Motivation: Affirmative action policies have attracted significant academic and policy interest worldwide. One of the key criticisms of such policies is that they undermine meritocratic principles, but there is little evidence and analysis on how such policies are being implemented and shape meritocracy, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Purpose: Drawing on a case study of an affirmative action policy designed for the inclusion of members from marginalized groups in Nepal’s civil service, the article critically examines whether this erodes meritocracy and productivity. Methods and approach: The article draws on empirical insights and data collected through a critical policy analysis, complemented by surveys and interviews with civil servants benefitted from affirmative action and other civil servants, including policy analysts and public intellectuals. Findings: Our findings challenge a narrative that affirmative action in the form of reservations or quotas erodes meritocracy and reduces the quality of public services. Rather, we argue that an affirmative action policy can enrich meritocracy by addressing its inherent deficits, including its blindness to horizontal inequalities and forms of social exclusion, which tend to sustain the monopolization of bureaucracy by a dominant group in an already unequal society. Policy implications: Reconceptualizing an affirmative action policy applied in Nepal’s civil service as a tool of “meritocratic inclusion,” we argue that it rewards competence and promotes workforce diversity and social justice. Our evidence suggests that affirmative action, when it is carefully designed, can be an effective policy tool both to enhance representative bureaucracy and enrich meritocracy.
ASJC Scopus subject areas