A recent interaction program between the Social Welfare Council (SWC) and the Association of International NGOs in Nepal (AIN) ended with both the sides ventilating their grievances, and establishing better understanding about each other’s pertinent issues/concerns, with a view to charting out the future course of NGOs in the country. The government-controlled SWC facilitates coordination and supports NGOs (both international and domestic) functioning in the country.
SWC Act defines the roles of SWC—the liaison body between NGOs and government regulating development activities through NGOs—ranging from giving work permission, project approval, providing guidance and support as well as ensuring effective monitoring, aligned to national development priority. Whereas the AIN working as an important network of INGOs has become an influential catalyst with more than 90 of its members executing various people-centered development programs with local NGOs, CBOs and even government agencies as implementing partners.
The interaction was fruitful, well-attended and actively participated by representatives from SWC, concerned ministries (Women, Children and Social Welfare; Home Affairs; Foreign Affairs), National Planning Commission, as well as several members of AIN, perhaps for the first time to recognize and streamline the role of NGOs in national development. The paper presentation and open-floor discussion paved the way for increased consensus, increased accountability, transparency and diversity alongside awareness generation on new government policies, and structure and strategies of NGOs as development partners.
Indeed, the role of NGOs is to outsource development assistance, promote human rights, empower the poor and excluded community, and improve people’s wellbeing, lifting them out of poverty, exclusion and injustice. Provided the NGOs stick to their jurisdiction, they can become politically and religiously nonsectarian civil society. Operating programs that fulfill identified objectives or targeted action at the people’s level is the primary mandate of an NGO.
An NGO working in countries other than the origin country are categorized as international NGOs (INGOs). Such organizations are leveraged to strengthen people-to-people cooperation and friendship across borders. Bilateral and multilateral donors and UN agencies are not INGOs even though they offer both national and international NGOs financial and technical assistance. Many more such INGOs are nurtured in developed countries to carry out their activities in several developing countries and communities.
In Nepal, a democratic society since 1990, the role of the NGO sector has become crucial for community development and resource mobilization. The people themselves took the lead and started to form and operate NGOs to address their own issues more effectively. The increased contacts and cooperation from international NGOs paved the way for more NGOs here. As per the law, INGOs are allowed to work through locally-registered partner NGOs.
Enabling and empowering the poor and excluded, building awareness about poverty and marginalization, creating small and medium infrastructure, fostering livelihood opportunities, facilitating income generation and employment creation, health care support are some popular areas were NGOs have played a vital role. More notably, NGOs are uniformly undertaking development activities in even remote, inaccessible places and among the most deprived people, generating several opportunities. People will not forget how NGOs helped people even during a decade-long insurgency when normal life was paralyzed and crippled and the delivery of even basic services from the government was hindered.
However, the NGO sector also invites criticism for weak performance, discouraging overall governance, lack of accountability and structure of power delegation. Being accountable to donors, stakeholders and the targeted community is the basis of good governance. Transparency and accountability are keys to improving governance structure and democratizing the community.
A big chunk of community development fund comes through NGO, through generous individuals, charitable trusts and other major donors. However, there has been no effective monitoring of the flow of external resources and their effective utilization in the interest of the targeted population.
Controversial activities and vested interests of NGOs that go against the interests of the targeted community highlight the negligence of the government in regulating the sector. However, bracketing all NGOs into one category is unfair since there are many genuinely committed NGOs. Also, different national and international NGOs in Nepal have been advocating and endorsing good governance within the NGO sector, in state mechanisms, among political actors and in the corporate arena. Such NGOs have adopted methods of self-regulation like social audits, public hearing, joint program monitoring, integrating their plan and budget with DDC and VDC. But it is unfortunate that such organizations are in the minority.
Many international organizations engaged in development activities in Nepal are yet to embark on the path of transparency and accountability. The fact that the country is in prolonged transition has also contributed to lack of a well-built monitoring mechanism that would recognize the good work of NGOs and correct those exceeding their briefs.
The SWC Act included a one-window policy to guide NGO activities, but this policy shift has not had the desired impact due to frequent political meddling in SWC, shortage of resources, along with a negative view of the I/NGO sector. Further, the accountability and transparency of government agencies vis-à-vis the NGO sector leaves a lot to be desired. The misappropriation of DDC and VDC budget is a looming reality.
The role of NGOs in community development and social transformation cannot be denied. However, the primary and mandatory obligation for any development project/activity should be that they are entirely and unconditionally transparent and accountable. The government must devise a way of monitoring and regulating NGOs and their activities. For this, a robust one-window NGO policy has become an imperative.
The author is associated with ActionAid