Reflections on our policy advocacy experience in Nepal

9 December 2020

Evidence generated by researchers sometimes falls on deaf ears with policymakers. This disconnect between research and policymaking has to be addressed. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing research?

In this article, we share some experiences and challenges from our advocacy efforts as part of the Tobacco Control Program, funded by Cancer Research UK and implemented by the Nepal Development Research Institute (NDRI) in partnership with a specialist policy change organisation Kivu International.

The programme has two main components (1) generating evidence through a national survey, extensive literature review and analysis, and (2) advocacy on taxation and tobacco control. In this article we focus on our taxation advocacy work.

Evidence and politics in practice

In our advocacy work on increasing taxation and tobacco control in Nepal, decision makers often deal with tobacco tax rates as a ‘business decision’, thinking about profitability only. But there is also a significant health component and policymakers need to be aware of these wider consequences.

Both the theory and evidence from international experience shows that increased taxation of tobacco products is a win-win for both the public – in terms of reduced health effects of tobacco products, and the government – in terms of increased revenue.

But when influencing decision-making processes, one ventures into the arena of politics. Here it is important to understand the decision-making processes and stakeholders.

In Nepal these processes are opaque. There are some government documents that outline them, but we found differences between what is written on paper and reality. Understanding these processes, therefore, was challenging – especially as this was the first time that NDRI had engaged in this type of advocacy work. But once a think tank has made this investment, it is easier in the future.

We learned that in Nepal, tobacco taxes are classified as excise duty. There is a Revenue Advisory Committee (RAC) that proposes tax rates to the government, including the excise duty on tobacco products.  The RAC has a series of meetings with various sub-committees consisting of both government and private players. Based on these consultations, a report is published and submitted to the Ministry of Finance. The Finance Minister uses this report to make a final decision on revenue rates of different products, including tobacco.

It’s worth noting that the Ministry of Health does not actively participate in the decision-making, despite the health implications of tobacco taxation. In fact, there are reports from 2017 that cite disagreements between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance regarding tobacco taxation. The former wanted to increase the taxation, the latter wanted it to remain the same. Tobacco rates have remained stagnant, showing who won that disagreement.

The RAC consists mostly of businessmen and government officials and it’s quite clear that they do not have much inherent interest in raising tobacco taxes, believing that it is not a ‘good business decision’. The political clout of the monopoly tobacco company in Nepal (Surya Tobacco) is the country’s highest tax paying entity. Given their magnitude and influence, evidence might well fail to influence decision makers.

The evidence, however, suggests that increasing tobacco taxes will increase revenues. In fact, NDRI’s estimations show that a significant increase in tobacco tax rates can increase tax collection substantially, which in turn could mean a valuable source of revenue (especially in the context of lower revenue collection due to COVID-19).

The insider advocacy approach

In this context, building a good relationship with the government is important. It means making your think tank stand out as a credible source of evidence.

And by establishing this relationship, you become part of the bridge closing the gap between evidence generation and policy decisions.

Of course, building this relationship takes years of consistent high-quality research, as well as an intricate understanding of how government functions.

On top of providing credible evidence, you need to build relationships with the government through informal channels. This is especially true in Nepal, where direct contact with the upper echelon of government is challenging for a regular citizen.

Years of advocacy work with the government can result in good relationships – with both current and previous employees, which a think tank can then wisely capitalise on for its advocacy efforts, making the work easier with each passing year.

We hold consultative meetings with government officials. In addition to presenting a sound case for increasing tobacco taxes through our reports, we also attempt to consider – and in turn counteract – the arguments against the increase in tobacco cases, by examining these arguments in policy briefs.

While our primary advocacy objective to increase tobacco taxation by the government, we also have a complementary objective to increase public awareness of the severity of the impact of tobacco use on health and the economy, as public opinion plays an important role in affecting government decisions.

Obviously, it could take a number of years for us to be successful with our efforts to actually increase tobacco taxes in Nepal, but then again, we never said it was an easy task to do so.