Civil society as a concept has had a long and distinguished, if somewhat rarefied, existence among political philosophers. In recent decades, having undergone some alchemic transformations at the hands of development theorists, it has surfaced among the people with more rhetorical allure than it has ever had in the past. In this more seductive guise its ecumenical progress has been very sumptuous. At the hands of development publicists it has now become a tidy blueprint to explain what is amiss in ‘underdeveloped countries’ and what awaits them if they only make their societies more civil. But as with all nostrums, this demotic concept of civil society cannot afford to look too closely at its own constitutive axioms. Reconciling its numerous and fundamental inconsistencies is a potentially self-negating act. Given the evident inadequacies of the concept, what is surprising is that the development priesthood has managed to secure for it such widespread acceptance across the global south.
It is customary, for instance, in Nepal, as in other “less-developed” countries in the present time, to predicate viable democracy largely on the emergence of a vibrant and active ‘civil society’. In the cannon of development, a concomitant assumption is that such a civil society can be financed into existence. But this constant reiteration that civil society is the solution to all of Nepal’s ills does little to clarify the nature and potential of democratic space in Nepal. Instead, civil society and other associated terms in donor liturgy — “democracy”, “development” “empowerment”, “gender” — are deployed in simplified, sanitised and circumscribed forms. As the anthropologist Saubhagya Shah points out, shorn of their “particular political and economic histories, these privileged discourses get circulated as transparent and free-floating normative orders”. Across the world civil society has been accorded a single uniform connotation that does not admit of the different political possibilities that its pedigree affords.
Situating civil society
Civil society’s conceptual ancestry is long and diverse, spanning a range of theorists such as Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Adam Smith and Alexis De Tocqueville. Though its lines of descent are complex and its interpretations numerous, conceptions of civil society can be broadly divided into two categories, liberal and the Marxist – with their respective neo/post permutations. It is generally agreed that what constitutes civil society is based on some form of coordinated activity beyond the individual and household and beyond the confines of the state. It is thought to be an arena of associational culture that implies a sense of collective action. Broadly, civil society serves as a sort of bridge between the realms of society (defined as an aggregate of individuals and households living together within a more or less ordered community) and the state (defined as a set of government norms and institutions for the purposes of structuring and controlling a given territory).
The state-society bridge which constitutes civil society may be built from the direction of society towards the state, in which case it serves as a way of imposing and enforcing social norms on the workings of the state. Or, the civil society bridge may be built from the direction of the state towards society, in which case it creates a hegemony of the kind theorised by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. This civil society architecture normalises state domination over society by creating the appearance of a state that is an organic social product. In either case, civil society legitimises the state. The difference between these two constructions is a normative one that distinguishes between a legitimation that rests on an actual integration of social values into state functioning and a legitimation that is built on the effective exercise of state ideology and control over society.
The liberal approach is derived from de Tocqueville’s work on democracy in 19th century America. Tocqueville emphasised the beneficial effects of civil associations for the creation and maintenance of democracy, and in the liberal view it is civil society which imposes and enforces social norms on the workings of the state. It is the key to the limited state. This idea of civil society was further elaborated and given an empirical foundation in Robert Putnam’s research on democracy in Italy. His work, which has been particularly popular and influential among policy makers, stresses the necessity of a vibrant organisational culture as a prerequisite for a stable democracy with horizontal group solidarities which cut across vertical ties of kinship and patronage. The most recent work within this tradition to have earned the accolades of the multilateral community is Ashutosh Varshney’s book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, a study of Hindu-Muslim violence in India, in which he reiterates the role of horizontal solidarities in thwarting civil conflict.
In the neo- or post-Marxist variants, civil society is seen as being inextricably linked with the state and political organisations, with the latter sustaining its power through the indirect domination of the former. Importantly, in this view, civil society – though an arena of oppression characterised by internal divisions and power inequalities – is also the site of struggle and resistance against authoritarianism.
The orthodox development view of civil society in Nepal, as in the rest of South Asia, subscribes to the liberal/neo-liberal approach. Much of the analyses focuses on the need to promote practices and strategies to strengthen a vaguely defined civil society. This is not surprising since the concept of “civil society” was introduced into Nepal via the world of development, which tacitly accepts the liberal perspective. As many commentators have observed, the rise to prominence of civil society is symmetrically aligned to the global dominance of the neo-liberal ideology. This is in contrast to the 1970s and 1980s, when the idea of civil society formed the rallying cry for critics of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and East Europe.
The east European collapse inspired sanguine prophecies about “the third wave of democratisation” and expressions of faith in “people power”. In a climate overwhelmingly conducive to the export of democracy, external forces were thought to be capable of aiding its institutionalisation in countries emerging into freedom, if domestic forces were not equal to the task. Under this benign supervisory regime, international and western NGOs were assigned the role of facilitating transnational advocacy networks, which in turn would strengthen local NGO capacity to alter and shape domestic politics and eventually change state behaviour.
Concurrently, civil society underwent a de facto definitional amendment. Though, theoretically, it was acknowledged that civil society is constituted by diverse forms of associational life, in practice it came to be more or less restricted in meaning to NGO’s and emphasis was almost exclusively directed towards amplifying their role and potential. The policy of “strengthening civil society” in the pursuit of economic and political liberalisation was central to the New Policy Agenda adopted in the late 1990s by multilateral and bilateral organisations such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, the Inter-American Development Bank and the US Agency for International Development’s initiative for ‘sustainable democracy’.
Since then, the quest for strengthening civil societies has gained momentum. In addition to the Bretton-Woods and United Nations institutions, bilateral donor agencies and international non-government bodies have all enthusiastically embraced the NGO as the instrument of democratic development. This is in fact an institutional corollary of the ideological premises of the Washington Consensus, whose strenuous objections to the state as an economic agent have been influential in conferring on NGOs their pre-eminent role in creating a depoliticised democratic environment in which citizens are primarily civilised consumers of goods and services provided by an inherently efficient private sector. The NGO therefore has both a civic and economic role.
As political utopias are explicitly forbidden and the state is compelled to withdraw from direct participation in production and distribution, NGOs are regarded as ideal service delivery mechanisms working towards the ends of development. In more recent times, the ambit of this function has been enlarged and in addition to dispensing the traditional package of services, NGOs have been given the mandate of delivering democracy and civil society as part of their development mission. NGOs therefore are civil society organisations par excellence. In this role they serve as founders of ‘civic culture’, which is the bastion from which to combat non-democratic forces threatening the state. While the overt emphasis is on the contribution of ‘civic organisations’ to the process of democratisation, the freedoms of a democratic society are also deemed to include the freedom of choice in the market place. This enthusiasm for democracy is sometimes indistinguishable from free market ebullience and the democratisation process also entails donor support to civil society explicitly for cultivating the ethic of private enterprise.
The liberal rhetoric of civil society
Civil society as it exists in the development lexicon has the appearance of lacking in conceptual, definitional and purposive clarity. From being a determinant of democracy, civil society often becomes an end in itself, redefined tautologically to mean those institutions, ie NGOs, which partake of the features of a prefabricated construct of civil society that in principle is constituted by a limited and sometimes contradictory range of sentiments and dispositions about development and democracy. In a general climate in which the instrument is mistaken for its purpose, the proliferation of NGOs is taken to be an index of democratic evolution. However, what undermines these claims to democratic virtue and distinction is the specific sociology of the financial and institutional environment in which they operate. In particular, the relationship between domestic civil society organisations and their international financial patrons has important implications for democracy.
Nepal’s own 1990 democratic revolution, which saw the end of the repressive Panchayat regime, opened up political space for autonomous organisations at precisely the time in which much foreign aid assistance was channeled into – among other things – the construction of a civil society. In the aftermath of the political change, existing organisations grew in strength and overall there was an exponential growth in the number of NGOs operating in the country. While appreciating both the changing forms that INGOs and NGOs have taken over the years and the specifically political spaces that NGOs in Nepal have gained since 1990, it is however important to recognise the manner in which civic actors have been shaped – knowingly, and unknowingly – by international forces.
The widespread currency of the term “civil society” in Nepal can be traced to the mid- to late-1990s. Not a few INGO funded books on the topic were published during this time along with many articles in various newspapers and magazines. Much of this output, continuing today, follows the liberal civil society agenda in all its “development” approaches and aims to curtail the excesses of the state. For example, Govind Dhakal, an exponent of this train of thought, in an article titled, “Foundation of an autonomous civil society and the environment of the citizens in Nepal”, argued that the “quest for the foundation of an autonomous civil society can only be realised when centralised power and authority is well decentralised to the development actors in various forms”. More recently, Alfred Diebold, the Nepal Resident Representative of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Germany, which has sponsored much of the literature on civil society, stated, “In developing countries, the government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society have a primary responsibility for addressing the concerns of the poor and powerless and lend support to the politics of transformation”. The language appears to have changed, but the development agenda is still clear.
The predominant notion of civil society used in Nepal is of groups working together in association for a better normative life that liberal democracy represents. The routine literature on the subject, as a rule, is prescriptive in tone, with accompanying laments on the lack of civil society associations. Nepal is of course no different from other countries in which the generic use of “civil society” occurs, and consistent with the international trend, the term is vaguely defined. In fact it is often equated with the non-state sphere as a whole so that there appears to be no difference between society and civil society. The danger in eroding the distinction between society, an altogether inadequate descriptive term, and civil society, which is a potentially useful analytical category, has been highlighted by Prahlad Dhakal, who provides examples of the comical usages of the latter term in Nepal. Thus, civil society not only buys tomatoes and cauliflower, it also steals domestic water meters and indulges in similar other patently anti-democratic misdemeanours.
It is not just civil society literature on civil society that falls short of any analytically meaningful contribution. Even academic analyses of the term in Nepal – many of which, incidentally, have been sponsored or co-sponsored by donors – are as, if not more, conceptually ungainly and deceptive in their formulations. The radical connotations of the term, as expounded by both Marx and Gramsci, are simplified to such a degree that their very different conceptions of the role of civil society and the implications this has for the manner in which democratic struggles can be visualised become sterile and effete. Typically, for instance, Gramsci’s idea of “hegemony” and civil society is sanitised to fit a liberal conclusion. According to a 1996 document co-produced by NEFAS and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung,
Gramsci, therefore, underlined the importance of human ideas and efforts in changing the course of history and altering the process of development. Participation of the masses in decision-making and applying the methods of mediation can be expected to achieve pluralistic consensus and enable the social, economic and political systems in adjusting to the needs and aspirations of people as well as to link human consciousness with the maintenance or peaceful change of the system.
For Gramsci, civil society is an accessory of the state in so far as it is the sphere in which the capitalist state executes its project of hegemony. In this view, civil society is the instrument through which the state obtains approval for its policies and programmes and generalises its acceptance in society. This is in stark contrast to the liberal idea of a pluralistic consensus and dominant systems changing in accordance to the needs of people, as suggested by the foregoing quotation. In a more recent reworking of the liberal formula in Nepal, the value of both Marx and Gramsci’s thoughts have been unequivocally consigned to the past. In opposition to their views is “the modern version of civil society” which constitutes a space in which ideals of democracy and human rights are unproblematically realised.
For the most part, there is a lack of conceptual clarity, intellectual rigour and even the most rudimentary theoretical foundations in most of these analyses, as is epitomised by this statement from the NEFAS-FES publication: “The common tendency of civil society to escape from both the paternalistic values of communism and laissez faire value of capitalism underlies its salience as both overlook voluntary, non-profit, and non-monetised functions of the society”. What this means is not exactly clear to any serious student of civil society. Despite this lack of clarity, the proprietors of civil society do not brook any departure from their slipshod definitions.
Thus, in the introductory overview of a 1998 book based on several seminars throughout the country, titled “The Role of Civil Society and Democratisation in Nepal”, the editor laments somewhat paternalistically that in the seminar on civil society and gender, “in spite of explaining to the participants the concept of civil society in relation to democratisation and the importance of the gender perspective in achieving [the aim of civil society], the discussion, more often than not, strayed from the major theme and concentrated heavily on the sad plight of women in a male dominated society like Nepal”. This wilful disregard of women’s concerns about their lived realities and the imposition of explanatory categories from above, hints at the disempowering manner in which ostensibly “democratising” principles or objectives are actually applied in Nepal. Clearly society to be civil must also be obedient to the strictures of civil society patrons.
The inability of academics and analysts to move beyond “trendy” jargon and received wisdom of grossly inadequate explanatory competence is evident from the manner in which civil society is, in general discourse, equated with NGOs. It is equally obvious from the critique of NGOs, made from different perspectives, in both academic and general parlance. While some observers herald NGOs as alternatives to the state, NGO culture has also been variously called “dollar farming”, “begging and cheating bowl”, “slave of the foreigners”, “preventing revolution” and as family entrepreneurial endeavours. (Such arguments are also familiar in Bangladesh, which like Nepal is a highly donor affected country). Yet, these sorts of critiques are oblivious to the consequences of NGOs for the manner in which civil society and its democratic promise can be realised.
The issue is not just that narratives of civil society are often merely prescriptive and not even remotely relevant to the real dynamics of how civil society actually functions in the Nepali context. Nor is it simply that the use of the term “civil society” as an alternative to “NGOs” avoids the stigma that attaches to the latter. The issue in Nepal – as in other places – is also related to the fact that despite their conceptual confusion and limited value in explaining Nepal’s past or future, such imported concepts command public and official importance because of the manner in which they are linked, pushed and advocated by the world of development and donors for various politico-economic reasons, and also because of a basic unwillingness on the part of intellectuals and development professionals alike to interrogate the terms of the discourse.
In her article “Selling Civil Society: Western Aid and the Nongovernmental Organisation Sector in Russia”, Sarah Henderson argues that the rhetoric of a vibrant civil society for political and economic democratisation, in whichever form, does not actually comprehend or question the manner in which these high ideals actually play themselves out in reality. To begin with, the relationship between democratic stability and civic groups is predicated on the assumption that internally civic groups inspire habits of cooperation, solidarity, public-spiritedness and trust. Externally, these networks then aggregate interests and articulate demands to ensure government accountability to its citizens. Civic associations socialise participants into the norms of generalised reciprocity and trust, the merits of group action and the recognition that mutual dependence is the key to public welfare. All these are considered essential for social solidarity and the social capital that permits effective cooperation between individuals as well as between citizens and the state. Horizontal civic networks are seen to promote the democratic polity by inculcating a culture of cooperation, thereby enhancing the capacity of citizens to mobilize for public causes.
However, the validity of such liberal arguments about civil society are undermined by the entirely unrealistic foundational assumption that all civil society organisations are implicitly working towards common objectives latently assumed to be democratic in some form or another. Not all organisations falling under the rubric of civil society are necessarily working towards the promotion of democratisation. In Nepal, for example, the World Hindu Federation is as much a part of civil society as ABC Nepal, an anti-trafficking organisation. In the same vein, civil society does not consist of only noble causes and well-intentioned actors. As an analyst has pointed out, former Bosian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, as a representative of the aspirations of ordinary Serbs, can rightfully lay as great a claim to being an exemplar of civil society as Vaclav Havel.
It is also quite clear that various associational group are structured very differently. Many if not most of Nepal’s most well known NGOs are organisationally different from trade unions and neighbourhood organisations. In general, NGOs in Nepal are susceptible to authoritarian tendencies, with low potential for genuinely democratic membership-participation. Many NGOs are not democratically structured internally. And competition between organisations with conflicting aims and ideological goals is scarcely conducive to the spirit of cooperation that civil society is expected to foster.
An active and diverse civil society’s capacity to play a valuable role in the evolution of democracy is often neutralised by the fact that the proliferation of interest groups can have detrimental effects by stifling the functioning of representative institutions and distorting policy outcomes in favour of the better organised blocs and syndicates. This usually implies, in a majority of instances, the most affluent and well-connected organisations, including those able and willing to use extra-legal procedures to ensure outcomes to their advantage.
Most importantly, as Henderson points out, arguments extolling civic associations do not take into account the manner in which international influence affects the two key components of civic theory: horizontal ties and the norm of reciprocity. Indeed, in the case of Nepal, the role of international foreign aid is almost always forgotten or sidelined. For example, in recent reports on the Maoist conflict, the preliminary, and usually perfunctory, introductions to Nepal at large, including, ironically, the number of years that foreign aid has been active in Nepal, make no mention of any possible connection between the present political, social and economic malaise and active donor complicity in fabricating it historically and currently.
This is all the more remarkable since many of these reports concede the “structural dependence of Nepal on foreign assistance”. In the words of one report by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) this dependence signifies “the potential for aid to have a significant influence – either positive or negative” in greater measure than in “many other contexts”. Another DFID sponsored report, while pointing to the possible role of development aid in contributing to the Maoist conflict can only see that contribution in terms of “raised and unfulfilled expectations” and “inequity in the distribution of resources”.
Reinserting the role of foreign donors within the Nepali context demands a more thorough analysis and one that may unfortunately not be easily forthcoming since it complicates the easy and accepted recipe – “add foreign assistance and stir” – for building up civil society. To begin with, as many observers in Nepal are aware, groups that have received aid are not any more likely to develop networks of accountability to citizens as well to the state, both of which are crucial from the perspective of governance. Critics have noted the manner the manner in which NGOs are not publicly accountable, transparent or subject to monitoring except perhaps to supervisory and monitoring constituencies and stakeholders in the North.
Neither are they more likely to be part of more dense networks of association involving other civil groups. Instead these groups, with all their organisational facilities, glossy publications etc, are professionally quite detached and removed from the domestic social constituencies they claim to represent or work on behalf of. Their use of global language is indicative of the ways in which they and other NGOs are closer to their transnational partners than “the people” that they claim to represent. Western financial patrons, on whom they are dependent, constitute their primary constituency, and it is often claimed that for many villages are not their area of operation. All of this has resulted in altering priorities from domestic needs to those that reflect the priorities and agendas of foreign assistance programmes.
Studies in Russia and other post-communist countries have uncovered the manner in which, while enabling groups to aggregate interests, foreign aid does little to help groups to internally develop abilities to instil habits of cooperation, solidarity, public spiritedness and trust. To the contrary, research specifically shows how foreign aid has been decisive in fostering internal rivalries, jealousies, and overall divisiveness in the women’s movement in Russia. In Nepal, the failure of women’s groups to establish viable networks among themselves – from the politics surrounding anti-trafficking endeavours, the collapse of the Women’s Pressure Group formed to pressure the government to act on behalf of women on burning issues and current peace initiatives – illustrates not only the political rivalries involved but also the economic benefits at stake in a bikas-driven land of associational groups. The splintering of well known organisations – INHURED International broke into two distinct factions each claiming their group to be the “real INHURED”; founding members of the Centre for Women and Development left to form another women’s organizations while some members of the Women Development Centre took others to court over accusations of financial irregularities – provides some food for thought along these lines.
Clearly, of the funded civic groups in Nepal, few are engaged in activities that might be associated with “civicness”.
This sensitivity of civic groups to the external dynamic is easily explained. The economic benefits to be gained from a funder clearly outweigh any incentive that the domestic market could ever provide. Therefore, regardless of good intentions to build a civic community, the need to sustain their own funding source propels them to focus on producing results that satisfy the funder, rather than necessarily making a substantial community impact. Likewise, the material gains from grants provide incentives for groups to engage in activities that militate against the ethos of building social capital. Organisations often hoard information, duplicate each other’s projects, and squabble among themselves. The fear of jeopardizing their own funding possibilities results in the unwillingness to share grant ideas.
As a consequence, rather than building networks and developing publics, groups consciously retain small memberships, withhold and stash information, and engage in uncooperative and even competitive behaviour with other civic groups. Overall, given the incentive structures of the grant game, apart from nominal claims to the contrary, it is actually irrational in a financial sense for groups to behave in ways that might build networks and horizontal ties with members of the community or with local business. Superficial criticisms against “dollar farming” tend to miss the systemic nature of such behaviour. This obviously, is not to suggest that all Nepali civic activists are financially driven, selfish amoral actors but merely to point out the manner in which the “funding game” structures this sort of behaviour.
Doubtless the equipment and training given by donors has increased the organisational capacity of recipient groups. It has been argued, in the context of Russia, that as a consequence donors appear to be most effective in building the capacity of groups to perform civil society’s external functions of advocacy and interest articulation. This is applicable to the Nepali context where the positive contributions of NGOS have been enumerated in an ActionAid document as: organisation and leadership, increased awareness, reaching poor and disadvantaged people and areas, expanding access to basic services, giving voice to disadvantaged people, internationalisation of issues and government policy change.
While all this may be true, it is secondary in relation to the more crucial determinant of how these groups perform civil society’s internal functions of developing networks of communication and trust. Aid has done little to improve this dimension of civic group activity. Instead, the attempt to finance civil societies into existence has led to emergence of a vertical, hierarchical, and isolated civic community that partakes of the very features of social organisation that are profoundly anti-democratic. In Nepal, a DFID sponsored report of 2000 refers to aid having “sustained Kathmandu elite patronage systems,” and reinforcing local client relationships.
Even well meaning attempts to rectify these mistakes fail to get to the real source of the problem. Consider the recommendations made in a 2002 Finnish report on donor and recipient Southern civil society organisations, Voices from the Southern Civil Societies. The report called for, among other things, more institutional and open funding, the promotion of self-sufficiency, longer-term perspectives from donors, support for networks, support for national umbrella civil society organisations, training and technical assistance, and constituency building and advocacy. All of this eventually comes back to increasing organisational capacity. These reformist recommendations fail altogether to address questions of how co-operation, solidarity, public spiritedness and trust are to be created, and how the aggregation and accumulation of demands can be made in practice, given this environment.
This concern is all the more serious because it involves the question of long-term sustainability in a climate of excessive reliance on donors, who themselves are constrained by the need to show quick, short-term products at the expense of long-term goals if they are to remain in the funding market. Compounding the matter further is the overall inability to measure the ‘success’ of democracy promotion programmes. Donor urgencies combine with the lack of an appropriate index of measurement to produce doubtful claims about the progress of democracy.
To cite one instance of this, a Washington DC development-consulting firm, with a USD 26 million contract from USAID to promote local government democracy in Poland, reported “increased participation in local government decision making”. But the claim is unverifiable because of the absence of a baseline to show how public participation had risen over the project’s lifetime and whether the increases, if any, could be linked directly to the project’s activities as opposed to other wider changes taking place in the country. A commentator in the Washington Post noted that all one opinion survey revealed was that “one in six citizens had attended municipal budget presentations and one in four citizens had met with their local representatives at some point during the previous year”. This is too tenuous a basis on which to rest claims about the success of financed democratisation.
Civil society in the image of society
Existing social and economic relations of power as well as the resistance to it inflect civil society, as a historically constituted and socially produced entity. In Nepal, historical privileges have enabled certain caste and class groups, by virtue of their education, to seize the opportunities offered by the development world. What has not been sufficiently analysed is the effect that the emergence of a distinct civic elite within the NGO community has for the nature of the putative democratic space being created in the country. A related question that has also escaped serious attention is the extent to which foreign assistance has reinforced the structured inequalities of caste, ethnicity, gender and religious belief. The problem with the liberal framework, with its dogmatic faith in the formal terms of political democracy, participation and rights, is that it simply assumes the equal capacity of all, irrespective of economic and social disparities, to involve themselves equally in its processes. As the political theorist Neera Chandoke argues, it is simply a “primitive form of conceptualisation”.
Civil society conceptualised in real time, as distinct from a purely normative vision of the future imposed on the present, is a sphere of social reproduction and association that has many tiers and scales of organisations. It is also internally more heterogeneous and conflict-prone than liberal theory, fixated on the idea of a sui generis civic convergence abetted by hard currency, is willing to concede. Thus, it has been found that small neighbourhood groups, which emerge from the locality, are distinct in character from large macro-level organisations which tend to be more hierarchical. This latter tendency is visible in the Kathmandu-based formal organisations, which are first-level recipients with an established funding track record. The cycle of financing is therefore circular and self-referential, legitimising the continuous transfer of resources to these “proven” organisations whose fund-worthiness rests on the fact that they already receive funds. The process is not very different from the pattern of credit flows in the financial market, leading to significant entry barriers.
According to a 1997 ActionAid report, an estimated 100 NGOs absorb 80 percent of total funds routed into the NGO sector. This estimate excludes “special”/“mega NGOs” such as the Family Planning Association, the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation and the Nepal Red Cross society. This has accentuated the already significant inequalities between the Kathmandu-based organisations and regional groups in Nepal. (In this context it is also useful to remember that aid is simultaneously widening the gap between rich and poor directly or indirectly through high salaries for employees in donor projects.) A donor-funded report on conflict and development, pointed out that one of the “unintended, collateral effects” of aid has been “an excessive focus on some regions and on capital intensive projects, strengthening patronage systems and regional cleavages, in particular between the Kathmandu valley and the rest of the country”.
The secrets of development
Aside from geographical inequalities, much has been said about the culpability of the Nepali intelligentsia for the “failure of development” – on issues of co-option, lack of independent research and the unwillingness to critique the development orthodoxy. But more fundamentally the involvement of the intelligentsia in the world of development raises the question of their role in the development of “civil society”. In a non-colonised country where English is paradoxically both powerful and marginal, the development elite with their bilingual skills and stature as “authentic Nepalis” serve as gatekeepers of information to their non-Nepali speaking bosses and colleagues. The primacy of the English language in working with donors has allowed certain elites to have privileged access to resources.
According to a DFID report,
Society’s caste employment and income inequalities are indeed strikingly reflected in many agency structures, which are dominated by the Brahmin and Chhetri castes and the Newari group. In spite of the emphasis given to rural employment, the management of programmes is still overwhelmingly placed in the hands of a ‘gate keeper’ group.
A European Union Conflict Prevention Assessment Mission report restated the same assessment.
The problem of politicisation, caste and ethnic inequality are the context of civil society activity. For donors, civil society is a very small group of English speaking elite operating in Kathmandu. There has been little attempt to reach out to the regional partners or capitals to plumb deeper into the social strata of Nepalese society, for partners or informants.
Having made this candid admission the report immediately goes on to put a positive gloss on the group, suggesting without a trace of irony that the “small numbers of socially concerned English speaking elites in Kathmandu” have had a “great burden” put upon them. Such are the sociologies of democratic partnership.
Donor responsibility for reproducing existing inequalities within the civic sphere is seldom discussed in the context of conflict. An issue of considerable importance in this regard is how much information the Nepali elite “sieve” before presenting donors “facts” and “realities” which then guide funding decisions. This question has particular resonance for janajati and dalit groups, especially in the affect this has on their ability to have their concerns heard and acted upon. The censoring of information and the implications this has for the right to information and the capacity to be fully informed agents are key democratic issues.
There have been demands that donors listen more closely to what NGOs are saying. But this demand makes sense only if there is some idea of what exactly NGOs are saying, which also means identifying the type, form and extent of information being screened from donor decision-makers. A foreign director of an INGO, a few months after his arrival in the country, expressed his bewilderment at the extent to which he was actively excluded from information in his office. This was something he could gauge from the manner in which staff, even when talking in Nepali, ceased all conversation in his presence, and from the way in which excited chatter in the office hinted at developments of some kind or another, which were never relayed to him. On being queried, towards the end of his four-year tenure, whether he still felt frustrated and excluded, he cheerfully confessed to having cultivated an attitude of resignation about this aspect of heading an organisation in Nepal.
Reports produced by donors are also not immune to this tendency of filtering out information. The Finnish report, cited above, which sought to understand the nature of civil society in the South through self-analysis, obviously relied on selected associational groups to participate in honest reflection of their experiences. As is clear from the Nepal section of report and as related by one of its main authors, the reluctance of certain selected authors to critically and honestly undertake this exercise greatly undermined the effectiveness of the project. Since self-serving analyses also inform donor perspectives, this has a clear impact on how donors can conceptualise their roles, responsibilities and programmes vis-à-vis recipients. This is of course not to argue that donors make ill-advised and inappropriate decisions only because they have been misled or inadequately informed by Nepali staff. It is simply to highlight the increasing power and influence of this newly coalescing elite to influence decision-making in intended and un-intended ways.
This ‘sieving’ process tends to take place in a distinctive sociological environment. Nepalis working at all levels of ‘civil society’, but especially higher up in donor INGOs and their more powerful partner NGOs form informal and personal ties. The explicit use of familial forms of address such as “dai”, “bhai” and “didi” is a commonly observed trend and suggests the personalised, kin and client-based atmosphere of the development workplace. This can have fairly obvious implications for transparent functioning, ranging from the nepotistic to the sinister. In one case, involving professional differences between an INGO and NGO, a senior manager at the NGO as a Chhetri sought and gained informal meetings with a senior Chhetri manager in the INGO, and pleaded on the basis of specifically kinship ties for help to prevent the INGO from making public some unflattering information about the NGO.
In another instance, allegations of gross malpractice verging on criminal misdemeanour, including charges of violence, occurring in an organisation did not receive the attention it merited. The Nepali elite of international donor organisations promoting rights, at a clarificatory meeting to discuss the issue, could not bring themselves to even entertain the possibility of the allegations having any substance, as they claimed they “knew didi” well. This was in contrast to the attitude of their foreign counterparts also present at the meeting, who at least acknowledged the need for further inquiry. Here again fictive kinship relations formed the backdrop to their adamant stance.
The use of unofficial channels is not uncommon the world over. However, such practices do pose problems when viewing civil society not only as an associational sphere, but also as a public sphere from which to voice public concerns. The active involvement of these elite in the screening, repressing and censoring of information crucial to civic engagement highlights the tenuousness of claims to democratic ideals professed by such organisations. For people to be politically engaged and active a space that provides the conditions of freedom must exist, and this must include the freedom of information and the freedom from debilitating hierarchies.
Despite the rhetoric of “partnership”, donors broadly dictate the nature of the relationship with recipient groups, who willingly accept the terms dictated to them. Rhetorically at least, foreign assistance is also an affirmation by donors of their own moral concerns. If the bona fides of this rhetorical affirmation are accepted at face value, and if dictated partnerships are the established norm, the question that arises is why donors cannot do anything about the moral lapses on the part of partner NGOs that they tacitly condone through continued financial support. Primarily this is because in their role as intermediary financiers of democracy they are not themselves free agents. Theoretically they are responsible only to those they are mandated to service. But in practice they walk a thin grey line, as they are answerable to the institutional sources of their own funding.
Fostering democracy is a perilous venture since the pursuit of its lofty goals is conducted within the sometimes-contradictory rules of two different systems of practice. It must on the one hand fulfil the procedural requirements of the formal bureaucracies from which funds emerge. One of the most demanding of these requirements is that funds allocated for a fiscal year must be spent on assisting credible organisations within the prescribed time if minimally the same volume of financial allocation is to be made available in the forthcoming year. In a sense, to prolong the future they have to whitewash the present.
In the Nepali context, this was obviously evident in the case of donor institutions desisting from a comprehensive inquiry into the possibility of gross ethical malpractices occurring in a Nepali organisation they were funding. An attendant development was the request by a high ranking embassy official that the status of the allegations be clarified as soon as possible as he was under pressure from certain groups in his home country to give the green light for resuming the flow of funds to the institution in question. This request provides an insight into the bureaucratic logic of funding. Recipients are the raison d’etre for donors and are thus indispensable if mobilisation of funds is to be maintained at existing levels.
Since funders are perpetually seeking fundable activity, there is a robust competition among donors in Nepal for “good NGOs” they can support. In these circumstances, despite the apparent urge to create the “good society” based on civil norms of public conduct, the ethics of the situation at hand are relegated to the background by the incessant and unyielding drive to spend funds in order to raise more funds. The relentless circularity of the funding process and the relative scarcity of “good NGOs” combine to produce a situation tailor-made for pragmatic compromises that vitiate the professed agenda of bringing democracy to people who are denied the benefits of a rule- based regime.
It also provides an insight into a similar circular process of NGO brand-certification. This is a peculiar dynamic in which country offices of donor institutions take on the task of certifying the credibility, competence and reputation of local NGOs. These NGOs are seen to conform to international parameters, and therefore the recognition accorded to them is a specie of development rating. This is typically the process by which funding agencies legitimise their own choice of partner organisations by limiting the available choice to a short list of organisations whose credentials they have themselves rated. In effect because of the inexorable need to disburse funds, the aid establishment has assisted in the building of national and global reputations of certain associational groups in Nepal. Since “good NGOs” are allegedly hard to come by, and since a handful of such organisations in Kathmandu have managed to monopolise international endorsement and certification, the options available to donor establishments is finally very limited.
This cartelisation of credibility and international endorsement, in which donor agencies actively participate has several visible consequences. Donors now are faced with the need to fund these organisations for the sake of the prestige of being associated with them, since that is what their own funders want them to do. This is the paradox of institutional kinship in Nepal. Internationally reputed icons have been built by global funds, only to emerge later as national totems. In this latter capacity, buttressed by global reputation, they appear to have become particularly immune to any criticism — criticisms that have emerged from the field, where their true work and worth is easily gauged. These criticisms are well known and acknowledged within informal Kathmandu networks, but do little to either modify project operations or donor attitudes.
This exemplifies not only the growing internal institutional impediments to building civic society through aid, but also the manner in which international assistance to associational groups facilitates barriers to open, democratic fields of discussion and critiques as well as mechanisms of accountability and transparency. This argument thus goes beyond the issue of the increasing autonomy of NGO’s from ‘civil society’, and the contradiction between increasing NGO independence from parent states and their growing dependence on patron states. In the context of donor dependence on ‘reputed’ NGOs, it also raises questions about whether “dependence” on donor states need necessarily in turn promote accountability.
One large NGO recently turned down a NRS 6,250,000 grant from an INGO and ended all relations with it on the ground that it did not feel comfortable working with a “partner” which had compromised on the ethics of confidentiality and collaboration. Reading between the lines, it would appear that the INGO had raised ethical questions about the behaviour of the NGO staff towards target groups. Turning down such a large grant indicates not only the extent to which this organisation felt threatened by the sorts of questions raised by the INGO but also the extent of alternative funding sources available to it. The NGO’s diversified donor base obviously gave it significant leverage over each of its individual donors. A senior Nepali manager of an INGO still working in partnership with this NGO, and trying to reform the institution from within, wryly acknowledged that attempting to push the NGO to change too much would probably result in his INGO “being thrown out as well” – ie expelled from the ‘partnership’.
Given this complex relationship of mutual dependence, the question by now needs to be reversed. It is not simply whether foreign aid can really assist the emergence of democratic foundations. Rather it is whether it actually assists the rise of undemocratic associations and practices. According to the sociologist Chaitanya Mishra, in Nepal, [t]here are a few fairly “large” NGOS that are relatively independent NGOs that are relatively independent of any particular international donor/development agency as well as particular governments. Such NGOs do enjoy some leeway in defining their own identity as well as in formulating policies and programmes relatively independently of international donor/development agencies, INGOs and government.
Mishra’s positive formulation of this independence misses the potential negative impact it can have with such organisations being essentially unaccountable.
But donor circumspection does not always stem from the need to placate truculent ‘partners’. Less controversial than many other issues, but just as significant in terms of consequences for public debate is the “grey” literature generated by Nepali intellectuals for donors but voluntarily withheld from general circulation. As a result, a great deal of information generated about Nepal remains outside the purview of discussion since donors decide what is suitable for public disclosure. Furthermore, the practice of writing reports to reflect donor requirements is not unusual. A veteran consultant, in personal communication, divulged how in more than one professional relationship with donors, his research on dalits or janajatis has been judged too inflammatory for public consumption, forcing him to terminate contracts and publish his studies elsewhere.
In other cases, reports have been heavily edited, and where ‘sensitive work’ is involved there is the practice of signing confidentiality clauses, of having an internal document and an external one for public distribution – the latter usually being a bland summary. Donor speeches on the merits of their own countries’ public sphere and the weakness of politically underdeveloped countries like Nepal are laced with well-meaning counsel not only on the participatory foundations of democracy but also on the free flow of information as a precondition for influencing social and political decisions. And yet, through numerous devices, both subtle and brisk, donors actively impede precisely that flow when it comes to protecting their own complex institutional interests.
Clearly, there is a dual dynamic to why donor rhetoric on democracy does not quite live up to its promise. On the one hand, the procedural rules governing the international financing of democracy promotes an indulgent attitude to the civic deficit among domestic partners in the civil society enterprise. But at a more fundamental level, the metropolitan principals of the project are themselves not immune to the profoundly anti-democratic impulses of the global neo-liberal establishment, whose hegemonic interventions, informed by delusions about the universal virtue of western techniques of economic and political management, are often explicitly geared to the imposition of an elite-dominated, regimented democracy among politically backward people ignorant of the benefits of free enterprise.
In this respect, recent donor analyses of the Maoist conflict are revealing. It suggests a will to intervene in ‘civil society’ stemming from a desire not just to use them for development purposes in areas no longer seen to be safe for direct donor intervention but to see which “constituencies in civil society need strengthening”, while simultaneously being aware of the dangers of “politicising marginalised groups and generally raising unrealistic expectation in the population (a sense of rights not balanced by a sense of responsibility) leading to frustration”. The anti-politics agendas of what has been called the “anti-politics machine” could not have been more explicit, and is all the more striking as it comes after many years of sullen silence in an atmosphere not exactly conducive to rampant donor intervention.
The problem of ensuring that participatory citizenship does not excite expectations that cannot be met within the limitations of neo-liberal prescriptions is obviously one that exercises the institutions of aid. Hence the frequent references to the “unrealistic expectations” that are raised by routine political activity. There is a self-exonerating purpose to this incrimination of politics. Civil discontent, and presumably insurgency, is the outcome of irresponsible politics, and not irresponsible policies. Bluntly put, popular expectations must not exceed the limits of what aid economists have decided is good for the people. As NGOs administer the sacraments of redemption, politics must abstain from raising any expectations that a neo-liberal policy regime cannot fulfil.
On 5 July 2002, the World Bank Country Director for Nepal, Ken Ohashi, expounded this position publicly and very forcefully in an article in The Kathmandu Post titled “Ask for a Better Budget, will you?”, outlining the features of a good budget system for Nepal, the challenges for the Nepali government, and the role that citizens needed to play. Quoting from a World Bank Public Expenditure Review, Ohashi said, “[f]or any technical solutions to work effectively, the behaviour of political leadership and political parties needs to change significantly. The key challenge in this regard is how to redirect the involvement and energies of the political leaders and political parties in a more constructive way to facilitate the development process and public resource management”. He then went on to say
I have often heard that with the restoration of democracy in 1990, public expectations soared beyond any reasonable chance of achievement. Politicians have simply pandered to these expectations by promising everything people wanted and more, without any regard to what HMG can afford. I believe that much could have been done to manage expectation through transparency, information and a dose of realism.
The article concludes with the advice, “It is also time the citizens of Nepal demand more sensible budget decisions and more responsible budget implementation. Ultimately, lazy citizens will only get a lazy government”.
Ohashi’s call for “the people” to ask for a better budget, is very much in line with donor suggestions to strengthen “civil society”. The World Bank as an institution does not as a rule historicise its arguments. Besides it has a severely underdeveloped theory of the state. So it is only to be expected that Ohashi’s generous advice contains no hint of the complex manner in which state and society relations have historically been structured, the structural inequalities which continue to inform current relations, and the role played by organisations like his own in facilitating, or inhibiting the growth of accountability in state institutions. But precisely because he cannot afford to situate any of his suggestions in the lived realities of Nepali people, Ohashi is compelled to make technocratic and breath-taking recommendations that people’s expectations should be “managed”.
The irony of his argument is that on the evidence of past experience there is little to suggest that the expectations and wants of the people are high on the list of priorities of the political class. If there has been any pandering it is substantially to the demands of international organisations and not to the needs of the people. There is of course, the additional matter of how not to be a “lazy citizen” and to demand “more sensible budget decisions and more responsible budget implementation”, without entertaining too many expectations that the government might forgetfully pander to. Voluntary mass austerity is evidently the key to a responsible polity and an efficient economy. (Just incidentally, my own attempt to provide a critique of Ohashi’s article came to nothing, as my letter to the editor of The Kathmandu Post was not entertained on the ground that very few foreigners of his stature write for the paper. They did not want to run the risk of offending him and thereby foreclosing the possibility of further contributions from him. My expectations were evidently unreasonable and the World Bank will surely be happy to note that its advice about not pandering has registered in influential quarters.)
Reflecting the same attitude, the American and British ambassadors, both prominent democracy advocates, gave the approval that Nepal’s king had sought from them for dismissing the parliamentary prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on 4 October 2002 and replacing him with a royal appointee. Donors and ambassadors routinely and stridently demand adherence to stringent standards of “rule of law”. And yet these same institutions and offices cheerfully endorsed the unilateral political decision because they were purportedly “for the good of the country” and “the welfare of the people”. This is particularly ironic given the recommendations of a donor report on conflict and development, completed before the royal takeover, which emphasised the necessity of “reinforcing the rule of democratic law”. However, as in the case of Kenya, where donors knowingly endorsed unfair elections twice, allowing Daniel Arap Moi to remain in power, it is clear that aid institutions are more interested in preventing the breakdown of the political and economic order, in securing which they are not averse to approving the suppression of political mobilisation.
From the interventions of both Ohashi and the embassies, and from the strategic suggestions outlined in donor conflict reports and the generally programmatic manner in which the term “civil society” is employed in the country, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that their intent is to “civilise” Nepali civil society and citizens in a very specific and defined manner.
The scholar Hakan Seckinelgin draws attention to the dual process involved in US funding of civil society organisations. One is by funding those civil society organisations “that can be identified on the basis of an organisational understanding of civil life underpinned by the American context”. Donors, knowingly or not, tend to gravitate to ‘partners’ who share their ideological bent. The other is the reformulation of civil society that takes place. The application of Western liberal codes of conduct and behaviour changes pre-existing social relations, motivating a very specific form of associational links along neo-liberal understandings. It has been argued that in the current global context, aid needs to be considered as a relation of government, which has the power to reorder the relationship between people and things to achieve desired aims.
As Sarah Henderson points out in the Russian case, “funders are…expressions and facilitators of US interests as well as the monetary engine behind civic organisations” and “funding efforts, presumably designed to bring about stabilisation in Russia, must also reflect US interests and concerns and be justified to an increasingly conservative Congress in terms of US national security and political commercial interest”. A recent article in The Guardian by Naomi Klein confirms this view. According to it, the head of USAID has attacked NGOs in Afghanistan and Iraq, funded by his organisation, for not sufficiently promoting the fact that they were giving out donations from the US government. USAID also has told several NGOs that have been awarded humanitarian contracts that they cannot speak to the media.
An issue often left out of consideration in analysing this kind of conduct is the geo-political security calculation, which in Nepal constitutes an increasingly important component of the metaphor of civil society organisations used by international institutions as a part of the ‘civilising process’. A very specific form of civil society is required to legitimise both the post-1990 Nepali neoliberal state and the global order. There are few aspects of Nepal’s new political system that have not been shaped by donor input and political aid, by funding the liberal proponents of procedural democracy in civil society at the expense of real democracy, does not just influence the rules of the games. It is also constitutes part of the strategy by which a state that continues the same exploitatively economic system can be newly legitimised via the agenda of “civil society”.
All this is part of the new democracy strategy by which international political interventions can occur overtly and with domestic and international support. Given that opposition to authoritarian rule had emerged from civil society in many countries, the imperative has become, in the words of the critic W Robinson, “to penetrate civil society and from therein assure control over popular mobilisation”. He goes on to say, “The composition and balance of power in civil society in a given Third World country is now just as important to US and transnational interests as who control the governments of those countries. This is a shift from social control ‘from above’ to social control ‘from below’”.
In the context of the Maoist movement, this imperative has particular and disturbing resonance.