Reimagining civil societyNGOs have helped communities assert their rights but left much to be desired on the responsibility front
Nepal’s past disaster experience has it that communities were resilient enough to manage their immediate situation even in grim times. The last major quake of 1988 saw people get together and build temporary shelters on their own. But the April 25 earthquake brought to the fore a dark side of Nepali society—increasing dependency on external agencies for survival in times of crises. People have now become more dependent on aid and handouts for survival.
Granted that the scale of devastation this time around was huge, compared to the 1988 quake, but a very different picture emerged of the reaction from a considerable section of society. The tendency to depend on aid from various quarters, including that from the non-governmental sector, even in cases where one could fend for oneself, highlighted the increasingly eroding autonomy of communities to respond to crises.
In the last 25 years, there has been much debate on the role of NGOs, which have come to occupy an important space in civil society as a link between the state and society at large, contributing to different developmental aspects previously considered to be the responsibility of the state, such as health, education, sanitation, and so forth. Nepal witnessed a mushrooming of NGOs after 1990. This was in line with the global scenario, where powerful Western states promoted NGOs as civil society. These organisations then increasingly took on the roles previously performed by the state.
Projectised v resilient
The sight of people, even the able-bodied, not resorting to building temporary shelters but waiting for relief has brought into question the approach adopted by NGOs in ‘educating’ the communities. There have been reports of the same people seeking aid on multiple occasions and from different organisations after the quake, claiming they had yet to receive any. This attitude is a result of years of the ‘projectisation’ of society, where NGOs looked at communities as sites to obtain preordained objectives to ascertain their projects’ desired outcomes.
The resilience of any community, which is also a hallmark of its vitality, seems to have been eroded by this process of projectisation. Thus, in the process, NGOs have not only made communities dependent, but their actions have also robbed communities of their ability to respond in times of crisis. The instances of people waiting for relief without any thought of rebuilding on their own is indicative of the passive citizenship created by the process of projectisation.
The right-based approach adopted by NGOs did help communities assert their rights, but left much to be desired on the responsibility front. Communities have now developed an attitude of securing rights, but not bothering to care for their own responsibilities.
Reclaiming the space
This experience suggests a need to interrogate the very idea of civil society. We need to rework our understanding of civil society, of which NGOs are a part, so that it is not only organic but also able to promote a strong social contract between the state and society. One of the ways to do this would be to promote active citizenship, whereby these parasitic tendencies are curbed.
For this to happen, intermediate space has to achieve a degree of autonomy from different interest groups. Nepali civil society remains influenced by two powerful entities—donors and political parties. Civil society, and NGOs in particular, remain dependent for financial support on these donors and are in turn required to carry forward their interest. This not only leads to the constraining of a civil society constituent, but also threatens its existence, in case the donors decide to pull the plug on finance.
An autonomous civil society
As for the political parties, NGOs in Nepal share a close proximity with political parties, which have used these NGOs not just to recruit their supporters and cadres, but also to ensure that this relationship is a source of income, either for the party or its leaders. The closeness of such relationships can be gauged from the fact that a prominent member of a human rights NGO had declared his candidacy a few years ago for the chairman of a party, which is now in the governing coalition.
Such relationships invite scrutiny on the ability of NGOs, as members of civil society, to ensure the effective functioning of the state. But all said and done, there are some silver linings on the horizon. The prompt response shown by the different strata of Nepali society, for instance, Madhesis reaching out to affected areas in the hills and volunteering to help fellow citizens, indicates the possibility of forming a new civil society discourse based on volunteerism, which would ensure its autonomy from different interest groups. This in turn would help do away with the projectisation of society and the ‘careerist’ approach that is now prevalent in civil society.
Kharel is an assistant professor at the Kathmandu School of Law (email@example.com)