Whose integrity is it anyway?The government must lay to rest speculations that surround the introduction of the National Integrity Policy to limit INGOs
Kathmandu is abuzz with discussions on the National Integrity Policy proposed by the government. Like any other government policy inherited through the autocratic monarchy, the documents have been kept secret and no provisions have been provided for public discourse. The Nepali government suffers from a ‘credibility drought’, a term translated directly from Nepali that means people do not trust the intentions of the government. Speculation is rife on whether this move is influenced by the control apparatus of Pakistan, where the army is involved in the control and banning of civil society organisations. Several guesses are being made about who could be behind these policies that aim to limit INGOs. Is it related to the displeasure that certain folks within the government feel towards the international community and INGOs? Is this in retaliation to the INGOs pushing their business agendas too hard in a desperate environment of budget cuts? Or is it a model of outsourcing development to consulting firms that has made the people in government think about a recalibration of policies? People also speculate that this is a move by the senior partner of the current government, CPN-UML, to push its own entities. It is a known fact that the UML uses the NGO apparatus for social mobilisation, thereby ensuring that it wins elections. Controversies around some of the large organisations that the UML controls has not escaped the public eye.
I have here borrowed the title from my book Unleashing Nepal. We have perhaps the highest number of NGOs per capita in the world. Today, the Social Welfare Council website indicates a list of 46,235 registered NGOs. Apart from that, there are thousands that operate without registration. A country like India with 1.3 billion people has 13,000 NGOs, a decrease from 33,000 NGOs just a few years ago. The big question is, why do we need so many NGOs? What do these organisations do? Why is there a sort of mania in Nepal to become a part of an NGO and take on leadership positions? Why are Nepalis hell bent on volunteering so much, as NGOs are supposed to be platforms to volunteer and technically not a platform to rent seek or earn money?
Some INGOs and many NGOs are reputed as being the arms of power brokers and political forces. These organisations thus enable the power brokers and political forces to further goals of power and money. Non-declaration of the conflict of interest has been the biggest issue. It is common in Nepal for government officials or political figures to rent a house of a relative, or to give jobs to one of their family members. It would be interesting if a list were created that detailed organisations that are run by ‘politically affiliated’ family members. This challenge is similar to the one in the corporate world on insider trading which could result in conflicts of interest when it comes to the Nepali stock market. So the argument presented is that if a director/shareholder of a company can indirectly operate a stock brokering outfit that advises clients against the directive of the regulator, it is not surprising that the same could happen in the NGO world.
It will be important for the government to facilitate public discourse on why they are bringing out the policy. It is also essential to use multi-pronged strategies to tackle the regulation of NGOs. First, The Trust Act drafted 20 years ago needs to be promulgated with timely changes to ensure that families and others who want the Trust structure do not have to use the NGO route. There have to be provisions for foundations and the Guthi Act must be amended to accommodate these provisions. Second, the Social Welfare Council (SWC) the successor of the autocratic regime entity Social Service National Service Committee (SSNSC) which was a control agency, needs to convert itself into a facilitation agency for INGOs and NGOs. The greed of making money formally and informally needs to end. Third, if NGOs are doing business, then they should use the provisions of Chapter 19 of the Companies Act to operate. Fourth, there have to be structures to regulate small Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) within an annual budgetary limit and they can function after registering themselves with local bodies. Fourth, national discourse is necessary on why we need so many Associations. If they are just a front for cartels, then surely they must be disbanded. Fifth, we need to question whether the patronage bestowed on youth clubs and other entities that were a source of keeping the opposition out during the Panchayat days are still necessary or whether they should now be merged with local governments. Why are these rent seeking entities required? Finally, transparency will be key when it comes to the question of declaring funds or the affiliation of people. INGOs can show the way by putting up their financials and conflicts of interest declarations in public domains like websites similar to public companies.
Attitude to foreigners
The Integrity Policy has one major underlying issue. It seems to reflect some sort of animosity towards foreign organisations and foreigners. Prem Sapkota for Alliance for Social Dialogue (ASD), a local part of the Open Society Foundation (OSF) questions the kind of message that we are passing on. Nepal has been seen as being tolerant towards foreigners, and it is this trait that has also attracted a lot of attention. Many people who came to serve as diplomats, in organisations and just as tourists have taken up important social causes to support. Nepal depends on tourism and the image of going on a witch hunt against foreigners or foreign entities surely will impact Nepal’s tourism.
Let the discussion continue. No one should be intimidated when it comes to questioning the government’s intent and rationale.