A noted development professional shares his insights and his belief in power of small initiative for achieving a big change 

With decades of experience in the development sector, Achyut Luitel offers his insights on wide-ranging issues with regard to people, development, and the nonprofit sector.

NL Today

  • Read Time 7 min.

Achyut Luitel, a noted development professional, believes in a mantra–small is beautiful. He believes in the power of small initiatives to create a big impact. “If a small plan starts working, we can replicate the idea, tools and know-how to implement it on big ones,” he shares.

An engineer by profession, he started his career as a civil servant. After serving for half a decade in the government agency, he realized that he wanted to understand Nepali society closely by touching the people’s lives and livelihood. Undeterred by hurdles, he quit the job and joined the development sector. 

Luitel is currently working as South Asia Regional Director for Practical Action,  an international development group that puts ingenious ideas to work so that people in poverty can change their world. 

In a conversation with Nepal Live Today, Luitel shares his insights and observations about the role of the development sector in social change, development, and solving local problems. 

Nepal, political changes and INGOs 

We are hopeful of the prospect unleashed by the political changes in Nepal. While the debate on the pros and cons of federalism will continue, we are more hopeful that people will benefit from the new structure. After local governments were constituted, people received services in an effective way compared to the centralized system. Further, local governments are accountable to the local people. 

We have also witnessed the cases in which the locals suffered a lot when their local bodies operated without any elected representatives. Responsiveness and accountability were compromised at that time. 

While talking about the role of the development sector, we often hear that the role of NGOs and INGOs shrink when there are powerful and resourceful governments. It is true. But I think that time is yet to come in Nepal.

Nepal is still on the list of least developed countries (LDCs). Due to resource constraints and other limitations, the government has not been able to reach out to all citizens in all sectors. That is why NGOs and INGOs can play a crucial role in complementing the government to achieve the goal of a prosperous country. Having said this, I reiterate that NGOs and INGOs do not compete with the government, instead they complement. When the government becomes powerful, when the government’s delivery mechanism and the system become smooth, the relevance of the non-government sector will automatically diminish. 

Let’s take the agriculture sector. If the government mechanisms are capable of providing information and skills, agricultural inputs and other know-how required to the farmers, the relevance of non-profit agencies working in the agricultural sector will automatically decrease. I feel that the role of NGOs and INGOs changes over the course of time. 

Need for meaningful engagement

We should not judge the relevance of any sector without knowing contextual nuance. INGOs do not make interventions without analyzing the context of the country and the needs of the people. Any INGO makes a presence in a country after analyzing the situation of the country. INGOs do not want to waste their resources collected with hard efforts. They want to utilize the resources in the area where there is a need for it. 

‘INGOs do not want to waste their resources collected with hard efforts. They want to utilize the resources in the area where there is a need for it.’ 

Generally, INGOs look for better ways of addressing various development challenges and people’s needs. For example, many INGOs have now concentrated in the West Africa sub-region given that there is a gap in terms of ensuring basic facilities and the people are still below the poverty line. If Nepal graduates to a middle-income developing country, INGOs will definitely start moving to other geographical areas. Even NGOs will get filtered. NGOs that are working on delivery will turn as pressure groups to promote civil rights and raise civil voices will remain relevant. Other NGOs might become irrelevant. 

Principally, the government and the nonprofit sectors complement each other. And I strongly feel that there is no point in creating a situation of confusion and conflict. 

Role during emergency and pandemic

While talking about the emergency or crisis situation, even developed countries require support from international communities. INGOs, in many cases, offer immediate relief and other forms of support. 

The international community including INGOs started providing immediate relief and other support packages to Nepal immediately after the 2015 earthquakes. Many INGOs have already wrapped up their projects in Nepal after completing their mandate of providing relief and recovery support to Nepali people. 

Covid-19 pandemic was also a very critical situation for the entire humanity. After the country started grappling with the second wave of the pandemic, the government mechanism alone failed to ensure services. I was chair of the Association of International NGOs at that time. We diverted the fund to manage, prevent and control Covid-19. INGOs did not work in isolation. Instead, we worked in close collaboration with the government. Many INGOs supported the people by constructing isolation centers, holding centers, construction of water kiosks for hand washing, latrines and other basic facilities at the point of entry targeting returnees from the Indian border. INGOs also extended support to set up holding centers, providing drinking water facilities and other basic needs. Some INGOs even supported life-saving equipment like ventilators and oxygen concentrators. 

INGOs that were not working in the health sector also channeled their funds to address the immediate needs of the people. Collective participation of all sectors helped the country to tackle the Covid situation. This also shows that the role of INGOs and NGOs is crucial in a time of emergency and humanitarian crisis. 

Small is beautiful

By nature, the activities of INGOs are focused on poor, underprivileged, and marginalized groups, because most often the state does not reach there. This is everywhere, not only in Nepal. Given the situation of global recession and poverty, there is a need that the government should immediately take some measures to ensure that the people will not again fall into the poverty trap. 

In such a situation, NGOs and INGOs work with such disadvantaged groups, set good practices and share with the government so that policies can be improved to reach the disadvantaged ones and practices can be changed. In this manner the NGOs and INGOs work as supportive agencies to improve the situation. 

Let me share an example. Recently, we started the Samunnati Project targeting locals of the mid-western region of Nepal covering Dang, Rukum, and Rolpa districts. We have targeted to double the income of people in our coverage areas in three years. Though on a small scale, this project will definitely contribute to the country’s economy. Our primary focus is to enhance agricultural productivity despite climate challenges at the local level. It means they will produce agricultural products at the local level. That will help reduce dependency and enhance a self-reliant economy. We believe in a mantra– small is beautiful. We believe that even small initiatives can help bring bigger changes. 

If they start cultivating cash crops and if their products get proper market access, they may start their own work back in the village. Similarly, they can also start utilizing barren land. This will be very helpful to make them economically empowered. This will generate employment and ensure food sufficiency.

If the government supports in creating an enabling environment for the INGOs and removes any kind of confusion, they can equally contribute to igniting economic activities at the local level as well. INGOs want to contribute to the overall development framework adopted by the federal, provincial, and local governments. It is also an opportunity for all sectors to collectively work to uplift people out of poverty and drive the country in the direction of prosperity. We are a force to complement the government system. 

How INGOs work

INGOs do not want any conflict with the government. Having said this, I feel that the government, at times, also lacks adequate homework while providing feedback to INGOs. No INGO proposes project implementation geography without sufficient homework. 

We identify the local partners and develop a framework of strategic partnership. Based on that the local NGOs make field visits and collect additional information. We always try to understand the whole system before initiating any intervention. For example, if we are trying to intervene in the agricultural sector, we first try to identify the overall context such as what system is in place, what policies are introduced, who are the major actors, and where lie the gaps and so on. After analyzing all things, we try to identify weaker links and make efforts to enable them so that the system works well. This is why there will not be any possibility that we work beyond government priority. The government also wants to provide support to the underprivileged and poor section of society. We do the same. 

But the government representatives with political interference sometimes create an odd situation by preferring their own districts or making comments without fully understanding the context. I think the government should also acknowledge the rigorous process adopted by the INGOs. The government should also acknowledge that INGOs are also guided by their internal strategy. Every INGO goes through three layers of auditing–internal audit led by the Headquarters at the local level, audit by the government for ensuring compliance and then by the donors. By doing this, INGOs try to establish good practices. Many INGOs follow the same trend. 

Practical Action: Do things differently 

In 1966, the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) was a think tank in the UK promoting the idea of ‘small is beautiful’ to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged ones.  In 2005, the organization rebranded its name from ITDG to Practical Action, building on its focus on pragmatic, holistic, and systemic approaches to tackling poverty.

Earlier, Practical Action had a tagline ‘technology challenges poverty.’ Practical Action was familiar with people as an organization working in the area of innovation and technology. 

Now, we have adopted a new mantra-big change starts small. It is because we in Practical Action believe that a big change cannot be achieved overnight. It must be started with small initiatives and good practices. 

When the local governments and other institutions start to learn and replicate small and good practices, such practices get institutionalized. Local stakeholders then internalize the learnings and start assimilating such learnings in their works and practices. 

Practical Action is a change organization. In Nepal, Practical Action has three key foundations for interventions: farming that works, resilience that protects, and energy that transforms. The organization has covered a wide range of issues such as disaster preparedness and management, livelihood, clean energy, agriculture and market linkages, and community support systems among others.

‘Wherever we have worked, we have put effort into strengthening the existing government system.’ 

Wherever we have worked, we have put efforts into strengthening the existing government system. If we work on Flood Early Warning System for preparedness, we have always put the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology at the steering seat. We have always worked in a way to enhance the credibility of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA). We have reached the community level but we have always sought the ownership of local governments in each activity. In our work, we try to bring all stakeholders together for bold collaborations, combining knowledge and innovation to bring about lasting change.

Reducing indoor air pollution 

As a regional director of Practical Action, I am particularly satisfied with the organization’s work on tackling indoor air pollution which is killing thousands of children and women. We have put our efforts into the areas of behavioral change to adopt electric cooking and improved low emission cook stoves  instead of being dependent on traditional fuel. This work is directly linked with the government’s priority of promoting electric equipment. 

Practical Action had started the campaign of clean fuel long ago. We constantly put efforts to change people’s behavior. We are proud that we could contribute to this from our side.