Time to act – Regulating NGOs


    In June 2013, leaders of Nepal’s political parties—except UCPN (Maoist)—jointly issued a press release against the then government’s decision to upgrade the capacity of Upper Trishuli III ‘A’ hydropower project from 60 to 90 megawatts. The press release was prepared in a Kathmandu based office of an INGO working in Nepal. Finance Minister Dr Ram Sharan Mahat was one of the senior leaders in the meeting and had signed that release.

    The event was reported by all the major news media. Since upgrading the capacity of the project was not in the favor of country’s economy and power sector, the press release was seen as having good intentions and the move was, quite rightly, not questioned by anyone, including the media. But the question arises: Why did senior leaders of major political parties issue the press release from an INGO office?

    What’s wrong in doing that in a country where more than 60 percent of the fiscal budget comes from donor agencies, you may argue. You are right in a way. But it raises some serious questions: Aren’t we an independent nation? Don’t we have to deal with our issues ourselves? What sort of development practice are we undertaking? What is the distinction between government agencies, political parties and I/NGOs? What is their role in country’s development? How should they be working and what kind of moral and ethical codes should the political parties follow when it comes to I/NGOs?

    Dr Mahat, who engineered the development plan that yielded record high economic growth rate and created an environment for entrepreneurship post-1990, has recently assumed the office of Finance Minister for the sixth time. But we must not forget his inability to limit the level of corruption which partly caused the increase in the gap between the rich and the poor. This created a fertile ground for Maoist insurgency. Now is the right time to ask him about his policy toward I/NGOs as well as bilateral development agencies that are hesitant to funnel money through government mechanisms.

    It is an understood fact that the Maoists exploited massive inequality in the country in order to further their movement. Former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, the chief architect of Maoist insurgency, drafted his political-economic rationale based on inequality that could not be addressed in post-1990 development. The result of the recent election, where Nepali Congress and CPN-UML emerged as the two major parties, is not a mandate for them to hobnob with the elites and sideline the marginalized people. While democracy and capitalistic system are the most convincing systems in the modern development course of the world, it should not be an instrument to create a vacuum, again, for another kind of ‘unjust’ society.

    Development institutions like World Bank and Asian Development Bank are trying to help Nepal build infrastructure that the country needs at this moment. There are other genuine bilateral development partners, who are our long-term friends, and who definitely want to see Nepal become a prosperous country. But we should think about I/NGOs that work without much of a rationale to their work. It might be hard to make a black and white judgment about their contribution in country’s development but political leaders should try to stay away from these sorts of I/NGOs.

    There might be an argument that these I/NGOs are a part of civil society. But the question has already been raised about funded organizations being part of the civil society. It becomes more and more difficult to draw a line between a genuine development-oriented organization and a mere propaganda machine of some group when it comes to I/NGO movement. The question, again, is what kind of moral and ethical ground can be built to have a meeting to issue a press release against the government’s decision in an office of an INGO. Moral and ethical questions may sound vague, but we have the right to expect answers from our leaders. Who in today’s society can show a sense of morality and ethical behavior if the leaders cannot?

    It is not justifiable to put all I/NGOs in the same basket but what is our standard to measure them and figure out which one is working in whose interest? Mahat is right in what he has written in his book In Defense of Democracy: Dynamics and Fault Lines of Nepal’s Political Economy about the loss of Arun III because of INGOs against the project. What about his attitude towards I/NGOs now? Are politician Mahat and author of the book two different people?

    The incumbent government, particularly Finance Minister Mahat, has shown an unprecedented interest and enthusiasm in hydropower sector since the formation of the government. It’s appreciable. It is also true to a large extent that the economic decision that made by this government will be an outcome of what Mahat believes in and does. For that matter, it is important to ask him some fundamental moral questions at this time. Any small mistake that we make now will have a long-lasting impact in country’s economic course.
    This one case in the hydropower sector demonstrates how we largely fail to comprehend the dynamics of development. Development and prosperity are more accessible to a large section of people in a free and democratic society. But the execution of programs and policies should be done carefully.

    In this backdrop, we also have to be considerate about the difficult coalition government and its limitation. But that does not give the leaders an excuse to be too accessible to I/NGOs in the country. The present government has to be bold enough to ask all the bilateral development partners including India to spend development aid through the Red Book of the Finance Ministry. This will not only help us be more transparent but also develop a system that will be institutionalized in the long run.

    Lastly, we have to learn from African country Lesotho. It is still a poor country despite the fact that it has been receiving development assistance from more than 30 developed countries and is a hub of I/NGOs in the name of development. According to the anthropologist James Ferguson, the people of Lesotho have been subject to experiment and the joy-ride of development money. Let’s hope Mahat will not let the Nepalis be subject to similar experiment for ‘development anchors’.

    The author is a graduate student at Tsinghua University in Beijing  bhoju.poudel1@gmail.com

    Source : Republica