Nepali Times
Guest Column
Donor dynamics


With the failure of political party leaders to move the peace process forward, citizens and foreign donors have been pushing 'civil society' to the rescue. This is problematic for many reasons.

During the heady days of the April 2006 democracy movement, the common goal of ending the king's autocratic rule united disparate groups. Indeed, the coming together of citizens, including civil society members, was extraordinary.

Donors pushing for citizens to rise up again miss the fact that people are tired and are struggling with basic survival issues. It is bizarre that while powerful civil society organisations in the US, for example, are not expected to lobby for healthcare reform or push to decrease troops in Afghanistan unless they are actually involved in these areas, civil society in Nepal is expected to cajole political parties of fundamentally different ideologies to move forward together.

And while it is acknowledged in the US that the politics behind these issues are fundamentally much more complicated with various actors, agendas and interests, the same understanding is rarely extended to an analysis of Nepal's political situation. Equally lacking is the acknowledgement that the disparate, conflicting, overlapping and politically contentious role of civil society is actually the norm in Nepal and elsewhere.

Of late, foreign donors appear to have 'discovered' the well-known political party connections and allegiances of civil society. Current donor emphasis on the political affiliations of civil society overestimates the validity and importance of such ties in the current political situation, especially given the lack of democracy and accountability of political parties to citizens in general.

As noted by a senior political party and CA member recently, once the term 'political consensus' was inserted into the interim constitution, constitution making and the peace process were taken out of the hands of citizens, elected members, and given to top political leaders.

The emphasis on the political bias of civil society furthermore obscures the very political role of donors themselves. Their funding of 'civil society' in Nepal, as in Eastern Europe and other developing countries, has basically been to NGOs. Apart from a few exceptions, the fact that NGOs are now defined by donors and themselves as 'civil society' is important to note.

A basic understanding of the relationship between democratic stability and civic groups is premised on the fact that internally, civic groups inspire habits of cooperation, solidarity, public-spiritedness and trust. Externally, these networks then aggregate interests and articulate demands to ensure the government's accountability to its citizens.
While the second of these functions appears to be at work in Nepal, given the competition over funding, the building of dense networks of association, solidarity and trust with other civic groups is lacking.

These groups are not more likely to develop networks of accountability to citizens or to the state, crucial from the perspective of governance, and are more likely to reflect the priorities and agendas of foreign assistance programs.
Issues of 'civil society' in Nepal are inextricably tied to the manner in which foreign aid functions in the country.

ndeed, it is unclear how state restructuring can be discussed without including debates on the restructuring of foreign aid. Given the beneficial and important role of foreign aid in Nepal, to misconstrue a call for such discussion as 'donor bashing' would be short-sighted and detrimental to the interests of all concerned with democracy, accountability and transparency in Nepal.

As the head of a foreign-aid dependent NGO, I welcome such debates.

Seira Tamang is chairperson of Martin Chautari, a research and policy institute in Kathmandu

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)