(Bad road conditions at the end of monsoon season. Research Assistant Aayushma takes a break on the trek up to Jawalmukhi in Dhading District. Credit: Alisa Zomer.)

A returned migrant worker stands up to speak at a community meeting in the ward chairman’s office. It takes him a minute to find his voice —his experience working abroad was bad, but talking about it is another form of hardship. Social stigma often silences overseas workers from Nepal, who are ashamed to admit what they went through, and how they were tricked into unsafe, sometimes deadly, situations. More than 30% of the country’s GDP comes from overseas workers, but the lack of awareness of official policies on safe migration makes these men and women easy targets for predatory foreign employment agencies.

Snacks from a Citizen Helpdesks community meeting in Kavre (Credit: Alisa Zomer).

At the meeting, a local radio journalist from the Citizen Helpdesks encourages the man to speak: if you don’t share, how we will be able to learn from your bad experience? The man goes on to tell about his job overseas carrying 80-90 kg (nearly 200 lbs) slabs of raw beef on his shoulder (a major religious taboo in Hinduism, which considers cows as sacred). Though this story is not as bad as ones where workers are enslaved, maimed or killed, it strikes a pertinent note because of caste restrictions and social prohibitions. The willingness of the man to share his negative story was also unusual in a Nepali context.

The Citizen Helpdesks, a project of Accountability Lab, is trying to build awareness of migration issues in four districts around Kathmandu by bringing together citizens and government officials to discuss risks, safety measures, and also alternatives to going overseas. Launched after the 2015 earthquake as a rapid response survey to help connect citizens with recovery aid, the project has evolved to work on other issues, including local governance and overseas work. Accountability Lab also operates Citizen Helpdesks from their offices in Liberia and Mali all focusing on distinct governance challenges.

GOV/LAB conducted preliminary scoping research to help Accountability Lab examine the model and theory of change behind Citizen Helpdesks in Nepal. Below are a few preliminary observations.

Building a feedback loop between citizens and government

Since the Citizen Helpdesks shifted their focus from earthquake recovery to migration issues, the project seems to function more as an awareness raising campaign and less as a link between citizens and government. The task of assessing immediate needs post-disaster is time-bound and can be triaged in terms of basic necessities, whereas building the foundation for citizen engagement and government responsiveness is a much longer, more involved task requiring a more targeted approach.

Importantly, this requires a focus on the fundamental citizen-state relationship— ensuring that citizens make demands on the government and that the government actually responds to their needs. Though the Citizen Helpdesks underwent some iterations, the original model no longer seems to fit the feedback loop process developed after the earthquake (see infographic on the Citizen Helpdesk’s feedback loop process, from understanding community issues to providing actionable information).

Citizen Helpdesk model (Source: http://citizenhelpdesk.org/).

This observation is exacerbated by how disaster response and recovery operations impact and undermine current development efforts in post-earthquake Nepal. After the earthquake, millions of dollars of foreign aid flooded Nepal. The post-earthquake aid programs offered payments and gifts to citizens and government officials as incentives for participation. As a result, people now expect payments to attend meetings or participate in development programs. Since the Citizen Helpdesks only have a modest budget for snacks (e.g., juice and biscuits), this greatly affects who from the government and communities will engage in their program. Additionally, several government officials mentioned distrust in non-government organizations who came in after the earthquake and left after accomplishing little and with little accountability to the communities where they worked. This challenge is, of course, wider than the Citizen Helpdesks, but an important context to consider in designing any interventions.

Opportunities to be heard with new local representatives

On an encouraging note, newly elected representatives provide an opportunity to help build and shape the relationship between new government officials and their constituents. For the first time in decades, Nepalis now have local representatives who even look like them, in part due to reserved positions for women and indigenous groups. The new layer of government has potential to bring decision-making closer to affected communities. As Nepal transitions to a federal system, it remains to be seen whether the new officials can effectively govern and represent their constituencies.

In this sense, the operating context is ripe for the Citizen Helpdesks to carefully consider ways in which they can support officials to hear citizens concerns and build capacity to respond effectively. We interviewed one ward official who wanted to provide resources to support the Citizen Helpdesks and Accountability Lab says four districts have allocated funds for Citizen Helpdesks in their budgets. Whether these signals of government interest translate into meaningful citizen voice will be important to track moving forward. Building feedback loops to create a culture of accountability —for government and citizens— is not a simple theory of change exercise, and it is heartening to see groups like Accountability Lab taking up the challenge.

The story of the returned migrant worker sharing a difficult experience, despite strong religious and cultural stigmas, demonstrates that something different is happening to open up conversation and potentially improve support for marginalized populations. If the Citizen Helpdesks are successful at creating spaces where lesson-sharing is acceptable and even welcomed, perhaps this same innovation can be applied to developing new norms around accountability. As the Helpdesks go through future design iterations, understanding the feedback loop as an evolving process in a complex context is critical.