17-23 May 2013 #656

Out on a limb

Bitter dispute between a German charity and its Nepali partner threatens sustainable model for patient care
Tsering Dolker and Juanita Malagon

BE THE CHANGE: A woman with leprosy weaves a straw mat at Shanti Sewa Griha.
When Krishna Gurung, Rameshwar Singh, and Marianna Grosspietch started a leprosy clinic at Pashupati in 1992, patients from across Nepal came to the shelter seeking refuge from society’s stigmatisation. Over the next two decades, Shanti Sewa Griha became a home not just for leprosy patients but for the disadvantaged and destitute.

The charity Shanti Leprahilfe raised over $7 million from individuals and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in Germany to build three centres in Kathmandu Valley: a school and orphanage in Budhanilkantha, an organic farm in Sundarijal, and a rehabilitation centre in Tilganga. It trained thousands of inmates in carpet and quilt making, tailoring, painting, and organic farming so they could stand on their own feet.

The facility in Tilganga built four years ago, is the biggest and most impressive, housing more than 400 patients and with a wing for textile, paper, and carpentry workshops where both patients and their families produce handicrafts to be sold in Europe for the centre’s upkeep. The interior is painted in Maithili art to make many of the patients from the Tarai feel at home. An outpatient clinic and pharmacy provides medicines free of charge. Shanti Sewa Griha had become a model for the rehabilitation of leprosy patients and the handicapped.

But all this, it seems, was too good to last. The German charity has fallen out with its Nepali partners and Grosspietch has returned to Germany frightened and dismayed by intimidation and threats. Shanti Sewa Griha is struggling to pay bills and the future of its 700 patients hangs in the balance.

Founder and director of Shanti Leprahilfe, Grosspietch had agreed with Gurung and Singh to help raise funds in Germany while a Nepali management would run the centres. Nepali managers, however, accuse Grosspietch of interfering in day-to-day management and exploiting patients. Grosspietch, on the other hand, says it was all part of the managers’ plan to edge her out and accuses them of threatening her and her son. “I would have loved to see the Shanti Sewa model duplicated in other parts of Nepal so that more and more poor people could become socially and financially independent,” she said in an email interview after leaving Nepal last month, “but greed, politicisation, aggression, and non-cooperation from the Social Welfare Council left us with no other option.”

After the Nepali managers filed a complaint at the Social Welfare Council (SWC) last year, the NGO regulator investigated the dispute and forwarded a list of recommendations. Kul Bahadur Chhetri, current director of Shanti Sewa, was not available for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him.

Madan Prasad Rimal, director of SWC, says: “We just sent a list of recommendations to Shanti Sewa to correct their mistakes. There was no reason for Grosspietch to leave the country or pull out.”

Grosspietch’s lawyer Shanta Sedhain confirms the German charity terminated its contract because of a deep rift with its Nepali counterpart. But this isn’t the first time Shanti Sewa has run into trouble. Three years ago, 172 allegedly terminated employees filed a case against the organisation, proceedings of which is still ongoing at the Supreme Court, but Grosspietsch continued raising funds in Germany and brought volunteers to Nepal.

Raj Kumar, 52, is a leprosy patient who has been working at the Budanilkantha centre for 15 years and says he has no idea what is going on behind the scenes. But he is worried that he and his friends might lose their only source of income and a place they call home.

This is not a new phenomenon that a well-meaning foreign charity has come into conflict with Nepali partners. While the foreign philanthropists may have been naïve and interfering, the Nepali partners have tended to be acquisitive and threatened the foreigners with physical violence. The SWC, which is supposed to mediate, has often not been able to resolve the dispute.

In the case of Shanti Sewa Griha, it will be hundreds of patients like Raj Kumar who will lose their only source of support.

Leaving leprosy behind

Along with HIV/AIDS, leprosy is a largely misunderstood and feared disease. Since biblical times, the bacterial infection was believed to be a curse of God and incurable. A combination of illiteracy, superstition, and lack of medical facilities meant that Nepal had one of the highest prevalence of leprosy in the world during the 1960s. But the incidence declined steadily and by 2012 the country had officially eliminated the disease by achieving a prevalence rate of 0.89 per 10,000 cases. While Nepal’s leprosy control has been a success story, fighting the social stigma attached with the infection still remains a challenge.

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