Interview | “The government and NGOs complement each other”: Bhawana Bhatta, Vice Chair, NGO Federation of Nepal

Government and NGOs are two mechanisms that go together and compliment each other. They are like two sides of the same coin.

NL Today

  • Read Time 7 min.

Bhawana Bhatta has two decades of professional and leadership experience working on youth, women and other rights issues in Nepal. She was an executive member for National Youth Council, Ministry of Youth and Sports for four years. She has experience of leading numbers of social movements such as Nepal Youth Social Forum, Youth Campaign on Constitution Making, Earthquake Volunteer, Campaign Against Inequality among others. She is among 100 young leaders of the world recognized by Women Deliver in 2010 and 50 influencing women leaders by RSTCS in 2018 in Nepal.

Currently, she has been serving as vice chair of the central board for NGO Federation of Nepal, an umbrella body of Nepal’s around 7000 Nepali Civil Society Organizations. Nepal Live Today recently spoke to her on a range of issues. Excerpts:

What is the role played by NGOs in the development of Nepal?

Contribution from the non-government sector started long ago. In Nepal, the NGOs started formally emerging and registering in 1990. The main aim then was the institutionalization and preservation of democracy in Nepal. Currently, NGOs have a huge role to play in ensuring that societal and socioeconomic rights of the citizens–such as nutrition, women’s health, children’s health, sexual and reproductive health, etc–are safeguarded. Similarly, NGOs have significantly contributed at the time of disasters and emergencies such as pandemic, earthquake, floods and landslides and other incidents. A recent example is the role played by NGOs during the Covid-19 outbreak. They distributed food, helped sanitize and maintain quarantine and isolation zones and contributed in providing medical equipment and medicine among others.

NGOs also have a huge role to play in lobbying and petitioning for inclusive laws. How exactly do NGOs go about enforcing policy change?

The NGOs are the authorities which help in the institutionalization of rights based on the constitution. NGOs are established in line with the provisions of the constitution. Article 17 of the constitution has guaranteed freedom of association. The political parties and the NGOs are formed as per the provisions of this article.

NGOs are sometimes accused of serving only a certain group of people, family or community. It is not true. NGOs’ work in policymaking and lobbying contributes to serving everyone from every walk of life.

We work on service delivery, especially humanity-friendly services and delivering justice. NGOs have a significant role in making human rights friendly policies such as lobbying for voting rights, promoting women participation in local levels and empowering and emboldening women. NGOs play a role in advocating for overall women-friendly policies. Sometimes we lobby for regularity in the vaccination process. NGOs are sometimes accused of serving only a certain group of people, family or community. It is not true. NGOs’ work in policymaking and lobbying contributes to serving everyone from every walk of life.

How have NGOs addressed women’s issues? How should they be addressed in the future?

When we talk about women’s issues, the main focus of most NGOs is women empowerment. There are certain things which we must all learn early on. Like making people understand violence against women is something that should be learned since childhood. Issues regarding women’s rights, sexual and reproductive knowledge need to be included in the school curriculum by the government. We also need to prioritize the participation of women in bureaucracy, administration, government, media and other sectors. Different political parties have different committees. We need to ensure that women have a position in those committees.  The constitution has ensured 33 percent representation of women in state bodies. NGO Federation of Nepal makes sure that women are in positions of power as well within that quota. This helps in ensuring that the government is held accountable in this issue.  The NFN coordinates with organizations like Women in Policy Advocacy Alliance and countless others in order to ensure women’s representation. We are also trying to promote vocational training for women as well as making household work dignified and making it a medium of income.

What is the role played by the NGO Federation of Nepal in ensuring the unity and harmony among the NGOs of Nepal?

We ourselves have several member organizations that work in many fields. Our constitution says that an organization shouldn’t be biased towards any community, culture or religion. But we see some organizations only choosing to work for “their” people even though they work in sectors like agriculture, women’s rights, children and elderly welfare. NFN tries to ensure that there is proper functioning of federal structures, because oftentimes there can’t be proper representation on district levels due to oversaturation of people from similar groups. So we choose to ensure equal representation on a provincial and federal level. We have designated quotas for women, disabled people and Dalit groups in Madhesh.

NGOs are sometimes accused of serving only a certain group of people, family or community. It is not true. NGOs’ work in policymaking and lobbying contributes to serving everyone from every walk of life.

When it comes to religious and social harmony issues, we have held productive dialogues, launched anti-caste based discrimination programs apart from raising awarenss through lectures of different influential personalities. We play a more neutral and peacekeeping role. We respect all the cultures and religions of Nepal. Our country is a melting pot of various cultures, languages and beliefs. Social harmony despite all of its diversity is something we should take pride in about our country. Co-existence, cooperation and coordination are the main priorities of the NFN.

What is the most important principle that needs to be followed by all NGOs?

I believe that the most important principle that all NGOS need to follow is self-governance. There is a concern regarding NGOs being only service oriented and not focusing on policy change. There are concerns that  NGOs are being run only by a select few people, they are working through the funding and in the interest of foreign interests, they are not transparent, so on and so forth. These issues can be solved by self-governance and self-regulation.

We at the NGO Federation of Nepal have made a code of conduct that we have circulated to the districts and our member organizations. The government, stakeholders and the general people also need to monitor the NGOs of our country and the work that they are supposed to be doing. The public auditing, annual auditing and renewal of projects of NGOs should also be followed closely by the general public and the government.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is one of the priority areas of NFN. What is the current status of SDGs in Nepal?

Nepal endorsed SDGs in September 2015 and it was said to start being implemented on January 1, 2016. Drafting of policies, making roadmaps, budgeting, etc took some three years. But afterwards with the implementation of the constitution and the establishment of local, provincial and federal governments, it became harder to ensure vertical and horizontal coordination within the government institutions.

The National Planning Commission acts as a coordinating body in Nepal but it is not the implementing body. For example, women’s issues need to be worked out through the Women’s Commission, and health issues need to be worked out through the Ministry of Health. It is hard to ensure that all of these organizations are allocating budgets in line with SDGs. We’re almost halfway through the year 2030 goal that we set. But we are not there yet because Covid-19 has also been a huge roadblock. So there needs to be coordination among the public sector, private sector and the civil society organizations (CSOs). The government does not seem to be promoting proper coordination among these sectors.  There is the realization that the integration of SDGs in the local planning process is missing. We are putting efforts to localize the SDGs goals in our context.

Even in the present context if you analyze the National Planning Commission’s report, SDG had incorporated a goal of making female participation reach 40 percent in the recent election but that didn’t happen. Even though the number of female representatives bagging chief and deputy positions of the local level has slightly seen an uptick compared to the previous elections, the participation is still not satisfactory. In other words, we can say that we are lagging behind in implementation aspects.

What role can the NFN play in the changed political landscape of Nepal?

We have our own mechanism. We have committees at the federal and provincial levels and all 77 districts. We have formed coordination committees in almost 200 local levels. These committees work in coordination with respective governments. But the problem lies within the formation of policies at the federal level. In the last five years, the provincial governments framed laws based on the laws prepared by the federal government in the past. Those laws were rigid and conflicting so we tried to stop those laws from proceeding in which we succeeded. We have been lobbying at the federal level for an umbrella Social Development Act to run and rule the organizations in coordination. The federal NGO federation represents as ex officio CSO members in different ministries and committees. So we can impose direct intervention sometimes in policymaking and in committees which is a good sign but there are scenarios in local levels where a person-centric mentality is hindering the coordination process. Yet it is vital to continue to make efforts for change.

How do the government and NGOs compliment each other?    

NGOs contribute to curative health service delivery by providing human and financial resources, materials and equipment, sharing information, developing joint projects with government, and developing national health policy, as well as creating joint committees with the government. The United Nations has acknowledged that the government and NGOs are the institutions complementing each other. They are like two sides of the same coin. One of the major duties of NGOs is to acknowledge and support the good deeds of the government and to warn the government in case of flaws and wrongdoings. As we have access to the ground communities where the government lacks easy access, we can facilitate the information about government programs and policies. So the CSO’s role is both to warn the government and coordinate with it in its plans and programs. We actually work as a bridge between the community and the government.