May 3, 2009
There’s a joke in Kathmandu Valley: When someone offers you his or her business card, you look at it for a moment as if you are confused, and then you ask, “Why didn’t you list your NGO?”
The joke is that having an NGO is socially obligatory in Kathmandu. But the subtext is more cynical: It’s the easiest way to make money in Kathmandu. The veracity of this assumption remains to be seen. Very little transparency or accountability is required to register an NGO in Nepal. People who donate to altruistic-sounding NGOs put their trust in the pamphlets given them, rather than the ledgers locked up in private offices. Even the number of NGOs in Nepal is an unknown, although 40,000 to 60,000 are the estimates one hears most often.
Obviously, there are many NGO’s that contribute greatly to the betterment of Nepalis’ quality of life. But the lack of accountability, the question of motive and the assessment of achievement have always seemed troubling to me. It was with this in mind that I sought out Dr. Arjun Kumar Karki, PhD, President of the NGO Federation of Nepal, the largest NGO umbrella group in Nepal. We also discussed the main stumbling blocks for NGOs succeeding in their development goals, given the current political situation.
DUNHAM: What exactly is the NGO Federation of Nepal and what is its purpose?
KARKI: The NGO Federation of Nepal is an umbrella organization made up of more than 4, 500 civil society organizations. Many of our members are working in the area of human rights, democracy, and development issues. Most of our members are very small, village-based, grassroots organizations.
DUNHAM: When was the federation created?
KARKI: It was established right after the big political change in 1990. [1990 marked the end of absolute monarchy and the panchayat system in Nepal, and the emergence of a new constitutional monarchy.]
Until 1990, most of the NGOs were, more or less, banned. Only the people who were close to the royal palace, royal family and the panchayat system were allowed to run NGOs.
So there was a very sudden growth of NGO’s after 1990 and we thought that we should have a federation of these new organizations based on certain criteria. From the beginning, our mandate was 1) to build the capacity of small village-based grassroots civil society organizations and 2) to serve as a watchdog or pressure group for governmental activity involving basic human rights – to promote human rights, and to advocate whenever human rights are violated.
In short, we have a two-pronged strategy: pressure and partnership. If the government comes up with a pro-poor, pro-people policies and programs, we partner with the government. And if the government comes up with an anti-poor, anti-people programs, we will work as a pressure group.
We also work with other federations so, on an informal level, we work as a confederation of different federations in Nepal. Internationally, we work with numerous campaigns and advocacy work. We are part of an international media campaign, for instance -- a campaign against poverty.
DUNHAM: So you represent 4,500 NGOs. How many NGOs are there in Nepal?
KARKI: That is very difficult to determine. Our government lacks the proper regulations to define what an NGO is in this country. There was no NGO act created after the political change in 1990. Since 1990, all the successive governments – not just one political leadership – all the governments that have been in power since 1990 have been very reluctant to introduce new laws covering NGOs.
As a result, most NGOs are operating on an old act that was enacted in 1974 during the panchayat system. The act is called “Organization Restriction Act 2034”. That law says that all organizations that are not a part of the government are considered non-governmental organizations.
DUNHAM: That covers a lot of territory.
KARKI: Yes. The act allows the inclusion of professional unions, prayer clubs, sports clubs, monasteries, temples, libraries, Syambhunath, Pashupatinath -- all belong to the NGO category according to Nepal’s legal definition. So it has really created a lot of confusion when one tries to determine the number of NGOs in Nepal.
In the NGO Federation of Nepal, we have created our own definition: An organization that is voluntary, non-profit-making, non-partisan, service oriented and not working for the interests or benefits of the people running the NGO. This is the kind of group that is allowed to receive membership in the NGO Federation. We don’t allow religious groups, sports clubs or professional unions to become members.
DUNHAM: How many NGOs -- groups that are not part of your federation – would you define as credible institutions?
KARKI: OK, there are some credible organizations that are not part of the NGO Federation. Maybe an additional 500 that are not part of the NGO Federation. I have to say that.
But if you read the local newspapers, they report that there are more than 40,000 NGOs in Nepal. But that number includes all the groups that the NGO Federation disallows, according to our definition of an NGO.
DUNHAM: So you are saying that, in a country with 40,000-plus NGOs, no more than 5000 are credible?
KARKI: Yes, something like 5000.
DUNHAM: And you say that you focus on small, grassroots organizations. Is that because you feel that small NGOs tend to be more successful?
KARKI: Of course. The small NGOs tend to be much more aware of the ground realities. They are locally initiated. They organize the resources themselves. So our main interest focuses on these small groups. We do have large organizations that are members – large national development organizations – including Rural Reconstruction Nepal [RRN], for example, which is one of the largest development NGOs in the country. RRN has a staff of more than 700, dispersed throughout most of the districts of Nepal. But the larger organizations are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the NGOs are quite small: they work in two or three villages at most – this is the typical NGO that we recognize.
DUNHAM: Can you give me an example of a small, grassroots NGO that has been particularly successful and explain why it works so well?
KARKI: Let me clarify something first. There are two distinct categories of NGO. One is large and one is small but they both have their own competitive advantages in their areas of specialization. Being large doesn’t, in itself, make an NGO bad. Many are doing wonderful work. They are capable of mobilizing large amounts of foreign aid and taking it to remote areas of Nepal that the government has failed to reach. Some of the large NGOs are also helping the smaller NGOs to build their capacity. In many cases, the small NGOs work in partnership with the large NGOs.
But the smaller NGOs -- many of them are autonomous, independent, self-funded --they understand the ground reality, they understand the local dynamics. That’s why they tend to serve people better than the large NGOs, which originate from somewhere else.
DUNHAM: Can you give me a specific example?
KARKI: OK, Begawan Youth Club, for example. Very close to Kathmandu. It’s in a village 30 minutes from Kathmandu. They have mobilized more than 15,000 members. They don’t receive foreign funding. But they run so many projects, including their own ambulance service for women and children. They have their own banking system: They have introduced their own kind of local credit card. I was very impressed when I was invited to their annual meeting held only last week. They work with women’s health. They do a lot of awareness raising. They even have clinical service in some cases. They promote homemade ayurvedic medicines. They work on the issue of gender injustice. The majority of their members are women. OK, many of their projects are like other NGOs that receive foreign funding. But what’s encouraging and impressive about Begawan Youth Club is that they are doing all of this without foreign help.
That’s one example. But there are thousands of examples where local groups are really excelling and doing so on their own initiative. Not many people are aware of them because you ordinarily have to go out to the more remote areas to see their operations.
DUNHAM: How do you monitor the NGOs who have joined the federation?
KARKI: We operate on the district, regional and national level, based on a code of conduct we have imposed on our member organizations. The code of conduct focuses on transparency and accountability. All members are expected to follow a basic minimum standard procedure that complies with the existing government regulations; but in addition, they must maintain certain international standards of transparency.
First, the organization must be autonomous, non-partisan and registered with the government. In addition, it has to submit an original financial statement to the government and the NGO Foundation of Nepal annually. It is also required to submit to us a yearly progress report. This is our monitoring system.
DUNHAM: What happens if they fail to meet the code of conduct requirements?
KARKI: The procedure varies according to the situation. Sometimes we give them a warning. We try to create awareness, first and foremost. We don’t just go in there and expel them. But we do expelled members who have failed to maintain the code of conduct over a period of time.
DUNHAM: If an NGO wants to join your federation, what’s the procedure? Do you join on a trail basis, for instance?
KARKI: No, but they must subscribe to the basic principles. Membership is open. Everyone is free to apply. If they meet the criteria, then they can receive membership.
DUNHAM: You mentioned earlier that you are represented in all of Nepal’s districts. Is there any specific region in Nepal that is in more need of NGOs than other districts? I’m thinking of the most remote districts – Humla, for instance.
KARKI: There are so many thousands of villages in Nepal. You mention Humla and the needs are great there. But the same thing can occur anywhere in Nepal. I was in Dolpa, for instance, only last month, and the conditions you are referring to are present in Dolpa, just like in Humla.
And you don’t have to go that far away! If you drive one or two hours from the center of Kathmandu, you’ll find numerous “Humlas” very close to the city – very similar situations.
The problem in this country -- so far, Nepal’s development planning or development approach has been very much Kathmandu-centric – confined among the political elites’ interests. The budgetary allocations have been based on the biases of political party leaders and their political interests.
DUNHAM: Can you give me specific examples?
KARKI: OK, for example, the amount of money allocated to the district from where G.P. Koirala was elected is double to that which was allocated to the Karnali district. Similarly, the amount of money allocated to the district from where CPN-UML leader Madhav Nepal was elected, was also double the budget for the Karnali district. During the time of the panchayat system and Surya Bahadur Thapa was in power, he used to bring resources to Dhankuta, his home district. When Sher Bahadur Deuba was in power, he concentrated on developing the corridor in the far west. If you go to the far west you will see that is far more developed than the mid-west, right? So this is the reality in Nepal. Nepal has very much a constituency-based politics and led by the interests of those who are politically in power at any given time.
All of these specific allocations have had a political impact on Nepal. For instance, although Marichman Singh was prime minister during the panchayat time [Marichman Singh Shrestha was prime minister from June 1986-April 1990], he was not able to bring a lot of resources to the mid-west, partly because we had USAID concentrating on the mid-west. And sometimes we call this the root cause of the eventual conflict: the failure of the governments to bring changes, improvements for the people in the mid-west which, in turn, created fertile ground for the [Maoist] uprising there.
But anyway, this is the reality. I’ve been to Karnali. I’ve been to Humla, Jumla, and Dolpa and, obviously, I agree with you that these are some of the most deprived areas in Nepal. And there are lots of possible geographical targets where we can bring more resources to address the needs and demands of the people.
But so many big political changes! We had a big political change in 1990. And again we had a big political change in 2006. But the expectation of the people toward the political elite – in 1990 and 2006 – are quite different. In 2006, the people thought, “OK, our leaders have learned a lot, they have changed, they’re not going to make the same mistakes twice, the leaders will be more pro-poor, they will not waste their time in-fighting, and there will be a big peace dividend for all of us.” That’s what people thought or hoped.
But after the big political change of 2006, not only our government, but also our donors expected something big.
And if you say to the political leaders in Kathmandu, “OK, let’s resolve the larger political issues first, then we will address the smaller problems in the villages,” you get nowhere.
The ongoing peace process, to me, has faltered because it remains a Kathmandu-centric process, confined to the political elite. There is no sensible effort to build peace from the common people upward. It is the remote villages that were hardest hit by war, but what have they gained since 2006? How have their lives improved? This is the big challenge for the NGOs.
DUNHAM: Reconciliation seems to be a big stumbling block.
KARKI: What kind of reconciliation are you talking about? Reconciliation between G.P. Koirala and Prachanda? Reconciliation between Prachanda and the UML or any other party you care to mention? They are always talking. Even in wartime, there was always some sort of dialogue going on between the parties –they were meeting each other. But while the political leaders talked, outside in the countryside, the cadres and government forces were killing each other and destroying the rural infrastructure, which left the people no choice but to flee their villages. Where’s the reconciliation there?
So now we tell the displaced people, “You can go back to your homes, we have peace now, there is no risk there.” But the truth is that their land has not been cultivated for the last several years. Their irrigation canals are not functioning. Their drinking water system was damaged. Their school systems were used as military barracks. Their health posts were used as training centers for the armed groups. In some cases, the infrastructure was damaged by the Maoist; in other cases, government forces created damage.
And now we ask people to just go back and live there! “There is peace. There is no danger,” we tell them. The problem is obvious. Prior to 2006, there was only one armed group: the Maoists. Now there are 27 recognized armed groups in Nepal. There are so many incidences of violence taking place in Nepal that it is very difficult to get to the bottom of each incidence: Who had done what? We never seem to get to the bottom.
And my understanding of this continuing violence is that it is due to the frustrated expectations of the people. It has nothing to do with ideological orientation of any particular political or philosophical movement. It’s the people’s frustration: They are unhappy with the political elite and so they are vulnerable to the mobilization of any disgruntled group. This is what is happening.
Therefore, we badly need a peace agreement with our people. Our political elite got a peace dividend from the 2006 peace agreement. There had been a price tag on their heads in the past. Now, they became prime minister, ministers, members of Parliament and the Constituent Assembly. They were rewarded. But what about the ordinary people living in Humla, Dolpa, and even Rukum-Rolpa, which was recognized as the capital of the Maoist uprising? They were not rewarded by the peace agreement. They received no reward.
Peace building from the bottom up is what is so badly needed right now in Nepal. I’m not saying that the peace process that is taking place in Kathmandu is bad – it is also important – but peace building in the villages is just as important. Both need to take place – not one at the cost of the other. That is the only way that there will be a lasting democratic peace in this country. This is what our government and all donors need to be looking at.
DUNHAM: There are also the obstacles of widespread impunity and absence of rule of law. Recently I spoke with Matrika Yadav, for instance. The lawlessness that is going on in the southern part of Nepal is very unsettling. I guess what I’m trying to get my head around is: How can you ensure development if the country does not respect rule of law and allows impunity? Which brings me to my next question: To what extent do the NGOs of your federation face extortions, intimidation?
KARKI: We haven’t received any reports from our NGOs, since 2006, about extortion or threats to their development projects. But there are so many other threats. For example, there are regular strikes that make progress so difficult; you can’t really move or go where you need to go. That kind of threat is ever present and makes development in Nepal impossible.
But I agree with you about the issue related to impunity – a gross and systematic violation of human rights – it is pervasive at this moment. The Federation is very much bothered by this. Of course, we should remind ourselves that we are going through a serious political transition and some of the lawlessness can be attributed to the management of that transition. It has happened in other countries as well. But beyond that, there is growing political anarchy everywhere. People have high expectations. Every section of our society wants their demands met now. There is no patience. So the ultimate tool that they use to fulfill their demands is the strike. This is what they do. They burn tires in the streets, throw stones at the shops and buildings and shut down the economy -- whatever they feel like doing and with impunity. And this is the everyday phenomenon in Nepal. And it very much bothers and interrupts the development work of the NGOs in our federation.
But it’s more complicated than that. It must be remembered that, whenever there are major political changes -- when we fight for democracy – the people have no choice but to also raise the issue of civil and political rights. We must demand our rights so that we will be in the position to exercise democratic freedom. We have been under the rule of autocracy and absolute monarchy for so long and we are trying so hard to change the direction once and for all.
But, after 2006, what I think is this: When you talk about human rights, you shouldn’t overlook the fact that having the right to develop and improve your life is also a basic human right. That particular right is being ignored everyday in this country. The right to development should be given equal importance. And that might just address the frustrated expectation of the people, which has not been accomplished so far. This is the issue that our government and our donors and our NGOs need to look at seriously.
DUNHAM: And has the present Home Minister accomplished the task of creating a better atmosphere to nurture development in this country?
KARKI: I wouldn’t personally blame the Home Minister. This is much more widespread. This is the everyday-everywhere phenomenon prevalent in our country right now. There is such a pervasive lack of governmental presence in our lives – in every sphere of our lives -- at this moment – perhaps every developing country has the same experience. But one thing is certain. Lawlessness in this country is a huge problem. The government is failing to maintain law and order. Anarchy threatens all strata of Nepali society. It goes far beyond a Home Minister.
DUNHAM: So what is the solution? Peace building beginning with your small grassroots NGOs?
KARKI: That is one of the solutions.
But there should also be a very firm political commitment among the political elite to maintain rule of law. Look at the way the sister organizations of all the major political parties behave. They engage in violence, they engage in breaking the law – how can you have rule of law in a country, if the parties themselves – the parties that wield power in the country -- ignore rule of law?
Dr. Karki also serves as President of Rural Reconstruction Nepal and President of LDC Watch. He is currently conducting research on issues related to agrarian relations, rural social movements and the peace-building process in Nepal. His most recently published works include The People's War in Nepal: Left Perspective, The People's War in Historical Context and Movement from Below: Land Rights Movements in Nepal, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.
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