Dev Raj Dahal
Head, FES Nepal Office
Both the government and international community in Nepal find NGOs and civil society handy partners for development projects considering that they are less bureaucratic, more flexible, adaptable and issue-based. "Many hands approach" is useful to capture the hierarchy and complexity of Nepali society. But if civil society groups become extended arms of either donors or political parties or even the government they cannot become a space for articulation of different, partly competing and partly conflicting, interests and carry out democratic accountability functions. It is also difficult to critically engage them in diverse spheres of mini-publics as autonomous entities and utilize their strength for social transformation. In Nepal, civil society groups are providing useful information to increase public understanding of development goals, policies, strategies and means and have become a partner in development. Many of them are articulating alternative vision, perspectives, methodologies and proposals, providing information that are useful in policy formulation, implementation, evaluation and critical review and offering means by which people as stakeholders fulfill their legitimate needs.
Media headlines in Nepal reveal a myriad of themes articulated by civil societies of Nepal, such as violence, corruption, poverty, inequality, discrimination, ecocide, increased defense expenditure, girl trafficking, impunity, refugees, etc. By articulating these themes civil societies have offered discursive arenas and interactive forums for solution oriented knowledge-building. The Interim Constitution of Nepal 2006 underlines several basic provisions: sovereignty of people, which means power should spring from bottom-up; right to information which means conditions of liberty must be established with the transparency of decision-making; social rights including right to work, that is economic and social policies should be geared to social justice; Local Peace Committees for conflict resolution and public-private partnership for development synergy. The contribution of civil society is fully appreciated by 9th Plan Documents and Local-Self-Governance Act, 1999 in problem identification, proposal formulation, approval, operation, supervision, policy dialogue, service delivery, evaluation, monitoring, repair and maintenance, conflict-resolution and feedback.
There are other equally essential considerations. First, civil society groups have provided legitimacy (societal acceptability) in policy making and outcome in the preparation of Plan Documents, Country Cooperation Framework, Nepal Development Forum, etc though the outcome is contested by ordinary citizens. The social acceptability of a development policy can limit its polarizing effects and build coherence in different actors' goals, means and strategies. Second, they have offered useful mechanism for the accountability of dominant actors through Public Account Committee, Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, Auditor-General, media, academia, donors and voters. Third, they have established transparency and openness in decision making and finance through the right to information act and opposed the consent manufacturing of media. Fourth, many civil society groups have helped to establish ownership and representation of diverse interests on Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), Millennium Development Goals and Post-Conflict reconstruction programs by leading stakeholder consultation (workshop, seminars and discussion) and obtaining necessary feedbacks. Fifth, social movement oriented civil society are engaged in fostering equity in the distribution of development outcome (gender, caste, region, age, class, ethnicity etc), environmental sustainability (sustainable development), delivery responsiveness of the development actors and even in partnership and consensus building culture for development synergy.
A vibrant civil society can counterbalance the power of the state and moderate the appetites of government for arbitrary use of power, resource and authority and temper the ferocity of market forces. But, the civil society debates in Nepal have been weakly institutionalized and poorly sustained. Donors and government mostly use clients, consultants, patronage-based NGOs and powerful individuals in the name of consultation with civil society to justify the legitimacy of their initiatives. Many of these groups are detached from the larger public sphere and public action. The challenges for civil society groups in Nepal, however, are varied and complex. Barring exceptions of community forestry, irrigation, local governance federations, cooperatives etc they also suffer from contradictions especially in areas of autonomy, membership, charity work, supporting the marginalized, rural-orientation, transparency of resource utilization and self-governance measures. In this critical juncture of the nation’s history, there is a need to redefine what is possible for civil society to do, what is legitimate for them to do and what they should not do. They should definitely not do any action that weakens citizen's capacity for self-governance. Largely atomized and particular form of initiative is unable to create enough social capital to expand economies of scale, transcend particular interest and minimize transaction cost. This is why stronger parochialism than citizenship in Nepal's political culture has posed a problem in making collective choice.
Similarly, there is uneven distribution of civil society in different geographical regions. The capacity of donors, government and political parties to absorb civil society has also made them weak in altering paternalistic planning tradition to facilitate their outreach to a broad mass of society. Due to partisan formation these civil society groups are less efficacious in coordination, communication and solidarity building within and across the country. Likewise, they also lack the requisite ability to effect collective action due to tight party control, such as trade unions, students union, human rights organizations and women's associations. They are fissiparous and un-free for free collective bargaining. The popular criticisms labeled against urban civil society are that they are in-organic, donor-dependent, culturally-insensitive and context-free and have anti-state tendencies (especially those of right-based ones). Therefore, they have completely failed to nurture civility, bring the connectors of society for post-conflict reconciliation and establish state-society harmony. Some important issues have yet to be addressed in Nepal: legal status of civil society, its ability to indigenize public policy and its relevance to the state, the market, and international regime.