Let’s work togetherCivic space is an environment where the freedom to engage, communicate and organise to shape the existing norms and realities is not restricted.
Civic space is an environment where the freedom to engage, communicate and organise to shape the existing norms and realities is not restricted. From creating awareness on prominent issues to holding governmental and market institutions accountable for their actions, civil society has proved to be an important actor. Civil society organisations (CSOs), broadly described as the third sector besides the government and market, exist in the form of non-governmental organisations (NGO), self-help groups and professional and occupational associations. They are key driving agents for defending civic rights and shaping discourses, policies and social norms.
CSOs in Nepal
Despite the significant contribution of CSOs in bringing societal issues to the forefront and working for progressive change, challenges to accessing and utilising civic space are growing across the globe. Some of these restrictions are controls on access to foreign funding, legal and administrative barriers, reduction in the capacity of citizens to demand accountability from the government, corporations and other powerful actors. Discrediting the work of CSOs, calling them corrupt institutions, jailing their leaders on the charge of being foreign spies and legalising violent attacks against activists are some of the strategies adopted by different states.
Against this backdrop, it is very important to study the status of civic space in Nepal. In the last two and a half centuries of Nepal’s history, the people have received open space only in the last few years. During the entire Rana regime, civic space for expressing and defending citizens’ rights was closed. With the establishment of multiparty democracy in 1951, the horizon of civic space expanded a little. However, the process was abruptly interrupted with the Royal takeover in 1960 and the start of the Panchayat system.
CSOs began to flourish in Nepal immediately after the reinstatement of multiparty democracy in 1990. The democratic set-up formed after Janandolan I not only provided an independent space for civil society to operate, but also recognised their role in the socio-political development process. According to the Social Welfare Council (SWC), there are nearly 40,000 registered NGOs in Nepal. The number of informal CSOs and social bodies is unknown.
CSOs have played a crucial role in establishing a human rights and democracy constituency in Nepal. They have also contributed to organising marginalised groups and empowering people to claim their rights and live a dignified life. Relentless lobbying and advocacy by CSOs helped in the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, National Women Commission, and National Dalit Commission. CSOs played a leading role in launching the non-violent movement of April 2006. Likewise, community-based and community-managed groups have been successful in managing community forests, irrigation facilities, health services, primary schools and drinking water projects.
The Association and Organisation Registration Act 1977 is one of the key legal frameworks under which CSOs operate in Nepal. The Social Welfare Act 1992 is another legal framework which facilitates, promotes, mobilises and coordinates the activities of CSOs. There are also other frameworks for specific types of CSOs. For example, trade unions are registered with the Department of Labour, teachers and students unions with the university, and private research and consulting firms with the Department of Industry. There is no single law governing the operations of CSOs in Nepal. Some of them, mainly NGOs, have to register with two different government institutions, namely the District Administration Office and the SWC.
The Local Self-Governance Act 1999 encourages the formation of NGOs and civil society with the approval of the village development committee (VDC) and the municipality office. They are required to be involved in local development initiatives, and they are allowed to ‘identify, formulate, execute, maintain and evaluate’ projects. The government must approve each project or programme before foreign funding can be received.
Shrinking civic space
CSOs face a number of bureaucratic hurdles during registration and renewal. If they are registered with the DAO, they need to get the approval of the ward, VDC, municipality, District Development Committee (DDC) and SWC for each project implemented with donor support. This means that CSOs that operate with foreign funding have to spend a lot of time on paperwork.They also come under a lot of pressure from the SWC and DDC to design more hardware and service-driven projects than advocacy, empowerment and awareness raising projects. The government applies the same policy to all NGOs regardless of their funding size, geographical coverage, quality of work and so on. As a result, all CSOs need to go through the same process, and small organisations have a hard time because they cannot have dedicated staff to deal with paperwork.
Compared to many countries, there is a relatively better and wider civic space in Nepal. But it is deteriorating gradually, partly because of increased government regulation and partly due to CSOs losing credibility. No civil society activist has been detained, tortured or killed by the state for actions against the government in the recent past. However, tightening the independent functions of CSOs through legal and policy regulation eventually leads to a shrinking civic space.
In this context, CSOs need to establish a discourse that civil society is a necessary part of the state, just like the government and the market. If the government and the market can operate freely, why can’t civil society also get similar space in a democratic setting? It is high time that CSOs and the government worked to improve their relationship instead of antagonising one another, since the participation of both is essential to achieve the desired change. Specifically, the government has an important role to play in this regard. Relaxing CSO registration and renewal procedures and project approval policies besides monitoring their work strictly to stop the misuse of funds are two critical areas where the government can take appropriate action.
- The writers are associated with the Centre for Social Change, a Kathmandu-based research and advocacy organisation