INGOs are here to complement the government, not to challenge itThe proposed National Integrity Policy, one of whose aims is to rein in the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international NGOs working in Nepal, has drawn flak from various stakeholders for introducing several restrictive provisions.
The proposed National Integrity Policy, one of whose aims is to rein in the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international NGOs working in Nepal, has drawn flak from various stakeholders for introducing several restrictive provisions. The NGO federation has claimed that the government’s move is aimed at controlling the activities of NGOs and the civil society. The government, in turn, claims that stringent measures were needed to monitor the “increasing irregularities” seen in the activities of national and international NGOs. Mukul Humagain and Tika R Pradhan spoke with Shibesh Chandra Regmi, chairperson of the Association of International NGOs in Nepal (AIN) about the recent government moves and what impact they will have on the I/NGOs. Excerpts:
The recently announced National Integrity Policy of the government is not friendly towards the I/NGOs since it is aimed at their regulation and oversight. As the president of the AIN how do you view these recent developments?
It is imperative for everyone to understand that INGOs are here to complement the government, not to challenge it. For instance, there are many people who have not been able to practise their constitutional rights and human rights, among others. Nepal has been a part of various international treaties and conventions where it has very clearly committed to fulfilling different rights but has delayed the implementation of such commitments. Apart from helping the government to deliver the services, the INGOs are trying to alert the government should it fall short of acting on its commitments.
There are many people involved in this sector. Eighty percent of the NGO work is funded by the INGOs. Last year alone, the 140 INGOs associated with AIN brought in USD410 million. Given all this, we were quite surprised when the Integrity Policy was released. Yes, streamlining is important. If there are malpractices prevalent in the sector, they need to be addressed and corrected. But the entire I/NGOs should not be defamed. The government has every right to take action against I/NGOs that do not comply with the law or meet expectations. But generalising everyone and putting blanket restrictions regardless of the history of the organisation is quite discouraging.
I/NGOS have a big role in improving social indicators pertaining to education, health and gender empowerment, among others. It is not the doing of the government alone. If the government does not want the I/NGOs to work in Nepal, then it should ask them all to complete their ongoing projects and pack up. But it still needs to take cognizance of the consequences of this decision where thousands of people will be unemployed and there will be no one in the remote areas where the government rarely has any presence.
Why do you think the government is adamant on bringing this policy?
The government has a two-thirds majority, and it should utilize this opportunity to invest for the future as well as build a legacy. Yes, it must monitor the activities of I/NGOs, and must investigate if any ill practices are observed anywhere. We are having a dialogue with the government, and it has been lending us an ear as well. But the final outcome remains to be seen. We were quite positive but again the Home Ministry that is demanding the NGOs in the districts to send in their details, renew their registration issuing a new circular. The Social Welfare Council is our focal agency, so it can ask us for all the details it requires. But when the Home Ministry asks for such details, there is no clarity as to who can ask what from whom. When such things happen, it gives the impression that there is a lack of coordination and trust among the government institutions themselves.
The policy document is going through some revisions. But in the end, say if the document comes out without the proposed revisions, then how do you think it would affect the I/NGO sector?
I think the Integrity Policy is quite impractical. Perhaps when certain clauses were incorporated in the policy, the policymakers did not think thoroughly through the process. For instance, one of the clauses mentions that if the I/NGOs do not renew their agreements within three months of expiry, then their registration will be revoked. But our experience tells us that it takes a minimum of five to six months and a maximum of 15 to 16 months to get one project agreement done. In such a situation, how can one expect a renewal within three months of the expiry? It is simply bizarre. Such impractical clauses may not have been incorporated had the persons who drafted the policy known the ground reality.
We complement the government in implementing sectoral programs and activities, also play a check, and balance role. In other words, we help the government formulate policies that need to ensure fulfilment of international commitments. So one of the other polices says that we cannot get involved in policy and rights advocacy. I/NGOs are not just there for service delivery. It is one of their activities but not the only activity. If the I/NGOs are not allowed to play a role in advocacy as one of the key civil society member, then one will not know where the government is headed to. Maybe then various undemocratic practices will start getting space.
If the government is self-righteous and there are no check and balance measures, then the end result can be quite dangerous. Also, there are clauses pertaining to report writing. The clauses mention that each and every report produced by the I/NGOs have to be approved by the government, only after which they can be sent to the respective headquarters and donors. How would such a thing be possible? Policies should not be based on whims. There are a few people who have invested their whole lives in this sector. If the government comes up with such a policy, we can neither respect not disrespect it. It creates a big dilemma.
Do you think the whole affair could have been handled in a nuanced way, taking stakeholders into confidence?
Yes, the government could have avoided this mess and addressed the issue with greater finesse. We, as an organisation, are quite open and more than willing to talk and cooperate. If I/NGOs do anything wrong intentionally or intentionally during work, the government must warn them. There are ample spaces for the government to control, regulate, monitor and give feedback to us. Without utilising all that, if the government does all this directly, then that makes us quite suspicious of the government itself.
AIN is a significant part of the civil society which has been active in ushering political and social transformations in the past few decades. But the recent actions by the government seem to be curbing freedom of expression among many other things. What are your views?
If the government is motivated by curbing freedom of expressions it will definitinetly hurt other aspects of civil society and democracy. And if the government keeps on taking such actions, civil society as a concept will be non-existent. Although the actions are aimed at I/NGOs, in the larger scheme of this, it is an attack on the civil society itself.
There have been allegations that the functioning of I/NGOs has been opaque, that there is nepotism and duplicacy in programs. The sector has its own shortcomings, but it is shifting the blame to the government only. What would you say about this?
We are not against the government trying to regulate the I/NGOs. Let me put it clearly, we want to be regulated, the sector needs to be streamlined and if there are any malpractices, they need to be corrected at the earliest. But our only concern is that things should not have developed the way they have right now. Regarding nepotism, I cannot speak for everyone, but for those of us who have been involved in this sector for the longest time, we have only one member from a family in executive boards to ensure there is no conflict of interest, forget nepotism. Reports by Transparency International reveal that corruption by NGO is stands at 20 percent, whereas it stands at 77 percent in case of political parties. Our arguments should be based on evidence and data.
Coming to duplication, I won’t say there is none. But if there is some duplication somewhere, INGOs should not be blamed for the same since they are not responsible for coordination. It is the government agencies who should be doing that. Yet, we still try our best not to let such duplication happen.
There are further charges about the I/NGOs reaching out to secessionist elements like CK Raut in Nepal and the increasing political role the I/NGOs have been playing. What do you say of those charges?
If any organisation is reaching out to secessionist elements, it should be prohibited to do so. INGOs do not have the right to dictate. Unfortunately, some people in the media, political parties and bureaucracy have no clarity as to which organisation is an INGO and which is not. Let me clarify, INGOs do not have the capacity to go to that level and influence as we work mainly with communities. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish which organisation is bilateral agency, which one is multilateral and which one is an I/NGO. Since there is no clarity regarding the definition of these different actors, I/NGOs have to bear the brunt of the situation and face defamation. Also, we go through a rigorous process of internal, statutory and international audits. So it is not that we can have things our way, and it is important for everyone to realise that.