‘NPC should evolve into policy think-tank of govt’

Aug 4, 2017-

A Cabinet meeting held on Thursday appointed Swarnim Wagle as the vice chairman of the National Planning Commission (NPC), the apex body that frames the country’s development plans and programmes. Wagle, 43, who has a PhD in economics from Australian National University, was first appointed as the member of the NPC when late Sushil Koirala was the head of the government. The product of Harvard as well as London School of Economics made a mark at that time by emerging as a key architect of the national report on Post Disaster Needs Assessment, which gave a ballpark figure of damages and destructions caused by the earthquakes of April and May, 2015. The credibility of the report prompted Nepal’s development partners to pledge over $4 billion in aid for the country’s post-earthquake reconstruction. Wagle, who was previously based in Washington, DC as a senior economist of the World Bank, left the NPC after KP Sharma Oli became the prime minister and rejoined the body as a member for the second time after Pushpa Kamal Dahal took the reins of the government. Since Wagle has previously worked for the NPC and very well knows nuts and bolts of planning, it will not be difficult for him to steer the body. But he does not have much time to work on his agendas, as the current government’s tenure will be over once the national elections are held. In an interview with Rupak D Sharma of The Kathmandu Post, Wagle talked about his vision for the NPC and his priorities. Excerpts:

How do you intend to lead the NPC?

The tenure of my vice chairmanship is relatively short. Yet I have six major priorities. First is to align the role of the NPC with the country’s new federal structure. This will enable the NPC to evolve into a real policy think-tank of the government. Second is to frame a long-term development vision for Nepal and ending the practice of framing periodic plans in a ritualistic manner. Third area I want to focus on is training and orienting local level staff and elected representatives. We need to equip local level staff and representatives with tools that will enable them to frame the budget, and formulate plans and local level vision documents. So, we will be playing the role of a knowledge bank and trainers in partnership with other established government bodies like the Staff College, the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, and the Ministry of Finance. This will add more flesh into the idea of cooperative federalism that we’re trying to push forward. The fourth area of focus would be economic reforms. My immediate priority under the economic reform agenda would be to get the fiscal discipline on track. Fiscal trajectory has gone off-track in the last several years, with the widening of the gap between allocation of financial resources and actual expenditure. So, we have to maintain that discipline and make the annual budget more realistic. My fifth priority would be on infrastructure development, which includes removal of bottlenecks to ensure timely completion of projects of national pride and large projects that are transformative in nature. My sixth priority would be orienting the NPC towards evidence-driven policy making. This includes strengthening the Central Bureau of Statistics and undertaking a larger volume of original research.

That’s a lot. Would you be able to achieve all these goals, as you will be in office for around six months?

This is a manageable portfolio as a lot of work that I mentioned has already started. The task of aligning the role of the NPC with the country’s new federal structure has already begun. In this regard, we have framed the draft of the executive ordinance of the NPC. Also, works related to formulation of a long-term development vision have started. In fact, I initiated both these tasks two-and-a-half years ago when I was a member of the NPC. This time, I would like to bring these works to a logical conclusion. So, there are very few areas where we will be starting anew. Yet we are ready to make necessary adjustments because we want to be very realistic about what we can do.

You have been talking about NPC’s reform for a long time. And you just said the draft of the NPC’s executive ordinance has been prepared. What are the highlights of that document?

First is getting rid of routine things that we have been doing in the past. Earlier, we used to spend months approving projects and programmes of different ministries right after the budget was implemented. That used to consume a lot of time. We have gotten rid of that process. With this, NPC staff now have more free time. This free time could be used to prepare long-term vision document. The second highlight of the document is cooperative federalism. This is a new task for us. We need to figure out how to proceed ahead. Third is promoting policy-making and sectoral reforms on the basis of evidence and research, and taking time-bound and strategic initiatives. For example, things like operationalising energy trade and challenge fund also fall under NPC’s domain. But executing these types of tasks will demand a new legal mandate and professional staff to serve the NPC. This means we will have to rely much more on professional staff who will be in our roster and engage as consultants. All this has been envisioned in the document.

But this call comes at a time w hen some are saying the NPC is irrelevant. What is your take on this issue?

The NPC should continue to exist, but in a new form. So, we reject the argument that the NPC is irrelevant or completely outdated. But the NPC needs to evolve. It needs to evolve into a real policy think-tank of the government. Bodies like the NPC can undergo transformation and we have seen that happen in India with the formation of Niti Aayog and in China as well. China, which used to have State Planning Commission and State Development Planning Commission, has now established the National Development and Reform Commission, which is actually quite effective and influential body. So, the NPC, which has a long and distinguished history of over 60 years, has to change and get rid of many of the routine things it used to do in the past.

So, the NPC will play a very different role in the coming days, especially in the new federal structure?

We will continue to exist as a federal entity. And it will be more closely aligned with the Prime Minister’s Office. Right now the prime minister is the nominal head of the NPC. But we need to strengthen that link and house ourselves in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Westminster system of government should be strengthened, as their authority has weakened over the years. So, we envision the NPC to remain as an integral think-tank cell in the prime ministerial apparatus. But to evolve into such as organisation, members of the NPC have to be selected based on specific qualifications. However, the NPC will not have branches at provincial and local levels, as provinces and local bodies are fully authorised to have their own planning cells and departments.

Many also say NPC should establish a project bank so that the country could have more shovel-ready projects that could be immediately built once funds are made available. What is your take on this issue?

I think that is something that we would undertake as one of the strategic initiatives. But we need to work together with the Investment Board of Nepal and sectoral ministries on this issue. Concerns about lack of shovel-ready projects in Nepal are genuine. We need to have a stock of at least a dozen projects that can be executed as soon as funds are made available. We need to work on this to enhance our project readiness.

You had started working on Vision 2030 document during your first stint as a member in the NPC. How is it coming out?

It has not advanced at the pace I would have liked partly because the momentum was halted by three changes in governments. I left the NPC after my first term and when I returned there was an attempt to revive the work. We did make some progress but not at the speed I would have liked. I would definitely give much more impetus to that exercise now.

Would you like to share what Vision document is with our audience?

It is a long-term development plan of the country that can replace periodic plans the NPC frames [every three or five years]. The development vision will have a unified approach in meeting several of our milestones such

as graduating from the grouping of least developed countries by 2022, attaining Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, and becoming a middle-income country by 2030. But this document may not be as detailed as we may have liked it to be in the past because of time constraints. Yet producing the development vision will be one of my priorities.

How different would it be from the national document on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which have to be met by 2030 as well?

SDG is an external agenda that Nepal has bought into. In a sense, SDG is an extension of the Millennium Development Goals, which expired in 2015, and a global compact which we have honoured. But the Vision document would prioritise certain sectors and focus on issues that are of higher priority for the country. For example, the agenda of inclusive growth will feature much more prominently in the Vision document than it exists right now as one of the 17 SDGs.

Lastly, many say politicians try to influence NPC members to push forward their vested interests. How do you intend to tackle these issues?

I think a lot of those incentives has been severed and weakened. As you know, referrals for inclusion of petty projects used to be made in the past when local bodies did not have elected representatives. That has now stopped and we no longer do those things. I think there was a time when the NPC faced a lot of political interference. But that is on the wane. It would be my aim to turn the NPC into a professional body.

Source: The Kathmandu Post