The controversial multi-million dollar Multi Stakeholder Forestry Programme (MSFP) is set to be launched from this month after delaying for almost a year.

The programme, has selected six non-government organisations to implement the project in selected 23 districts in the country for the next four years.

According to Akhilesh Lal Karna, an official at the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, the ministry signed memorandum of understanding with the concerned organisations on March 1 and an orientation process before getting ready for the implementation at ground-level is under way.

The Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN), the Environment, Culture, Agriculture, Research and Development Society Nepal (ECARDS-Nepal), the Resource Identification and Management Society Nepal (RIMS-Nepal), the Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD), Rupantaran Nepal and the Integrated Development Society Nepal (IDS Nepal) are selected for the programme which is jointly funded by three major donors—-Finnish government, the Department for International Development (DFID) of the UK and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)—which have already committed Rs 4,450 million for the next four-year period. This is the second time the MSFP project selected the executing agency to implement the four-year phase also termed as ‘transitional phase’ of the total 10-year project worth US $ 150 million within a year.

In the second week of March last year, the Services Support Unit, which was formed at the SDC as a secretariat for the implementation of the project, had selected Rupantaran Nepal as the sole executing agency of the programme. The decision was drawn into controversy as voices were raised from all quarters, including civil society bodies and the forest users’ groups, citing lack of transparency while selecting the organisation which was claimed to be formed by the same donors to implement their forestry programmes earlier.

The programme is expected to lift 1.7 million people out of poverty and reduce the climate vulnerability of around 550,000 households. It also aims to enhance and strengthen institutional arrangements for effective development of the forestry sector and the promotion of climate resilience.

As Ghimire presented details of funding sources, expenditures and challenges faced along the way, participants were given the chance to review the state of the upgraded road, and evaluate the utilisation of funds allocated to road maintenance.

Those gathered were also encouraged to raise issues regarding any irregularities they might have witnessed in the road upgrade process, in front of government and donor representatives.

Although the participants did not raise any questions pertaining to financial irregularities, they did complain of not being able to avail of transportation services in their region. “We have contributed to the improvement of the state of the road, and yet are deprived of riding motor vehicles which pass along a road that runs right in front of our homes,” they said. “Why are Kharang locals deprived the service of riding public vehicles?” questioned Min Kumar Dahal, former chairperson of Kharang VDC. Others present echoed Dahal’s voice, and they came down heavily against representatives of the users’ committee and the local administration.

According to locals, transportation services that operate under the Hile Taxi Entreprenuers’ Association refuse to pick passengers who might be waiting to catch a ride in between designated stations. They are, therefore, forced to either travel to Tumlinglar (from where the buses dispatch) or walk to Leguwa or other destinations where the vehicles stop. Transportation entrepreneurs—who leave Tumlingtar only once their vehicles are full, and refuse to pick passengers from in-between destinations—argue they bear losses if they do not wait until their vehicles are fully packed at Tumlingtar.

Sankhuwasabha’s Local Development Officer Leela Adhikari took heed of the local’s comments, and in response, assured them that he would address the issue. He said he’d consult with the District Administration Office as well as the transportation entrepreneurs to find a possible way out of the quandary.

Although this particular case of public auditing was concerned with the maintenance of the Leguwa-Tumlingtar road—and saw representatives of the Ministry of Federal Affairs, the National Planning Commission and DFID (along with its project-implementing partners: Rural Reconstruction Nepal and Care Nepal) attending—this is certainly not the only time such an audit or series of audits have been organised. Almost all development projects conducted in the district in recent times have been endorsed only once a final public audit has taken place.

There is, hence, a legal bond that makes public auditing mandatory if the projects are to be handed over to the community. The formula has long been applied by NGO-funded projects in the region, and the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local development promulgated its own guidelines on public auditing last year. It has been functioning along the same lines ever since. Consequently, all users’ groups and contractors in the region have now started to hold public audits.

“Users’ groups or contractors should hold public audit programmes before handing over their projects to the community. If their task is not satisfactory, the allocation of funds can be stopped,” says Ministry Spokesperson Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya. And although the concept of public auditing was first formulated to hold elected peoples’ representatives accountable to the government and the people, its role has become crucial particularly in settings where local bodies are being run without elected peoples’ representatives.

In their absence, government and non-governmental organisations have ensured the continuance of development activities by either handing over the responsibilities to users’ groups or contractors. The government has fixed a ceiling for such contracts though. While users’ groups are given the responsibility of handing projects under Rs 6 million, contractors are assigned tasks that have a budget exceeding the amount. This, as per the guidelines issued by the Ministry, is achieved through a bidding process.

Unlike in other parts of the country—mainly in the Tarai region where most local bodies have been accused of misusing millions of rupees in development funds—the local bodies of Sankhuwasabha, Dhankuta and Dharan have been successfully organising public audits to hold users’ groups and contractors accountable, and maintain transparency in the undertaking of development. Theirs is a scenario starkly different from those of Saptari and Dhanusha where local DDCs have been accused of misappropriating Rs 380,000 and Rs 300,000 respectively.

“We held a public audit that explained how the 735,600 rupees spent in the construction of a health post in Banibishal VDC were spent before handing the new building over to the community,” says Durga Prasad Baral, chairperson of the Community Health Unit in Banibishal, Sankhuwasabha.

In Dhakuta too, the DDC has been holding local bodies accountable through public auditing programmes, while Care Nepal has authorised a third party—the district chapter of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists—to monitor such audits. Care Nepal has in fact been conducting pilot projects in 25 districts all over Nepal to promote public auditing on local levels.

Development officials feel ‘odd’ when organising public audits around small projects. In some cases, public auditing costs go as high as the actual grant allocated to the project by the government or an NGO. Moreover, in cases where consumers’ groups themselves have been formed with the intention of misusing appropriated funds or where locals have colluded amongst themselves, public auditing does not function properly.

Public auditing tools may also not function when local bodies face political intervention during the implementation of their projects. “Political intervention in affairs related to local bodies should be discouraged and the LDO entrusted with additional power in the absence of people’s representatives,” says Dhankuta LDO Prem Raj Bhattarai.

There have been cases in which political parties have been found controlling development funds by forming users’ groups themselves. In other instances, VDCs have been unable to hold public audit programmes in the absence of secretaries (among the 3,915 VDCs in the country, over 400 positions for secretary in local bodies lie vacant).

Despite the pitfalls, public auditing practices have received support from government and non-governmental bodies. “As a tool for good governance, public auditing has so far proved efficient. Over 60 percent of all local bodies have applied the method in the implementation of their projects,” says Thapaliya as he reiterates its importance.

Source: The Kathmandu Post (2013-03-09)