Nepali Times Asian Paints
State Of The State
Meddling along


Before the successful People's Movement of 1990, entry of global do-gooders into Nepal was strictly regulated by the Social Services Coordination Council and closely monitored by the administration. After the new constitution came into effect, the ground rules were changed. It became much easier for international organisations to open up shop in Nepal.

From fly-by-nights to supranational conglomerates, all kinds of INGOs descended on Nepal. Their commitment to democracy was ambivalent even though they became one of the biggest beneficiaries of political openness.

Operating almost independently of the government, many INGOs took on local collaborators as force multipliers. A slew of local NGOs sprouted overnight. Apart from remittances and security related activities, NGOs have been the only other sector of the Nepali economy that is still booming.

AIN is an informal grouping of 52 INGOs currently functioning in Nepal. Recently it paid for ads in the papers with a fairly long list of do's and dont's largely for the benefit of its own members. The aidocrats claimed their 'programs seek to strengthen democratic systems'. One would be hard pressed to see evidence of that. In fact, as with other actors of Kathmandu's power elite, aidocrats were complicit in creating the conditions that led to February First.

Despite claims of transparency, most INGOs are fairly opaque. Our right to freedom of information does not extend to their headquarters in Brussels, Geneva and London and their local officers can feign ignorance. There are exceptions but most INGO brochures don't tell us much about funding sources, operating procedures, internal governance or decision-making criteria.

The organisation structures of most INGOs are corporate rather than democratic. Little wonder, then, that working for INGOs has been a lucrative career option for the best and brightest of the Valley's high society.

Again, with notable exceptions, the merit assessment of aid agencies have been heavily biased in favour of the country's privileged classes. Such a meritocracy by its very nature is impatient with the sluggish messiness of democracy. Perhaps that is why these groups have been partly instrumental in shaping their organisation's negative attitude towards the political parties.

Such criticisms revolve around the lack of commitment of elected representatives to 'good governance' and their supposed propensity for pelf, privilege and payoff. It's easy to tar politicos with graft charges but no aidocrat will bear part of the responsibility for the rise of the culture of corruption. INGOs need to be a lot more accountable and transparent themselves before they cast the first stone.

AIN declares that the budget of its member organisations rose from $29.4 million in 1999 to $100.3 million in 2005. Even as an absolute figure, this almost four-fold expenditure increase in as many years is a remarkable trend. What makes the claim a lot more intriguing is that such a jump in expenditure has taken place in an environment of unprecedented uncertainty in the country: the insurgency has intensified, democratic decay has worsened, the human-rights situation deteriorated and the rule of law went into a tailspin.

INGO activism, it seems, is inversely proportional to the health of democracy. Similar phenomena have been observed in many conflict-ridden countries-once INGOs are allowed to undermine the legitimacy of political parties, insurgency and activism begin to feed on each other and facilitate the rise of authoritarian regimes.
Indeed, international meddlers are as responsible as any other actor in Nepal's power elite for society's creeping authoritarianism.

While fighting corruption and promoting accountability are noble goals by themselves, 'good governance' can't be a sustainable substitute of self-rule anywhere in the world. Divorcing development from democracy invariably leads to a humanitarian crisis.

Unless the extraordinarily articulate aidocrats in our midst realise this reality, all their pleas to the parties of ongoing conflict will have no meaning. Without an unequivocal commitment to the reinstatement of democratic rule in the country, all their 'operating guidelines' will have little real meaning.

Bilateral donors and multilateral financial institutions are bound by ideology, realpolitik and rules of diplomacy. INGOs aren't. They are free to speak their mind. Why are they so scared of the 'D' word? Despite the bravado of senior functionaries of the royal government, foreign aid will continue to play an important role in the development of Nepal for quite some time and INGOs will be shouldering an ever increasing burden of international assistance.

They need to transform themselves from aid entrepreneurs to social activists, and an unwavering commitment to democracy is an integral part of that process.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)