Victims of the Nepal’s tragic April 2015 earthquake wait for food, tents and medicines to be distributed by the Nepalese Army and NGOs. (Photo by Rebecca Conway/AFP)
Christian faith-based non-governmental organizations are filling many gaps in the provision of basic services to the people of Nepal.
While it is difficult to calculate the total number of so-called NGOs, quite clearly the assistance they provide is highly significant.
Whether teaching in schools, running health posts or engaging in other forms of community development, the NGOs face some of the toughest climatic and geographical conditions in the world.
In many cases, churches themselves are effectively acting as NGOs due to a paucity of provisions for them to register groups involved in community projects.
A number of church leaders, during recent consultative meetings conducted by the Network of Christian Organizations in Nepal, sought to analyze problems they face.
For example, one church NGO that runs a project to train Sunday school teachers is facing serious operational restrictions by the government for stipulating a ‘Baptized Christian’ as one criteria for a job vacancy.
It was a mistake to make such a reference in a public domain given the sensitivity of religious issues in Hindu-majority Nepal.
However, the reality is that they did need to have a knowledgeable Christian to fill the position to train Sunday school teachers as it would not be practical for a non-Christian to do so.
Another NGO, that has been translating the Bible so locals can read it, also came under close government scrutiny.
Some Christian leaders feel that controls imposed on them so far, including various forms of censorship, are effectively being trialled, with more constraints to come in the near future.
In a federal system, local bodies are supposed to take full ownership of their development processes, including acceptance, rejection, and control of development programs in their locality.
But many faith-based NGO’s face difficulties in getting official national government approval for their projects even though they have good working relationships with local government personnel.
These national officials do not realize that the state is not supposed to obstruct the functional autonomy of civil society groups, something that can also be complicated by vengeful former NGO employees.
One Muslim parliamentarian thinks that the government is disturbing relations between religious minorities and unfairly not acknowledging Christian contributions in fields such as education and health.
A communist parliamentarian criticized fellow MPs with a negative attitude towards Christians, including in some cases what he descried as an anti-Christian “evil spirit”.
The ideal situation
The Nepalese government discriminates between NGOs that receive foreign funding assistance and those that do not. And action can be taken against any group that does not comply with registration requirements.
Restrictions are harshest on NGOs advocating the protection of human rights, resulting in a measure of self-censorship to avoid punitive responses.
It would be ideal if civil society groups were able to express opinions, disseminate information and engage with the public as well as acting as advocates in Nepal and internationally.
U.N. experts have previously pressed the Nepal government to accept that the promotion of civil society is fundamental to ensure social stability, economic growth and observance of international human rights law.
The government has often been heavy-handed in their treatment of NGOs, not least for political reasons.
But some NGOs lack accountability in relation to abuses such as nepotism and favoritism.
Operating for long periods of time in ‘comfort zones’ without updating technological resources and skills can also pose obstacles to the effectiveness of civil society organizations.
It is time for these Christian faith-based NGOs to follow a general code of conduct to ensure good governance and upgrade their technical capacities in compliance with current global standards of professionalism.
And some religious groups need to expand the assistance they provide beyond members of their own faith.
But, nevertheless, I believe that Christian Churches are showing a lead in seeking to develop a road map for all NGOs in Nepal to follow.
*Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.