Peace and Livelihood Project, Nepal
The return of civil society to political discourse all over the world began with the third wave of democracy of late 1980s which removed many authoritarian, praetorian and totalitarian regimes of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America and set the power of public. It has re-established the sovereignty of people and legitimized its ideology of democracy, human rights, social justice, ecological preservation and peace. The belief that lies at the heart of the civil society necessity is that democracy is not a perfect system, though no one is better than this system which can accommodate both government and opposition, and majority and minorities and even contesting worldviews. In the process, liberal notions of civil society that combined freedom with social equality came to dominate the interactive public sphere in both opinion and will formation and mediation of public policies. As a result of this, civil society became a precondition for both democracy building and peace building. Many donor agencies of the West and even the government sought to use civil society in development projects also--small-scale projects, cooperatives, advocacy for social, gender and ecological justice, implementation of citizens’ charter, engagement of citizens in planning, evaluation and monitoring of development projects consistent with Nepal’s social, cultural and ecological realities.
In Nepal, Local Self-Governance Act 1998, National Planning Commission and line agencies of the government legitimized the role of civil society to implement Right to Information Act and implementation of accountability mechanism of the governance. Aside from movement and campaign building, civil society have also been engaged to exert pressure on the donors and the government to claim a place for policy making and public communication, peace process and governance reforms. Nepal, in this sense, seems ahead of many countries in engaging civil society in Nepal Development Forum where public policies are negotiated, refined and adjusted to the mutual interest of all the stakeholders. Still, a big confusion persists in defining civil society and NGOs, community organization and profit making bodies. As a result, the space of civil society in Nepal is captured by many agencies that are pre-civil, tribal, patronage-based, profit making and even violence-advocating. None of these are capable of releasing the democratic impulse of society to make Nepali citizens sovereign and wield power from the bottom-up for participatory democracy.
There is an inverse relationship between democracy and political violence. The use of violence as political tool reduces the prospect of peaceful compromise of interest and non-violent of change of society by reforming social irrationalities, structural injustice, patriarchy and hierarchy. The identity politics being fostered in Nepal is pre-political and cannot foster the concept of national citizenship which is the basis of civil society. NGOs in Nepal are group-enclosed based on patronage system, therefore, support to it goes to strength landlord-tenant relationship like the one in pre-Panchayat regime which does not foster the concept of citizenship equality. Then profit-making organizations lack civility as it caters the interest of only those who can respond to price tag, not charity and volunteerism serving the poor and pathetic sections of society to lead happier life. Does this mean Nepal cannot have democratic future backed by the civility of civil society? Where can Nepalese learn the art and science of citizenship other than civil society?
The Debate in Nepal:
Nepal is one of the oldest –nation states of the world. This in itself proves the resilience of its civility. It is the outgrowth of the common interests of its diverse society organized under norm-governed system of socialization and action. State building contained intra and inter elite violence, defined various ethical codes for peaceful cooperation and improvement in state-society relations. The purpose of political power was to defend public interest, their resources and their rights and identities. Nepal’s history shows that Nepalese society has successfully institutionalized the main components of democracy: public debate of all the stakeholders in the public place, participation of all citizens-kings, elites, women, children, Dalits and even ordinary folks, representation of people in the hierarchical structures of governance through various mechanisms including distribution of lands and titles for their livelihood and accountability to power, knowledge and duty to nature, ordinary people, the sick, widows and disabled. The project of democracy was realized through awareness about public duty and collective action by engaging the state, non-state institutions and citizens. Educational institutions were charity-based and the purpose of educated people was to work for the enlightenment of entire society, not just the rich, wealthy and powerful. Wealthy people mobilized the economic surplus for the investment in public education, communication, construction of welfare schemes and rationalization of society.
Modern Version of Civil Society:
Modern civil society in Nepal has roots in political movement in various phases first to expand the domain of freedom and then social equality and social justice. The elements of justice include poplar sovereignty, local ownership and legitimate representation of public interest in the political power. In this context, constitutional and human rights of citizens became the normative and empirical framework of civil society. Citizen activism in defense of collective public interest, public watchfulness, an informed public opinion, a free and fair media, autonomy of courts and dense associational life of citizens have become necessary preconditions for the tasks of civil society in democracy building. In this context, the space of civil society has been expanded from subject to citizens in Nepal but majority of youth does not have opportunity to enjoy these rights and work as servants and laborers in the Gulf region. The democratic space provided room for a multiplicity of agents of civil society, human rights, professional bodies, trade unions, chambers of commerce, youth clubs, libraries, citizen groups, NGOs and social movements of political parties and sub-strata of population who are organized but the major task of civil society is to help the unorganized and informal sectors of Nepalese people. Each of these organizations is a constituent part of a plural mini publics engaged in interaction with others in the project of society for peaceful socialization, modernization, democratization and rationalization.
Today, in Nepal, civil society espouse a set of normative values that demands the participation people in development and accountability of the state, polity, government, political parties and private sectors engaged in defining and affecting public interests. The advent of participatory culture took democracy beyond periodic elections encouraging the “rights of affected” in decision-making and collective action. This view holds that politics serves public interest and direct public action of citizens is a key to their civic competence. Citizens now have the democratic right to intervene on issues crucial to their public life and improve their condition. This right is called “civic competence” which is based on their knowledge, skills and disposition. It established the indispensability of civil society for civil education, activating citizens in deep snooze and promoting collective action.
The anti-state debate of civil society is anti-democratic especially in a weak state where state power is decentralized and devolved, maintained checks on its institutions and given “negative rights” to citizens to prevent state intervention. The “positive rights” of citizens especially regarding social justice, affirmative action and social security are promoted by the state. Too much coziness of civil society with the market and donors in Nepal has disabled their vitality to “defend” public’s right to development and governance. Civil society is not a “neutral zone” where their actors maintain distance between the state and the market. In fact, they have to mediate the interest of both for the empowerment of citizens. Civil society are the basic infrastructures of democracy and, therefore, their democratic character is seen in terms of their constitution, membership, worldview, commitments, decision making and service. Donor agencies are using them as shorthand of third sector, voluntary sector, non-profit sector, community-based organizations, network based groups, even non-governmental organizations, change agents of society and builder of peace and reconciliation. Many of them work closely with Village Development Committees and Local Peace Committees while others align with NGOs to innovate ways of resolving social and political disputes. But, there are others also who defy the mandate given to them and act as “colonizers” of human life by imposing alien agenda, fostering dependency and removing the choice for citizens.
The propensity of civil society for development intervention on behalf of poor, women, disabled and marginalized can improve their image. Those engaged in coping the effects of ecological and social change and working with the affected have huge burden. They stimulate the social energies of citizens for self-help and build the confidence of grassroots organizations. But there are civil society projects lacking sustainability as they are over-dependent on donors, not on the tax of the nation and not on the needs of citizens. Still, others have made civil society works as profession to earn living. There is no mach of the state mandate with civil society as latter can hardly implement schemes of redistributive justice--allocation of resources from the better off section of society to the powerless ones. Implementation of macro-issues and policies requires larger national institutions. But the state can only implement the rights of citizens if it has sufficient capacity--physical, material, human and social and design structures for responsiveness in favor of a constitutional state. The Nepali state is a permanent body but its civil society grows and dies depending on the needs and aspirations of its citizens.
Nepal is wracked by political instability and crisis of constitutional rule. Sub-identities are confronting citizenship, state, polity and political parties, the latter one is intense because of their lackluster performance. Civil society groups of Nepal have to take up national agenda, vision and mobilize their energies for collective action to recover this nation from the wound of protracted conflict, transition and violence. Reduction of violence in society requires civil society’s initiatives for both socialization and rule-based action. But this is not possible unless basic freedoms and survival needs of citizens are not addressed. A mediation effort requires Nepalese civil society work in the areas of sustainable development that is both just and distributive and inclusive of Nepal’s diversity. Only then the civility of Nepalese society is restored where cooperative action and reciprocity become a norm for spontaneous socialization and cooperative action.
Exclusive for telegraphnepal.com