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Inward-looking Nepal may harm itself

Fears grow that NGO clampdown will affect people in remote areas where there are few government services

Prakash Khadka, Kathmandu

Prakash Khadka, Kathmandu

Published: May 30, 2018 04:53 AM GMT

Updated: June 18, 2018 11:07 AM GMT

Inward-looking Nepal may harm itself

Mount Everest's beauty cannot disguise the poverty in Nepal, which is clamping down on local and foreign NGOs. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)

Government plans to tightly control non-government organizations (NGOs) in Nepal threaten to discourage involvement by international development partners in the poor Himalayan nation.

And a proselytizing ban has been proposed on foreign Christian and other faith-based organizations.

A 23-page draft of the so-called National Integrity Policy has been released by the incumbent communist government led by Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli.

The tilt against foreign private development assistance groups comes amid Nepalese government anger over European Union criticism of Christians not being fairly represented in the national parliament.

A version of NGO controls was foreshadowed in June last year by the previous right-wing government of Sher Bahadur Deuba.

The latest draft policy also establishes operating rules for political parties, diplomats, constitutional bodies, professors and teachers as well as public servants, the private sector and cooperatives.

However, critics say it explicitly targets NGOs, particularly human rights and faith-based organizations. 

One new rule would require NGOs seeking foreign funds to provide their reasons and the amount of money involved in order to obtain consent from the Ministry of Finance.

And within seven days of receiving foreign donations, the ministry and local administrators would have to be informed.

Further, registration of NGOs would be cancelled if they failed to renew them within three months of expiration.

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However, this would run up against Nepal's notoriously poor record of administrative hurdles and delays in the handling of paperwork such as applications.

Significantly, the new policy plan would prohibit national NGOs from lobbying in favour of any international NGOs making what the government could determine to be unjustified allegations of rights abuses.

Further, there is a stipulation relating to the so-called spreading of international hatred against Nepal.

International NGOs in turn would be barred from forming associations with local pressure groups or even reporting to their own headquarters without the Nepalese government's prior consent.

There is an underlying assumption that international NGOs pursue Western or Christian agendas.

They are banned from playing a supportive role for foreign embassies as well as from seeking religious conversions.

A further proposal is for a monitoring body comprised of security agencies — such as the Nepalese Army, police and a central investigations department — to keep a close watch on foreigners working in Nepal.

Civil society organizations fear that a central motivation is to inhibit campaigning on issues such as the rights of indigenous people, migrants and refugees as well as freedom of expression and religious belief.

The policy provides scope for such advocacy to be treated as disrupting social harmony and therefore detrimental to the national interest.

Nepal's Social Welfare Council records that there are 46,230 local NGOs and 247 international NGOs in Nepal.

However, all of them are not working in community development and many are not functioning at all. Larger numbers are small women's groups, youth clubs, civic associations and religious bodies. But they still have to register as NGOs.

There is an apparent contradiction because the government more broadly is encouraging NGOs not to be involved in religious activities.

This reflects bureaucratic narrow-mindedness when it comes to NGOs despite their vital role in developing communities, including in remote areas where there are few government services.

The policy officially aims to develop a culture of corporate self-governance and self-discipline.

But in reality, as well as inhibiting non-government development endeavours, the democratic space for civil society would be narrowed in a nation plagued by corruption

This is despite the fact that Nepal's constitution affords all religions and denominations a right to operate freely, including through trusts, and to protect their sacred sites.

In terms of administrative requirements, the government should segregate NGOs, according to their objectives, from religious groups.

A complicating factor is that the Nepalese government, rather than supplying funding and other assistance to NGOs, views them as competitors.

Nepali NGOs have to rely on international funds and the planned financial controls threaten to hamper their work.

Therefore, they have a right to demand amendments to the publicly released draft policy on this and other aspects of concern.

Nepal is ranked in the lowest 50 nations of the United Nations Human Development Index and its government has asked that it not be upgraded from its current "least developed country" status before 2021.

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