resources. The diversification of state representatives through affirmative action policies can also democratize the state, as these officials will hopefully be more responsive to communities. I argue that there is another potential benefit of affirmative action that has been overlooked – it may promote decentralization, a stated yet elusive goal for the Nepali state for decades. In the highly centralized Nepali state, central authorities appoint local state officials who then move from the capital or district headquarters to run the state at the district or village levels. These individuals are thus more accountable to central authorities than to local people, and often do not serve these communities effectively. The centralization of state power is amplified by the concentration of state power in the hands of a particular ethnic group – the CHHE (Caste Hindu Hill Elites), or more specifically, Bahuns (Lawoti, 2007). From the non-dominant group’s perspective, the state wears a Bahun face, and in many cases these state officials hail from outside the locality where they serve. Thus, state representatives appear as ethnic and geographic outsiders. In my research in rural Ilam, I observed that the local people interpreted the failings of the state through an ethnic lens, as illustrations of ethnic discrimination. Affirmative action policies may assist with implementing decentralization, which is not merely a technical matter of extending the reaches of the state, but rather a mode of redistributing power to local communities (Panday 2009: 119). Panday (2009) argues that in a decentralized state, the possibility of political domination between social groups would be limited and “minorities would get ample opportunities to express themselves ‘as a majority’ and implement their rights fully” (118). To ensure that decentralization achieves this goal, affirmative action policies that prioritize hiring marginalized individuals in state positions should be implemented alongside decentralization. By prioritizing hiring marginalized groups, more opportunities for local people to serve in state positions could become available.