Prakash Bhattarai

29 November, 2016

Balancing Bureaucracy: Closing Space for Civil Society in Nepal

An Overview of CSOs in Nepal

Civil society organisations (CSOs) began to flourish in Nepal immediately after the establishment of multiparty democracy in 1990. Although some were active earlier, they were very few in numbers due to the lack of congruent space to operate independently. However, the democratic setup formed after the success of the People’s Movement of 1990 not only provided an independent space for civil society to operate across the country, but also recognised CSOs’ roles in the socio-economic and political development processes. According to the Social Welfare Council, in 2015 there were nearly 40,000 registered CSOs in Nepal, a mighty jump from the 193 in 1990.

Photo by Punya via CC BY-SA 4.0CSOs have played a crucial role in establishing a human rights and democratic constituency in Nepal, and in areas such as: community empowerment; political mainstreaming of subjugated social issues; promotion of collective bargaining; organisation of marginalised groups; and promotion of democracy and individual rights.

Large CSOs’ relentless lobbying and advocacy also contributed to the establishment of various constitutional commissions, fought against the king’s takeover of people’s power in 2002, and played a leading role in sparking the nonviolent movement of April 2006. Likewise, the rural, grass-roots women’s groups, mothers’ groups, consumers’ groups, and users’ groups have been successful in managing community forests, irrigation facilities, health services, primary schools, and drinking water projects.

Government Powerholders – Civil Society Relationships

The government of Nepal, through its periodic planning documents and Local Self Governance Act (1999), have highlighted the role of CSOs in complimenting the country’s government-led development processes. However, this is far from the reality of the situation; the relationship between the government and CSOs is incredibly strained, with no form of frequent communication on issues of mutual concern. Moreover, the two actors simply do not trust each other; the government often considers CSOs as being motivated by monitory gain, or their donor’s agenda, while CSOs are angered when governments do not meet immediate demands.

The lack of elected local government officials over the past 18 years is also seen as a challenge for establishing smooth relationships between the local CSOs and local government offices across the districts. Whereas at the national level, due to the lack of strong political will and political parties’ heavy focus on broader issues, a number of social issues raised by CSOs are either ignored or side-lined. Further reasons CSOs do not play an effective role in the government’s decision-making processes include: lack of evidence-based advocacy; discontinuation of advocacy initiatives after the termination of donor funding; absence of regular interactions and communications with government officials and policymakers; and limited public supporters in their initiatives.

CSOs often feel great pressure from government agencies to design more hardware and service-driven projects than advocacy, empowerment, and awareness raising projects, resulting in a direct impact on institutional independency for designing projects based on individual mandates.

Legal Parameters Defining the Environment and Imposing Control

The formalities of registering a CSO in Nepal are neither straightforward nor streamlined, increasing the animosity between organisation and their government counterparts. There are multiple key legal framework through which CSOs can register and operate in Nepal, from the Association and Organisation Registration Act (1977), to Social Welfare Act (1992). Some organisations, such as trade unions, must register with the Department of Labour, while others are required to report to the Department of Industry.

This complicated system can result in single organisations registering with multiple agencies. The rules and regulations that follow registration are also time-consuming and confusing: the government must approve each project or programme before foreign funding can be received; CSOs are often required to present audited accounts each year for the registration renewal; and often various levels of governments must give approval on what can only be seen as an arbitrary basis.

The Way Forward

CSOs in Nepal have played an important role in the social and political empowerment of people, particularly women, Dalits, and marginalised groups. However, CSOs often glamorise the impact of their work, and lack reflection on their own approaches and strategies, often ignoring external feedback. Critical review of organisations’ intervention approaches and strategies is urgently required.

CSOs require innovations in their programming. For example, instead of conventional advocacy efforts, they should be more focused on evidence-based policy advocacy initiatives. A balance between project-driven and movement-driven initiatives is also required. Moreover, it is crucial that both CSOs and all levels of government work to improve their relationships. CSOs should follow the notion of mutual accountability, and focus their attentions on those they seek to serve.

The government can both empower CSOs and improve the space in which they operate by relaxing the organisational registration, renewal, and project approval policies, and monitoring of CSO work. There is great potential for these two actors to work together to ensure the effectiveness and vibrancy of civic space in Nepal.

This blog is the tenth in our series on the future of civic space. Do you want to help secure the rights of citizens across the globe? Sign the Civic Charter today!

  1. vernhughes3 December, 2016

    The term ‘civil society’ has been distorted in its meaning over the last 30 years by the corporatisation of NGOs and their capture by a managerial class. Traditionally, ‘civil society’ referred to all forms of human association and relationship outside the state and the market; today it is quite common to find the term restricted to formal (not informal) association, often delivering services for external funders (not internal participants), and frequently functioning as instruments of political change (not self-help or mutual empowerment).

    This review of ‘civil society’ in Nepal continues this trend. It is restricted to the 40,000 ‘registered CSOs’ (civil society organisations). Most of civil society activity occurs in non-formal, non-registered, relational settings ( families and neighbourhoods, household economies, self-help and support groups, family farms and businesses, and religious congregations0. Only a small minority occurs in NGOs, charities, and co-operative businesses.

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