The “NGO movement” in Nepal is overwhelmingly urban-based and entirely dependent on foreign assistance. There are more than 50 non-governmental organisations that claim to work for upliftment of women, but do they?
In 1989, a group of women gathered in a lawyer’s office in Kathmandu for a tea-meeting. The convener, a man, suggested that they open an NGO and left the room. There was silence for a minute while all the ladies present considered the idea. Yes, why not?
That was how a “successful” NGO on women’s and children’s affairs was initiated The organisation was launched in hallowed Kathmandu tradition, with a seminar at a local three-star hotel. It subsequently ran a child rights awareness programme in which Kathmandu-based workers spoke earnestly to villagers about the need to send daughters to school. The villagers simply looked away.
In 1970, the beginning of the Second United Nations Development Decade, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women advocated the integration of women into development. 1975 was declared the International Women’s Year, and the following decade (1976-1985), the International Decade for Women.
The new mantra of gender sensitivity started seeping up me .valleys of Nepal as well, but His Majesty’s Government’s hollow mouthing became apparent to all. Meanwhile, the coffers of aid agencies were full of funds for “women in development” (WID) projects. So it was to NGOs mat the agencies turned.
As it looked like the NGOs might be on to something good, the Government in 1977 responded by setting up the Women’s Services Coordination Committee (WSCC) under Social Services National Coordination Council (SSNCC). While the aim was to coordinate NGOs, the WSCC and its parent body began instead to tightly control the funds that came in for women’s programmes. The little initiative that existed among Nepali women’s NGOs was stifled.
The April 1990 peoples movement rocked all Panchayat-era institutions ID their foundations, and the SSNCC itself went into hibernation. When it emerged all meek and mellow,” it announced that it was okay for NGOs and International NGOs (“INGCO to directly contact each other for “technical, material and financial assistance needed for achieving its (NGOs) goals”.
The field was left wide open for Nepali NGOs to play on. The onus now shifted to those who would ran non-governmental organisations, which mushroomed overnight. The donor money was there for the asking, but would they be able to do all that they claimed?
DISBURSE OR DIE
“Voluntary agencies” are the new standard bearers of development. Their main justification is said to be that they are able to conduct activist .work at the grassroots focusing on local issues. NGOs main asset is their ability to bypass bureaucratic hurdles and touch the poor more meaningfully.
Nepali NGOs, though, have served mainly as conduits to siphon off readily available money from the donor agencies accounts into their own, to spend on projects of dubious value. Most of these organisations cluster around Kathmandu and have for the past decade concentrated on organising talk festivals. Few have ventured out into the hinterland, although Kathmandu NGOs occasionally conduct one-time forays to easily-accessible villages. Money is spent, projects are completed, and little is achieved.
NGOs write proposals, write reports, run training programmes, do mid-term evaluations, import consultants, review government policies and recommend committees to be setup to “search for alternative solutions”. They make mistakes, “learn lessons” and get funded to make some more mistakes. One NGO promises to help “promote quality of Nepalese people’s life through established democratic values; ideals and institutions by improving the quality of parliamentary process”. Another will run workshops on how to integrate women into mainstream development and suggest “entry points” in the social structure.
One NGO has discovered early that success lies in how well the project proposal or report reads. Its reports are drafted by young Americans and could be the pride of any Resident Representatives coffee table. The NGOs only obligation is to provide extended-stay visas to their American helpers.
Organisations without access to young Americans can still get funding if they know how to sprinkle the phrase-of-the-moment at the beginning or end of paragraphs: “holistic approach”, “poverty eradication”, “targeted beneficiaries”, “upliftment” etc. It helps to have a “mole” within a donor agency who can send word when programme priorities for the next biennium shift from “girl child” to “supplementary income generation”.
More often than not, the real voluntary worker does not have the marketing skills that are required of a Kathmandu NGO director. The simple task of visiting a programme officer at a donor agency can be daunting to the uninitiated. Make an appointment, sign in at the reception, walk through the echo-free carpeted corridors under all that indirect lighting, with secretaries whispering in chaste English…
One way to sift good NGOs from bad is to see how contrived their acronyms are. Acronyms have to be earned, not concocted from the start. When a new organisation takes a convoluted linguistic path to come up with a high-sounding acronym such as CHIEFS, LOOK, or ME, it is easy to gauge the commitment of the headman or woman.
For Kathmandu’s “successful” NGOs though, fund-raising is a Cakewalk, They know that the programme officer has to disburse or die. Back at headquarters in New York, Washington DC or Geneva, they will not take it kindly if the funding apportioned for “poor” Nepali NGOs is returned unspent There are also other NGO leaders who have no need to kow-tow to the Programme Officer level, because their contacts are higher up, directly with the Director or the Ambassador.
It is no doubt true that voluntary agencies in Nepal need time to build up their credibility. They have only just begun to organise, and among the many more NGOs of tomorrow, those that are good will make a mark, while the mediocre will wither away.
The easy money provided by bilateral and multilateral aid organisations has corrupted many NGOs, who might otherwise have done more effective work in the field. Instead, they prefer to hover around Kathmandu—conducting seminars on superficial topics.
In January and February, this writer studied the work of a sampling of “Women in Development NGOs”, organisations run primarily by women and funded by donor agencies to uplift this or that aspect of Nepali womens lives, The responsibility to be honest, committed and capable is great for women who would speak on behalf of their 10 million sisters all over the country.
But the result of the two-month study was that the WID NGOs were overwhelmingly mismanaged, directionless and personality-based, lacking both in vision and cooperative spirit. The leadership was either uncommitted or incapable. Their programmes mostly centered around the priority sectors identified by donors. They lacked transparency in their work and a wall of suspicion greeted whoever wanted to know how an organisation really worked. While the reluctance to share information on an organisations hierarchy was understandable to some extent, questions about programme effectiveness and target groups reached were greeted with outright hostility. A request to look at the budget of an NGO was construed as a declaration of war.
Other than organisations run in parallel by wives, husbands, sisters or brothers, there was little collaboration or sharing of experiences between the Kathmandu NGOs working in the same field. Unfortunately, one need not even worry about duplication of work that might thus result, because tangible results are almost nil.
An organisation which is working on women and environment has perfected the technique of using environmental code phrases to attract funding, but talk with the senior and mid-level staff reveals that there is confusion about what the organisation should be doing. While the NGO has received money from more than one donor to “protect the natural environment” and “improve the quality of human life”, its strategies are unclear and its methodologies weak.
The President of the organisation, when asked what she thought was Nepal’s most pressing environmental problem, responded that her organisation was “so busy working for environment protection that really have no time to think about those things”. On a Nepal Television panel discussion, the way she evaded answering a question on the Melamchi Projects proposed water scheme that is controversial, it appeared as if she had never heard of it.
When this NGO jointly organised a conference on environment and law with a relative NGO, one of its responsibilities appeared to be supplying a bevy of young women to stand at the receiving line (at NRs 1000 each for three days, with a free saree, worn as a uniform, thrown in). The podium, meanwhile, was top-heavy with men.
One center which focuses on women and development, in the mid-1980s had made a good name for its rigorous research studies. The center’s evaluations of women’s development programmes under the Small Farmers Development Project and credit for rural women, for example, were considered to .be of high quality. Unfortunately, as the 1980s came to an end, the donors started tiring of research and diverted funding into “action programmes”. The center decided to go where the money was; priorities changed, and the research base that had been painstakingly built up has now eroded. A recent series “women in water and energy development” has been criticised by experts for lack of empirical data and weak analysis.
A legal services project for women which receives funding from USAID, the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation claims, among other things, “to be providing free legal services to the under-priviliged section of society”. The organisation says it has fought numerous battles for individual women, but will not share details or methodology, it says, because other NGOs had started duplicating its work. When asked to provide instances of success so that word could be spread, one member replied dismissively, “We have fought so many battles for women that it is impossible to keep track.”
An NGO which seeks to empower marginalised and deprived women has just put in a proposal with USAID for U$ 208,826 to update the landmark publication Status of Women in Nepal, which is a three part volume completed in 1981. From what this writer has been able to find out, the researchers of the original study have not been contacted, and the proposal does not provide the resumes of “the eminent professionals and researchers with substantial experience in related fields” who are to contribute to the new study. What, indeed, might have changed in the status of women in Nepal in the last decade that such prodigious task be begun all over again, especially when the person who heads the NGO was the only one not to have completed her section of the publication back in 1981.
THE POLITICAL AGENDA
Those who would run Nepali NGOs, and net only WID NGOs, must thoroughly search their souls. Do they feel fulfilled that their unprofessionally run organisations continue-to appease the donor, fool the public, and make a mockery of voluntarism? Now that the growl of the SSNCC is down to a whimper and the fields wide open for these organisations to begin to address genuine grassroots issues, it will be a travesty if they continue to believe that token gestures and seminars will suffice. It is true that NGO activity has only just begun in Nepal, but the committed voluntarism of NGOs today wil mean that there is more of it tomorrow.
As for the women who run WID NGOs, they must begin to act on the understanding that the problems their organisations are trying te tackle are deep-rooted and absolutely political. Without a fight no amount of right will be wrested. And that fight must be conducted not in cosy symposia but in the heat of the day, against entrenched male-domination all over the country.
Little has changed over the last ten years, says Meena Acharya, an economist and contributor to the 1981 Status of Women in Nepal.
“Nepal has achieved nothing substantial, nothing sustainable, and nothing that has far-reaching consequences. We have caught up at the level of awareness, but where fundamental changes are necessary for women’s development nothing has been done at all. The women who have been working for women’s development, for example, have not been able to come together and place even one women’s issue on the political agenda; as long as this is not done, nothing will happen. Withdraw the funds and every single project will crumble and die.”
Aryal is a Kathmandu-based freelance reporter.