Interview | ‘Development sector complements the government by working in line with its policies’: Dr Sushil Koirala, AIN chairperson

Dr Sushil Koirala, chairperson of Association of International NGOs (AIN), talks about the role of the network, and other issues pertaining to Nepal’s development sector.

NL Today

  • Read Time 7 min.

Dr Sushil Koirala is a medical doctor turned development professional who wears many hats. He currently serves as Country Representative to Nepal for Damien Foundation, which provides technical assistance to health sector, particularly to curb tuberculosis (TB) and Leprosy diseases. He is also a renowned campaigner of peace. Since June 2021, he has been leading the Association of International NGOs (AIN) as its chair.

Ashim Neupane of Nepal Live Today recently caught up with Dr Koirala to talk about the role of AIN and other issues pertaining to Nepal’s development sector. Excerpts:

To start with, could you tell us about AIN?

The AIN is a network of INGOs working in the development sector of Nepal. INGOs affiliated with AIN work through NGO partners to implement their project activities.

AIN members support various sectors such as health, education, livelihood, disaster management, climate change adaptation, women empowerment, gender issues, and environment. Most of the INGOs have been implementing people-centered development programs covering the hills, mountains and plains of Nepal. Currently it has 121 members working towards contributing to development efforts in Nepal.

INGOs have important contributions in the promotion of peace, human rights, democracy, and rule of law, among other things, in the country.

AIN members have global roots and reach. This is important for doing advocacy on important issues such as climate change, development issues, human rights, trafficking, among others.

The AIN was formed some 25 years ago. How do you describe the AIN’s journey so far?

Working continuously for 25 long years itself shows the relevance of AIN in Nepal. The network was formed when Nepal was going through an insurgency. During the time of conflict, AIN tried to create an environment for INGOs to work together and diffuse threats to the development sector. Even though the environment was not much favorable for development workers at the local level, their presence in the community was important for development and humanitarian support to serve the needy people at risk.

Over the years, AIN has branched out as a platform to collectively share learnings of different organizations to synergize their efforts. For example, AIN has 13 thematic groups as a platform to learn and share innovative approaches, new ideas and experiences of project implementation with each other. These groups ensure collaboration, coordination and avoid duplication. These groups also play an important role in identifying new areas to work in line with the government’s policy priorities and gaps identified. In that sense, AIN is as relevant today as ever.

We now strive to collectively identify the areas where people are in need of intervention. As a network, AIN has positively contributed to maintaining fundamental principles adhering to ethical practices that ultimately benefit the beneficiaries. A joint self-regulation mechanism is agreed, which is an example that we, as a network, respect and maintain code of ethics and high standard of our work.

AIN has members representing diverse sectors. How does their presence help empower local organizations and communities?

AIN member INGOs provide technical assistance and shares work/organization culture with local partners, while also building capacity, transferring technology, knowledge and skills. These are some of the ways that INGOs contribute besides direct funding itself.

Contributions made by INGOs on the software part are often overlooked and there is a tendency to focus mostly on the hardware part. Certainly, material support such as infrastructure and other tangible goods are very important and cannot be overstated. However, software parts such as behavioral change, knowledge transfer, capacity building, and advocacy skills are also equally important. These activities are equally crucial for human development and create equitable and just societies. 

The AIN also engages and coordinates with other development and humanitarian agencies, including government bodies, NGOs, NGO Federation Nepal (NFN), and funding partners.

Besides direct contribution through project activities or support, there is indirect contribution. Some of our partners spend their budget at local level, contributing to the local economic activities.

Similarly, people-to-people connections through INGOs is another important aspect. INGOs generally have volunteers and donors in their country of origin and INGOs provide services in other countries. Hence, this helps establish public to public connection and reach.

It is said that for effective and desirable results, development sector and the government must work hand in hand.

It is true. Every INGO works in line with the government’s policies and priorities. 

There should be shared ownership and pride in each progress and success achieved in the areas of development, social progress, and positive transformation. At the end of the day, what matters is transformation of people’s lives.

Let me give you an example. The government has been aggressively working to combat leprosy in Nepal. Many INGOs are also working in the health sector, focusing on leprosy. The development partner, at the end of the day, gives all the data and information to the Health Ministry. Development partners are just complementing the government’s work. 

The government has set several long-term and short-term targets in various areas. We work to help realize those targets. Some contributions are tangible and some are intangible. We should not overlook either.

Can you tell us more about tangible and intangible contributions made by INGOs?

As I shared earlier, infrastructure projects such as school buildings, trail bridges, hospitals, drinking water and irrigation projects, some health related projects, vocational schools and some others are tangible.

There is a perception that development partners only work on projects. Most people often pay less attention to other contributions made by development partners.

INGOs have made a positive contribution in bringing foreign currency to the country. Also, the AIN members are providing direct employment to some 5,000 people and hundreds are employed indirectly. In the fiscal year 2017/2018, the AIN members and development sector contributed some Rs 1.15 billion in income tax to state coffers.

Indirect contributions such as mobilization of resources at local level during programs at local levels is an equally important contribution.

Through training and workshops, many people get skills on different issues. Skilled and informed people can make contributions to positive social change. Thus one should understand that apart from involvement in the projects, INGOs are also making contributions on the local level development and overall human development.

Often INGOs are found to be working on similar issues. How does AIN work to ensure that there is no duplication of the programs?

Within AIN, we have different groups. For instance, I/NGOs working in the health sector have a separate group. Before implementing its program, an INGO working in the health sector discusses the issue with similar other INGOs in a group. This helps to avoid duplication in projects. Besides, INGOs cannot implement their programs without obtaining approvals from the respective line ministries or the departments of the government of Nepal.  The government also checks to ensure there is no duplication before giving a go-ahead to the INGOs.

The Association of International NGOs (AIN), formed in 1996, is a network of INGOs working in Nepal. The AIN, the umbrella network of INGOs in Nepal, aims to support the country’s development efforts by promoting, creating and enabling an environment for its members to fulfill their development goals—and, crucially, by providing policy feedback to the government.

Third, I/NGOs themselves work to avoid duplication since they have limited resources. Achieving the best results with limited resources is the goal for nearly all the INGOs. If a resource is already invested in one area, there is no need to again invest for the same nature of work. It is a waste of resources. And INGOs do not want to waste their resources and money.

After being elected as the president of the AIN, you have been highlighting “cultural diplomacy”. What do you mean by this?

I am also interested to learn more about cultural diplomacy. One can see the pictures of ambassadors from different countries celebrating Dashain or Tihar or other festivals. This shows the importance of public and cultural diplomacy. 

Cultural diplomacy helps enhance the relations between the two countries. One can also see how it is used to increase the influence and fame of the respective countries.

We are planning to organize a cultural program and invite all 121 members affiliated with AIN to celebrate AIN Day. A recent AIN survey responded by 109 member INGOs shows that the highest number of INGOs’ headquarters are based in the USA, followed by the UK, Japan and Germany out of 21 countries. This is important because understanding and respecting each other’s cultural is vital to get connected and understand each other better.

We just endured a catastrophic pandemic. How do you assess the roles of INGOs during pandemic?

INGOs and their partners provided various services during the pandemic. They are providing health services in many areas including that of the remote parts of the country. The role of INGOs in some of the key areas such as maternal and neonatal health, addressing human rights and domestic violence issues and involvement in other areas such as mental health and wellbeing, support to construct isolation centers remain very helpful for people in need.

In the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Social Welfare Council gave a directive that INGOs can divert up to 20 percent of the existing budget to run projects. So many organizations allocated the budget and worked in Covid-19 response.

In the second wave, the government again appealed to the INGOs to invest in the Covid-19 response. By that time, many organizations had already brought new funding. So INGOs invested in responding to the second wave too.

INGOs are also contributing in realizing SDGs. What are the key areas INGOs are working with?

In terms of SDG contributions by the development sectors, the recent survey shows that AIN members contribute mostly in gender equality, good health and wellbeing, quality education and poverty reduction. These are crucial areas and we try to put wholehearted efforts in making a positive impact on the SDGs and targets.

The key thing to remember is that the government is in the driving seat and always has leadership and ownership. 

The role of INGOs is to provide humanitarian or development support in line with government priorities and fill the gaps with available resources. In the current context, their role falls in line with Sustainable Development Goals.