KATHMANDU, Nepal — Experts have voiced concerns about a proposed policy that may restrict and, in some cases, even prevent international NGOs from working in Nepal in the future.
A proposed mechanism under the Ministry of Home Affairs titled the “National Integrity Policy” was revealed last month. If the policy is passed in its current state, it would further the government of Nepal’s control over activities of national and international NGOs in the country.
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The proposed policy states, among other things, that INGOs would no longer be allowed to engage in projects that influence the drafting of laws and policies in Nepal.
It also stipulates that INGOs must get government approval before sending reports to their headquarters in their home countries; have their budgets and programs approved by the finance ministry; and that they would be banned if they tried spreading religion.
The proposed National Integrity Policy is not the first attempt to increase the government’s control over international aid in recent years.
After the 2015 earthquakes, the government formed the National Reconstruction Authority in order to control and coordinate the spending of $ 4.1 billion aid pledged by international donors. Almost three years later, the NRA has been marred by red tape and thus far has managed to disburse only 16 percent of the pledged funds.
After heavy monsoon rains caused widespread destruction in 2017, the government instructed that all flood aid had to be distributed through the Prime Minister Disaster Relief Fund, barring national and international NGOs from engaging in independent relief activities.
“If this takes effect the way it is written right now, many of us might as well just pack our bags and go home.”— Bernd Schäfer, Nepal country director, Caritas Switzerland
The latest proposal was met with skepticism, disbelief, and concern among INGOs working in Nepal, with some saying that an implementation of the policy in its current form might lead to a standstill of international development activities in the country.
“If this takes effect the way it is written right now, many of us might as well just pack our bags and go home,” said Bernd Schäfer, Nepal country director at Caritas Switzerland.
He noted that many of the government approvals listed in the National Integrity Policy were already covered by other laws and said this appeared to be a needless additional layer of bureaucracy.
Schäfer said he was worried that inflated reporting to the government would lead to additional administrative tasks, which might deter smaller NGOs from working inside Nepal — and that it could even encourage corruption.
“I already need 12 or 13 stamps in order to get my visa extended. At Caritas, we adhere to the procedures rigorously, but you have to ask if at some point some people just prefer to take a shortcut,” he added.
Shibesh Regmi, country director at Ipas Nepal, an NGO the provides advocacy, training, and education in the field of abortion, also pointed out that the implementation of the new policy wouldn’t only put extra strain on INGOs — it would also affect the government.
“The government doesn't have the capacity to read all the reports by 140 INGOs associated with the Association of International NGOs in Nepal. That capacity doesn't exist. If the reports pile up on somebody's desk, people will miss deadlines, etc.,” he said.
A question of advocacy
One of the policy’s points that has been met with most resistance is that INGOs should not be involved in rights, policy, and advocacy work in Nepal. For many INGOs, this touches the essence of their presence and work in Nepal.
“By virtue of their definition, INGOs have to have freedom of association and freedom of speech. They should be there so that the government of Nepal complies with human rights and the international treaties it's entered,” Ipas’ Regmi said.
Other NGO workers argued that the government of Nepal is happy to receive funds from overseas to treat the symptoms, but doesn’t want to be told how to address the underlying causes of social, economic, and environmental development issues.
“NGOs want to bring change on the social level, also when it comes to exploitation and even ethnic domination. So if we don’t do it, we’re not doing our job,” said a country director of an INGO who spoke to Devex under the condition of anonymity.
Caritas’ Schärer also said that banning advocacy work could make donors think twice if they wanted to expand operations in the country.
“It doesn’t apply to us right now, but just look around. Isn’t this what just about 50 percent of INGOs came here for?” he said.
Ram Krishna Subedi, spokesperson of the Ministry of Home Affairs, told Devex that the National Integrity Policy would streamline INGO regulation by placing it under a single framework.
“We're drafting the new policy regarding our National Integrity Policy. It is a crosscutting issue, so the central policy will be integrated in this new policy,” Subedi told Devex.
Some organizations agree that there needs to be better regulation of the sector. But many also fear that the policies will be used haphazardly to remove organizations that draw the government’s ire with little reason. Regmi said that based on his feedback from politicians and bureaucrats, he didn’t expect that the law would be implemented in its current spirit — also because the government risked losing face if funding dropped as a result.
“There's a need to have a clear regulatory framework, but none have said that they really want to restrict INGOs operations,” Regmi said.
Regmi added that it was important to explain to the government why some of the clauses could discourage INGOs, and what tremendous impact this could have, since the INGOs within the Association of International NGOs have a combined budget of $350 million.
“We're in a situation where the government hasn't been able to reach [everybody] with its services. It's lacking resources and therefore the absence of INGOs could compound the effect. It's important that they understand the positive results that we've been able to create in the last 50 years plus,” said Regmi.