Supporting Democratic Transformation in Nepal and Timor-Leste through Locally Led Development

A group of people in a hotel conference room in Nepal

By Rachel Karnoff

In 2021, President Biden unveiled the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, a set of foreign assistance and policy initiatives aimed at advancing technology for democracy, supporting free and independent media, fighting corruption, bolstering human rights and democratic reformers, and defending free and fair elections. Under this umbrella, the Partnership for Democratic Development (PDD), a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) initiative was created to support countries and their leaders in highlighting the importance of democracy, and the benefits it can provide to its citizens.[1]

Through this initiative, USAID seeks to provide funding to burgeoning democracies that show progressing democratic values. In 2023, USAID announced the first wave of nine such partner countries: Armenia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Malawi, Nepal, North Macedonia, Paraguay, Timor-Leste, and Zambia.[2] USAID is partnering with local actors within each country to co-design and co-implement programming that addresses the most pressing local needs, and takes into account the countries’ specific democratic challenges, including issues of corruption, human rights abuses, and civic participation.[3]

The launch of the PDD program comes at a time when USAID has announced its intention to adopt a programming approach that is centered around locally led development. More specifically, the Agency has been working to implement programming that responds to local priorities and is directly driven by local actors. By building capacity and elevating the voices of local governments, civil society, the private sector, marginalized populations, and the general citizenry, locally led development empowers countries to take ownership of, and drive lasting change in their own communities.[4]

Taken together, these two initiatives provide a unique opportunity to, as USAID Administrator Samantha Power described during the 2023 Summit for Democracy, “connect those we work with on the ground with the private sector, with civil society, with community leaders to identify areas where trust in democracy is lacking – and design solutions to fill the gaps.”[5] Through the Swift Expertise and Grounded Analytics (SEGA) mechanism, DevTech Systems Inc. (DevTech) has partnered with USAID to do just this, emphasizing locally led development through work in two PDD countries, Nepal and Timor-Leste.

Because the PDD process seeks to give local actors the opportunity to identify their community’s specific key development challenges, the work in Timor-Leste and Nepal followed different paths, while seeking to achieve the same objectives.

Timor-Leste, which gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, continues to make strides in creating democratic processes from the ground-up. However, challenges of sustainability, corruption, and a lack of democratic infrastructure and resources have made this transition difficult. Minority groups, including women; indigenous groups; people with disabilities; and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex (LGBTQI+) communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of these challenges.

With these issues in mind, under the PDD initiative, USAID has partnered with the Government of Timor-Leste (GOT) via SEGA to support its efforts to better understand local stakeholders’ perceptions on the country’s most pressing development needs , with a specific focus on the concerns and priorities of marginalized populations. The scope of this research was purposefully broad, as the Mission sought to understand overarching stakeholder priorities for developmental and democratic progress, without limitation.  In response, DevTech assembled a local team to conduct background research; key informant interviews (KIIs) with civil society, the private sector, government representatives, and grassroot organizations; and two in-country workshops to map the development context in Timor-Leste and plan for sustainable solutions. This research found a few key priorities and challenges spread across seven sectors: political, economic, environmental, social, legal, technological, and democratic. While the various stakeholder groups did not always agree on what the key priority areas were for each sector, there was much overlap in the overall list of issues they identified. For example, multiple stakeholder groups highlighted that corruption, collusion, and nepotism in the government was inhibiting democratic progress, and that government services often do not adhere to the needs of citizens, especially those of marginalized groups. Further, most stakeholder groups consulted noted that Timor-Leste does not properly invest in priority economic sectors for economic growth, including agriculture and tourism. These takeaways, which will be summarized in a final report, provide a roadmap for USAID and other donor organizations to follow when pursuing future development work in the country. Importantly, they will be representative of the main priorities of the people of Timor-Leste, and do not only follow donor assumptions.

While USAID PDD’s support to Timor-Leste was broad in nature, the program’s work to support the Government of Nepal (GON) focused on its more narrow need to advance e-governance, that is, using the internet and communication technologies to make delivering services, involving citizens, and running government operations smoother and more efficient.[6] Nepal has made significant progress in recent years toward adopting e-governance capabilities, facilitated by the launch of its Digital Nepal Framework, which provides a roadmap for the country’s e-governance and digital transformation efforts and the establishment of an E-Governance Commission (EGC), a government body designed to promote electronic systems within public services and government functions.[7]  Despite such progress, the e-governance sector in Nepal continues to face challenges including a lack of political will, e-governance literacy among citizens, e-governance infrastructure, impactful policy, and a trained and knowledgeable workforce, to name a few.

To further explore and prioritize these challenges and develop a comprehensive plan to address them, Devtech, through SEGA as part of the PDD initiative, followed a similar research pattern as in Timor-Leste. The team conducted an in-depth literature review; consulted stakeholders from the government, the private sector, academia, and civil society; and held two workshops with these stakeholders to inform and validate the research. An initial Agenda-Setting workshop was held to provide an opportunity for over 60 stakeholders to discuss the e-governance sector in Nepal and map existing challenges and opportunities for growth. A subsequent Validation Workshop was held for the stakeholders to prioritize and rank these challenges and opportunities. Cumulatively, this work sought to determine key priorities and chart an implementation path to provide citizens across Nepal with improved access to government services online. Importantly, DevTech partnered with the EGC during each step of the process, ensuring they were comfortable with the findings, and working with them to create strategies for successful implementation. The PDD team, led by local experts, found that stakeholders outlined three core challenges: a lack of a comprehensive e-governance policy that gave the EGC power and legitimacy across the government; weak and unreliable e-governance infrastructure that did not effectively reach rural and marginalized populations; and human capital disparities, such as a rapidly emigrating workforce in search of opportunities abroad, and insufficient capacity building to increase digital literacy. These challenges and suggested solutions were combined into an Investment Action Plan for the EGC to utilize as a guide for future implementation. By including the EGC throughout the process, and gaining insights from a range of stakeholders, the PDD initiative in Nepal was able to create government buy-in to a plan informed by the Nepalese people to support effective and sustainable service delivery.

SEGA adopted a locally led development approach to ensure that the PDD activities in both countries addressed the present and pressing challenges felt by the governments, private sector, civil society, and most importantly, the overall citizenry of each country. Such an approach is essential for fostering democratic progress. By empowering citizens, promoting participation, and ensuring accountability, locally led development creates a foundation for a more democratic and just society. To learn more about SEGA’s contributions to the PDD initiative, you can visit this link.

[1] The White House. “FACT SHEET: The Biden-Harris Administration’s Abiding Commitment to Democratic Renewal at Home and Abroad.” The White House, March 29, 2023.

[2] USAID. “USAID Announces New Updates at the 2024 Summit for Democracy under the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal.” N.D.

[3] USAID. “Reinventing the Playbook to Strengthen Global Democracy: Democracy, Human Rights and Governance,” August 15, 2023.

[4] USAID. “Localization at USAID: The Vision and Approach,” August 2022.

[5] USAID. “Administrator Samantha Power Delivers Remarks at the ‘Partnering for Democracy: New Approaches for Reform’ Event | Washington, DC | March 28, 2023,” September 20, 2023.

[6] Belt, Juan. “E-Government as a Tool to Promote Public Sector Efficiency, Effectiveness and Transparency,” June 8, 2005,

[7] Government of Nepal. “Digital Nepal Framework.” Government of Nepal Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, 2019.

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