Interview with Rupak Chattopadhyay – The Forum of Federations

May 12, 2018


The Forum of Federations is a relatively young civil society organization (founded in 1999). Can you briefly explain what makes the Forum of Federations unique and why your work is necessary in today’s world?

One of the fundamental challenges for democratic governance, in our time, is to make governments at different levels work efficiently, inclusively and in the interests of the people. The Forum of Federations is focused on this challenge.

The Forum is unique because it is the only organization worldwide that focuses on federalism, devolution and decentralization. The Forum today is supported by ten member countries, and can draw on these networks to curate comparative experiences on multilevel governance to help policy makers in partner countries improve their systems of government. The Forum takes a non-prescriptive approach based around its core principle of “learning from each other”.

We work with partner countries to help them establish institutions and processes rooted in their own social, economic and/or historic realities. We do this by offering trainings, workshops, and providing policy research and sector-based technical advice to governments and other key stakeholders.

The Forum’s work has been in great demand during the last decade as more countries come to appreciate that decentralization or federalization contributes significantly to better governance and provides solutions for more equitable distribution of power and resources. Furthermore, the federal idea has come to be seen as an important tool in the conflict resolution toolkit for countries with a great deal of diversity.

The Forum has a practical, problem-solving approach to achieving results. It supports governments and citizens around the world – through training, the provision of expertise and impartial practical education. Could you briefly describe a success story stemming from your work?

One recent success story is the adoption of the Nepali federal constitution. The Forum became engaged in the process of Nepal’s democratic transition in 2007. Between then and 2015, we ran a program of public education and technical advice to respond to the needs expressed by Nepali civil society and government. Our public education program sought to demystify federalism and provide a common vocabulary for the public and government so that the Nepali people could have an informed and meaningful debate about the pros and cons of federalization. As they wrestled with complex reforms, the Constituent Assembly and government sought the Forum’s expertise in understanding the process of federalization in other countries. The Forum’s curation of others’ experiences fed into the institutional choices made by the Assembly, but the federal constitution promulgated in 2015 is a uniquely Nepali document organically rooted in the country’s realities. That the Forum support informed their choices is well appreciated by the key stakeholders, as is the fact that the Forum neither advocated for a federal Nepal, nor for a particular institutional model (e.g. Canadian model, Swiss model, etc.).

The Forum of Federations works in several different countries and regions with programs that include global programspolicy and researchdevelopment assistancegender based programs and also the Mena project. If you woke up tomorrow with unlimited time, staff and financial resources, what project or program would be your dream endeavour?

The Forum typically works in about 20 countries every year. There are at least dozen more which could benefit from what the Forum has to offer. Let me start by saying that unlike a number of other types of developmental interventions, political and governance reforms take a long time to accomplish. It took almost 700 years from Magna Carta to the women getting the right to vote in the UK! Just look at how long it has taken us in Canada to grapple with issues of regional, linguistic and racial marginalization. Thankfully the world now moves at a faster pace – Nepal took almost 9 years to promulgate a federal constitution and the process of implementation is still ongoing.

The expectation that newly democratizing countries will establish responsive institutions based on the rule of law overnight is unrealistic. Institutional and political reforms don’t progress in a linear fashion. Indeed there may be reversals along the way. The challenge always is to remain engaged because some of the fundamental issues targeted by the reforms don’t go away.

So on balance, our dream endeavour would be to be active in more countries with longer programming time horizons than is currently permissible.

The Forum of Federations has been a member of CCIC for the past few years. Could describe why it is important for the Forum to be a member of Canada’s coalition to end global poverty?

CCIC offers an important platform for Canada-based organizations working in the development sector in Canada to collaborate and learn from each others’ experiences. We are all trying to tackle the same problem from different angles. The Forum’s approach is closely aligned with the SDG-16 focus on peace, justice and building strong institutions, and we hope that our experience and voice will complement the great work that others do.