Affirmative Action to Target Dalits in Nepal: More Risks Than Opportunities?

FROM: Annabelle Jaggi , Ulrike Müller-Böker – 26. December 2019

I’ve recently come across an interesting article by Annabelle Jaggi and Ulrike Müller-Böker of the University of Zurich. It’s a good example of how academic institutions use development projects to bring closer concepts and practices. Annaabelle and Ulrike took the Employment Fund project implemented by Helvetas in Nepal as a case study. The study was published in the 2019 European Bulletin of Himalayan Research. In this blog post, they present a synthesis of what they did and what they found out regarding the complex nature of affirmative action. They concluded that the Employment Fund project can serve as a vivid example of the opportunities and risks of affirmative action (Zenebe Uraguchi)

Nepal and inclusive development

In Nepal’s constitution of 2015, inclusive development is a central state goal. The constitution aims at ending discrimination in Nepal’s society – a society which is historically stratified along class, caste, ethnicity, gender, region, religion and language leaving many social groups in a disadvantaged position, facing unequal opportunities in life. To address discrimination, the constitution puts in place affirmative action policies.

According to the World Bank and DFID, the aim of affirmative action is to ‘correct historical disadvantages and unfair discrimination by enabling access to full opportunity and benefits to groups that have been excluded’. Affirmative action provides disadvantaged groups with access to education, formal employment and political participation, often based on quotas.

Not only the state, also national and international NGOs and foreign donor agencies have discovered affirmative action to be a powerful tool to reach out the stratum of Nepal’s society that is disadvantaged. Often they define the target groups of their development interventions by combining indicators of economic poverty with social categories such as gender, caste and ethnicity as indicators of social discrimination.

Our case study: The Employment Fund project

The Employment Fund Nepal was a large-scale, vocational skills training project implemented by Helvetas in Nepal. Between 2008 to 2015, the Employment Fund financed three-month vocational skills trainings for almost 100,000 un- or underemployed, economically poor and – based on gender, caste, ethnicity and regional identity – socially discriminated youth across Nepal.

To achieve this tremendous outreach, Helvetas worked together with local private sector Training and Employment Service Providers, who were responsible for identifying suitable training participants and facilitating the vocational skills trainings. A results- and category-based payment system encouraged the Training and Employment Service Providers to enrol youth belonging to Disadvantaged Groups (DAGs). They were paid at a higher rate for training and facilitating employment for women and members of DAGs than for enrolling youth who were economically poor but did not belong to a socially discriminated group.

In 2015, we were part of a research team that conducted a qualitative impact study of the Employment Fund. The impact study team collected a rich dataset: twelve semi-structured expert interviews with Helvetas staff, donor representatives and officials of the governmental Technical and Vocational Education and Training sector; 87 semi-structured interviews with former Employment Fund participants and their family members, youth who applied but were not selected for the project, Training and Employment Service Providers, employers of former participants and district-level government officials; and finally, eight focus group interviews with current training participants.

Going deeper: unpacking affirmative action

After the impact study, we used the collected dataset for a deeper analysis of how affirmative action focusing on Dalits works in development practice, and which intended and unintended implications it can produce. We want to share with you some of our findings and recommendations.

Nepal’s Dalits are frequently defined as a priority target group of development interventions. They are a heterogeneous group of different castes that together make up around 13 per cent of the Nepali population. Historically, they are positioned at the bottom of Nepal’s social hierarchy. Though caste discrimination was legally prohibited in 1990, Dalits are still disadvantaged in society. Many suffer from poverty and lack access to land, health care, education, employment and decision-making processes.

Despite the good intentions of affirmative action, the construction of target groups based on social categories as indicators of social discrimination is contested. We want to outline two possible unintended implications of affirmative action.

The first one is that affirmative action fosters inter-group differences and causes a polarisation between targeted and non-targeted groups. In other words, when defining target groups according to caste or ethnic affiliation, development actors may unintentionally reinforce caste and ethnic consciousness. Thereby, they may fuel discrimination and resentment against the groups benefitting from their interventions while the non-targeted groups feel to be treated unfairly.

Another possible unintended implication of affirmative action is that inequalities within social groups are ignored. For example, scholars observed that civil service jobs in Nepal reserved for Dalits are often filled by Dalits that are relatively well-off resulting in economically poor Dalits not benefitting from the affirmative action measures. There is a risk that inequalities within non-targeted groups are ignored as well when people in need of special provisions who do not fall into the category of socially discriminated (for example, poor, high-caste Brahmins) are excluded from affirmative action measures.

Yet, neither glorifying affirmative action as a magic tool for inclusive development, nor demonizing it to be failing this very purpose would do justice to it. The reality is more complex. The Employment Fund can serve as a vivid example of the opportunities and risks of affirmative action.

A few of our interviews showed that the risk of fostering differences between the groups who receive benefits of affirmative action and the ones who do not might also arise from the DAG-approach applied by Helvetas. Some youth expressed their discontent with the selective targeting of DAGs. A man not falling into that category proposed: ‘I think the training should be provided to the poor instead of categorising according to caste’; and a woman, whose application for the vocational trainings was rejected, stated: ‘I feel the disadvantaged groups are getting more training compared to others as everything is focused on them. I feel they have more opportunities. Since there is a quota system, we can’t get enrolled’. Especially the latter statement suggests that giving priority to DAGs might provoke resentment among people who do not fulfil the criteria of DAG but feel in need of vocational training.

The risk that inequalities within social groups are also ignored, resulting in the relatively well-off sections within the target groups benefitting, seems to be relevant in the Employment Fund. Some interviewed youth were of the impression that only rich people and people with connections get selected to participate in the vocational trainings. A woman, whose application was rejected, stated: ‘I don’t have anyone who can refer me for the training. Only the rich and the ones who have people who can refer them are enrolled in the training’. A Helvetas staff member expressed the concern that in view of the great heterogeneity of the Nepali population, the overall target group definition of DAGs oversimplifies and blurs socio-economic inequalities within seemingly homogeneous categories such as Dalit.

The bigger picture

Nonetheless, our interviews showed that Employment Fund participants – irrespective of whether they belong to a Dalit or other caste or ethnic group – are confronted with similar barriers when seeking participation in the vocational trainings and experience similar economic and social empowerment in their families and communities after completing training.

We argue that despite the risk that the overall target group definition of DAGs ignores certain group heterogeneities, the subsuming of various social groups within the broad term Disadvantaged Groups has largely positive effects. The broadness of the term may contribute to the fading-out of the traditional group-boundaries and might emphasise commonalities instead.

With respect to Dalits, we assume that the inclusion of Dalits into the broad category of DAGs has the positive effect of reducing their traditional stigmatisation and facilitating an inclusive targeting approach. What is important is that affirmative action measures are also inclusive in the sense that they do not neglect the ‘others’, i.e. they should consider the views and needs of groups that do not fall into the target group categories in order to prevent fuelling of resentment between groups. Such important consideration, however, has not be done within an inclusive targeting approach

In any case, affirmative action measures need to be highly contextualised and flexibly implemented: they require a careful assessment of local societal contexts and a deep understanding of social exclusion. Our case study has shown that it is necessary to give certain Dalit-specific challenges extra attention when integrating them into the DAG category (in our article, we illustrate this with the topic of caste-based labour division, which influences the employability of Dalits and is critically linked to caste relations and issues of discrimination).

We suggest that development actors take into consideration the available academic knowledge that can give valuable insights into how socio-economic inequalities and discrimination against Dalits and other discriminated groups are produced. Further, we recommend that the experiences of local project implementers like the Training and Employment Service Providers are systematically taken into consideration and evaluated in a project like the Employment Fund.

The case study of the Employment Fund shows that the adoption of affirmative action in development interventions can be a valuable tool to ensure outreach to and participation of members of disadvantaged groups. Also, the symbolic power affirmative action programmes hold by demonstrating that Dalits and other discriminated and excluded groups are appreciated as vital parts of a society, should not be underestimated.

The findings of our case study were recently published in an article in the European Bulletin of Himalayan Research:

Jaggi, Annabelle & Müller-Böker, Ulrike 2019. Affirmative Action to Target Dalits. Practices of Swiss Development Agencies in Nepal. European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 53:5-34.

Additional sources

CAS (Constituent Assembly Secretariat) 2015. Constitution of Nepal 2015 (unofficial English translation by Nepal Law Society, IDEA & UNDP). Kathmandu.

Hollenbach, P., Jaggi, A., Müller-Böker, U., Seithel, S., Lohani, J. R., Bhetwal, B., Upadhyay, U. P., & Upreti, K. 2015. Employment Fund NEPAL. Qualitative impact evaluation report. Zurich, Kathmandu: University of Zurich, RIDA.

World Bank & DFID (Department for International Development) 2006. Unequal Citizens. Gender, caste and ethnic exclusion in Nepal. Summary. Kathmandu.


Cover photo: Helvetas

Annabelle Jaggi holds a Master's degree in Human Geography from the University of Zurich. For her Master's thesis she was involved in a qualitative impact study of Helvetas’ Employment Fund in Nepal. Since graduating, she has worked for different Swiss NGOs, particularly in the field of education. Today she is project manager for German-speaking Switzerland for the global sustainable schools programme Eco-Schools.
Ulrike Müller-Böker was Full Professor of Human Geography at the Department of Geography, University of Zurich in Switzerland. Since 2019 she is retired. Her research focuses on social disparities in developing countries, particularly in South Asia. With her international research team, she investigated which institutions, policies and interventions are useful for improving the livelihoods of poor people. From 2001 until 2013 she led the National Centre of Competence North-South program component ‘institutions, livelihoods, conflicts' and and committed in capacity building of young researchers in Switzerland and South Asia. Since 2016 she is the director of the Graduate Campus of the University of Zurich.