Roles of Civil Society in Nepal’s Development

Nepali nagrik samaj or civil society is getting high up in the last two and half decades or so in many aspects like raising awareness of the people, supporting democratic movement/s, working as development partners in community development and the like.

Although it is not easy to ‘characterize’ (post)modern civil society that encompasses unrestrained scopes and roles, in general sense civil society is the entirety of many deliberate social relationships, civic and social organization, and institutions that lay the foundation of a functioning society. Its main character is its distinct position from the force-backed structures of the state and the commercial institutions of the market.

So, making it simple, a society can be seen as the combination of state, market and society. Then, what are some of the examples of the civil society in our context?  Well, they range from sports club of a tole or a village to political parties that hope to form the government.  Community organizations, upabhokta manch (consumers society), abhibhavak sangh (parents federation), sahakari santha (cooperative institution), natya samuha (theatre group), nongovernment organization, aama samuha (mothers groups), policy institution and trade unions are some the categories of civil society in the Nepali context. These societies have been functioning on their respective field for promoting social cohesion, alerting the government or market or raising the awareness in the people’s level.

On the other hand, Nepali civil society is not without criticism and controversies due to its nature of self declared ‘model’ in some cases. Our media often tag individual/s  as the member/s of the civil society without any reference to any category which s/he may belong to; and such self ascribed  membership of the civil society makes Nepali civil society quite illusive. Next scary scene in Nepali civil society, if not alerted in time, is faint differentiation of civil society from unlawful establishment and vigilante groups. Organized crime, corruption and vigilantism can never be the purpose of civil society.

It is very important to note that the role of civil society becomes no less prominent in democratic societies as democracies are not free from evil. Democracy is simply a system where evils can be challenged within the system by the people and constant improvement is possible. Therefore, the role of the civil society in an emerging democracy like Nepal cannot be exaggerated.

People get more opportunities in democracy for self reliance and civil society has important roles to play for further enhancing democracy and complementing in the development of the country. Among many, one of the important parts of civil society is non government organizations or what we popularly call NGOs.

Too often we talk about the foreign interest and intervention in our politics, development, education and organizations. Civil society has very important role to play in resisting unnecessary foreign interest and intervention. However, it is difficult to resist if the civil society itself “closes eyes” and becomes instrumental to promote these matters. In recent years the civil society itself has been defamed on this matter.  If it holds the truth, this cannot be considered a noble role at all of the civil society and a country with such civil society cannot imagine a state with good governance. Because, the role of the civil society is to resist every evil that can happen in the society. Taken an example, what will happen, when political parties and its wings tend to receive donation and run “projects” in the donors’ favor?

Our priorities ought to be set by ourselves. But do our NGOs set the development priorities themselves? Unfortunately in many cases we find that donors are doing that. Let the priorities be set by our civil society. In order to sustain our democracy, our priorities should be set by us. Our priorities are livelihood, education, community health care, microcredit, rural friendly technology and helping communities adapt to modernization. It might sound emotional but we would like to retell here one of my experiences. A few years ago, a Karnali drama “Karnali dakhkhin bagdo chha”, was shown in Gurukul Theatre in Kathmandu.   The drama revealed one of the Karnali truths that thousands of people are leaving the land to go to India only to find any work just to survive!

Through various channels and programs of NGOs after 1990 the common people have been made aware about democracy and rights. This is no doubt an excellent outcome. Now, the roles of NGOs are more crucial in transforming the socio-economic condition of the people. How can NGOs do it?

Cooperatives can be appropriate means of reducing rural poverty. Few cooperatives have already been veteran development organizations in bringing changes in socio-economic lives in south Asia. Grameen and similar organization BRAC in Bangladesh have demonstrated it. What BRAC and Grameen are doing for the ultra poor and poor there, we can certainly do through cooperative movement for our rural youths and women at the time when youths have experiencing frustration and flooding abroad. Thousands of youths have been risking quite big amount to go to the Middle East, Malaysia and similar labour markets to earn nominal wages and the sweat enriches foreign soil. We estimate that the brain, the muscle and the money can be rightly channelized for their better income and sustainable development through cooperatives. It should not be understood that cooperative alone could be a leading economic model to flourish national economy. Cooperative can improve the livelihood of the poor people and help climb on the first step of the ladder. Once the people are on the first step of the economic ladder there are more possibilities of opening more doors!

Let us estimate, usually, a Nepali individual who leaves Nepal for the Middle East, Malaysia and the like invests one hundred thousand rupees. Let the money be put together of hundred people. It makes once crore rupees. The money, through proper financial model, can be enough to create jobs to at least hundred people directly in own land on own ownership of the project and contribute to the national development. There are multiple chain effects of it to create further employment opportunities.  It is time to act for the economic prosperity of the country by the civil society. Democracy opens doors economic development but it is also true that strong economy sustains democracy.

Similarly, volunteering can be an important role of civil society in development. During the premiership of Baburam Bhattrai Nepal government announced to bring about National Volunteering Campaign.  Elucidating more on the proposal, Prime Minister Bhattrai asked for a policy formulation in order to make volunteering as an integral part of social and economic development and revitalization of the altruistic sentiment of our Nepali society. Even before the drafting of new national volunteer campaign policy, Bhattrai has already directed the officials to start the campaign with some ecological ‘projects’ in towns and villages.  But sadly, after his tenure the campaign could not continue. Volunteerism is not a new topic in Nepali society as our communities have time honored traditions of volunteerism like shramadan, parma, guthi,  thho, bheja, posang, choho, khel etc. On the other hand, beginning  from the time of Tulsi Meher, the ‘founding father’ of Nepal’s NGO movement, to the present date the number of NGOs in the country has reached more than thirty thousand! These more than thirty thousand boards claim to be doing volunteer service as well! And we meet several ‘self- acclaimed’ social workers in the town and villages who claim themselves involved in volunteering/social service.

The above mentioned volunteer service can be a type of ‘non-state programme’. When the government is planning to launch volunteering campaign it should be something singular from these registered/unregistered non-government organizational attempts. The government cannot assume that it did something new by organizing a ‘campaign’ to be participated by commoners, GOs, NGOs, parties and their sister wings, if the state really wants to make volunteering an integral part of national development. In plain words, rather than a campaign the volunteering should be a ‘movement’ or a ‘programme’ for country’s development under a certain framework and structure rather than just a public announcement to participate in an event.

What could be such a volunteering programme then? Tribhuvan University had implemented National Development Service (NDS) in 1974 which collapsed before long in 1979 due to political reasons of Panchyat regime. Under that programme, all students were required to volunteer one year during their Masters degree studies to work in a rural community. The volunteer work used to be anything from teaching, working in community projects and learning about village life and local conditions in the rural settings. It was so influential and effective programme that even on those early days of 1974 to 1979 around three thousand students spent at least a year in a total of 1,735 villages in 72 districts of Nepal. The NDS program was an outstanding volunteerism which brought educated people to the villages all over the country.  The objectives of the programme were worth mentioning: to make education broader in outlook and more practical and attuned to national development needs, to encourage students to assist in rural development activities, and to give them the opportunity to interact with rural people and become involved in practical development experiences. At the end, each NDS volunteer had to prepare a village profile and write a final NDS field report. Anyone who have experienced the NDS programme say that it has brought deep impacts upon both students and the communities.

Nepal can revive the NDS type programme in our universities once again making the programme more contextual and relevant in today’s reality of the achievement of political change in the country.  Students in colleges can really do something worthy than politicking in student unions if such programmes are devised.

Nepalis, no doubt, were/are hard-working and can work hard. Our people have somewhat staggered to keep themselves intact to traditional hand-working job in the present transitional period of largely agro-based economy into market economy. Exactly now, the well-planned opportunity to volunteerism matters more than before. Volunteer service not only gives opportunity to learn to respect hard-work but it also engages one in hard-work and perseverance. And, if we want to build our nation, promotion of hard-working culture in the citizen is a must. The newly developed economies like Japan, South Korea and Brazil have proved that the progress is possible in short period through hardworking culture. And the US, China and India rocketed with their progress because of their hardworking culture.  In fact, a well devised volunteer service programme can promote the proper utilization of human resource, cultivation of self-dignity in citizenry, motivation to social service and pride to one’s peoples and nation.

When our old symbols/cultural icon are not working any more to identify us as who we are or who Nepali are the unique culture of volunteer service and hardworking trait established through it can become our new identity in the world. We can establish it if we plan and work in next few decades.

Shree Prasad Devkota is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. He is a Kathmandu University graduate, has a Master’s in Mathematics Education and M.phl in Development Studies. Currently he is chairperson of SDEFSustainable Development and Empowerment Forum, and has worked as a lecturer. He is researcher in the field development sectors in Nepal and has worked as consultant, monitoring and evaluation expert in different I/NGOs. Devkota has been working in the field of education of children, marginalized and socially excluded groups, especially on conflict management regarding the post-conflict situation in Nepal. He has published several research articles in national and international journals. Books: Teacher’s Lived Experiences and Contextualized Mathematics, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Germany, 2012. Education in Nepal from Dalit Perspective, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Germany, 2013. Conflict in School and Its Management by Shree Prasad Devkota and Shiba Bagale, Scholars’ Press, Germany, 2015.

Dikendra Lal Dhakal comes from Nepal. Dhakal is a research scholar at Career Point University, Kota India. His areas of interest are education, development studies, anthropology and sociology. Presently, Dhakal works in a German international development agency for Nepal in the capacity of Country Director. Dhakal has published research articles in international journals and writes column in Nepali newspapers.

Credits:TMS: Roles of Civil Society in Nepal’s Development 

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