Nepali Times
Guest Column
The Ungovernment


Globally, development organisations including international NGOs, have faced periodic charges of the misuse of funds, a lack of transparency and incompetence. But because the need is so great, these allegations have taken a back seat.

Similar dynamics are at play here in Nepal. Because of the scale of the human misery unleashed by the conflict, issues of accountability, corruption and transparency within non-governmental groups are ignored or minimised. The argument is that 'this is not the right time to raise such issues' or 'at least they do some good work'. That rationale is partly valid. After all, the non-government sector is generally more efficient and productive than the government, and has altruism and justice as its mission.

Activists are thought to be above such base instincts as greed found in business and politics. However, both NGOs and their personnel have to play by the rules of the game prevalent in society. Organisational survival is every organisation's goal, and one that leads to the pressure to secure funds. This is as true for NGOs as it is for corporate businesses. Furthermore, NGO people cannot suddenly rise out and above the social milieu, in what one author on non-governmental corruption wryly describes as 'a sudden moment of transfiguration'.

Informal rules and institutions form the bedrock of civil society. Because such institutions are based on attitudes, culture and social norms, they are instrumental in determining the nature of voluntary civic cooperation in society. NGOs are a component of civil society and can be a channel of corruption if the informal rules of civil society accept corrupt and criminal behaviour. If society tolerates corruption, NGOs cannot always be untouched. While both the World Bank and Transparency International retain the broad definition of corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain, analysts have pointed out its limited utility when applied to non-governmental organisations. NGOs do not have public power charged to them.

However they are entrusted with public and private resources, a result of their self-representation as independent, non-profit seeking organisations working for the betterment of society. Corruption thus has to be redefined as behaviour for personal gain, or for the benefit of another person or organisation on the part of people who claim to represent an independent, not for profit, public benefit organisation.

Accepting that corruption exists in NGOs in Nepal does not mean there aren't principled NGOs committed to useful work. However, the continued acceptance of certain levels of corruption in the NGO sector does not just adversely affect the reputation of all NGOs. It allows attitudes, cultural and social norms that prevent the emergence of democratic ways of functioning and living. Much research has gone into studying the links between good governance and corruption, but these tend to be restricted to the level of the state. But since NGOs are broadly seen as an alternative to the state, clear analyses of corruption in NGOs need to be undertaken. The fight for democracy, human rights and the fight against corruption rests on accountability, representation, transparency and the commitment to equality by both the state and non-state spheres.

Solutions suggested by analysts of corruption in NGOs include the formation of self-regulating bodies which set standards and sanctions, the improvement of a legal and regulatory environment, and increased professionalism of donors. The last is key in Nepal given the scale of resources and power increasingly accumulated by NGOs and the fact that they are more accountable to donors than to Nepali citizens.

Specific questions of donor competence in regulating the funds given to NGOs, the lack of donor transparency in their funding and recording procedures and the complicity of donors in encouraging corruption in the NGO field by turning a blind eye for the sake of the 'Immediate Cause', or 'The Conflict' need to be raised.

In the face of the lack of legitimacy of the state and political parties, the inability of civil society organisations in Nepal today to hold moral authority and power among the general populace is very telling. The costs of tolerating corruption obviously go beyond the economic. A re-evaluation of the price at which Nepal is receiving more cost-effective and relatively more ethical services is necessary.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)