Dr Shibesh Chandra Regmi is a noted social analyst and a development professional with years of experience in various development and research agencies including New ERA, ActionAid Nepal, World Neighbors and Ipas Nepal. He also served as the chairperson of the Association of International NGOs in Nepal (AIN) initially for two consecutive terms–from 2005 to 2008 and later from 2017 to 2019. His book Engendering the Development: Real or Rhetoric with specific reference to Nepal’s water sector has been recently published.
Nepal Live Today caught up with him to discuss various aspects of social developments and the role of the international development agencies in that process. Excerpts:
As a development professional, where do you find the situation of Nepal in terms of women empowerment, social inclusion, rights and dignity?
A lot has happened in Nepal in regards to the issues you raised but at the same time I must also say that there is a lot more to be done. Over the last 15 or 20 years, a lot of positive changes have taken place on various fronts. If you look at the way women have started to participate in the political process in the last two elections, there is no comparison to the situation some two decades ago. The representation of people from the marginalized and Dalit communities has also been much better than before.
The question that we development practitioners need to ask is whether these good changes will continue or whether these changes will be better in the days to come.
However, the overall progress that Nepal has made is not fully satisfactory. If you compare Nepal with other South Asian countries, excluding Sri Lanka at the moment, Nepal lags far behind in many development indicators. Studies like the Nepal Demographic Survey 2016 show that although Nepal has done much better on some fronts than before, we have not been able to maintain the momentum.
What do you think is the reason for this?
I would attribute it to lack of political will and commitment. There has not been political stability, which means that there are not definite development plans and agendas. I say this because politics plays a vital role in the development of any nation. When politics is centered on power alone, the focus of the politicians will be less on people and the country. They will have nothing else to think of but securing their hold onto power. Unfortunately, this is what has happened in Nepal. The changes that we see in Nepal and the developments that we have seen seem to be time-brought development. They are not the outcomes of definite plans and strategy but the development by default.
Can we also say that this is the result of erosion of institutions? Or we don’t have institutions at all?
Institutions play a vital role to ensure that people exercise their rights or that their rights are not violated. But to me, equally important as institutions is the mindset. What kind of mindset are we carrying with us? For some reason, we have developed a tendency of looking at things in a very negative way. When there is no appreciation for good things, it raises negativity. Institutions have to be accountable to the people. In our case, we have a number of institutions. If you take NGOs, there are more than 50,000, according to the record of the Social Development Council. If these 50,000 NGOs worked as per their mandate of serving the people, imagine where we would be at the moment. But the trouble here is even these institutions do not seem to have been institutionalized.
As a result, questions have been raised: Are they actively engaged in development works? Have they been able to engage continuously with development agendas? The problem with many institutions is that they face capital and human resource constraints. So the number of institutions which are really resourceful, which have clear agendas and which want to serve the people are really few. When you are few in number and when even that small number gets divided due to their political beliefs you also lose the ability to bargain with the other side.
When we talk about the institutions in development discourse, the role of civil society invariably arises. How do you see the rise and fall of Nepali civil society?
Looking at the way our civil society has been working over the last 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that our civil society is not yet institutionalized. I am saying this for a reason. After Nepal evolved to a multiparty system and then to the federal republican system, the civil society got divided along the political lines. Instead of civic groups coming together, they appeared to follow their own set of politically guided agendas. In other words, when we got divided, we became less powerful, we could not influence the system. This is one reason why we have not been able to achieve the level of development that we had thought we would. And this is also the reason why even when the people feel the injustice on multiple fronts, no institutions come to advocate for and speak up for them.
“When politics is centered on power alone, the focus of the politicians will be less on people and the country.”
Slowly and gradually, civil society institutions have begun to treat the people based on which political party they are close to or affiliated with. Issues and agendas did not become the primary considerations. This is true with a number of NGOs for they are also part of the civil society. NGOs and civil society have to come out of the political beliefs and ideologies and be focused on real issues. They should be there for all the people who need them, not only for the selective people with similar political affiliations.
If so, can there be a course correction?
There of course can. Civil society should basically play a role to strengthen checks and balances. This has to be done by the people who are out of the mainstream politics, those who really believe in the role of the civil society and who believe that once the civil society is strengthened the government can be made accountable, so that it is not corrupt and ensures justice to the people. This is what civil society should actually do.
But for this, the members of civil society need to do a real soul-searching. They need to ask themselves what is the reason for which they are members of civil society. What should they expect from civil society? The universities, research institutions, academia, media, intellectuals, NGOs, mothers’ groups and farmers’ groups, which together constitute civil society, need to ask themselves if what they are doing is strengthening civil society and whose agendas are guiding their work. Is it the agenda of the people whose rights we claim to champion or is it the political agendas or the agendas of external institutions we are pushing! If so, why are we doing this? What are the vested interests of these institutions to invest in our agenda? We need to ask these questions and be clear about it. The second thing the civil society needs to be clear about is the purpose. Is our purpose making money or fighting for the cause? If you are there to make money, civil society is not the right place. You’d better join the business or corporate world. If you are fighting for the cause of the people, you should not be running after money. This is why I say you have to be clear about what you want to achieve. Change is possible but before changing others one has to change oneself.
The kind of change required for socio-economic transformation you are talking about is also advocated by political parties. Why do they fail to achieve that goal?
The political parties start with impressive agendas of social justice, equality and economic transformation. There are individuals in each political party who advocate for these changes but then something happens. Either those individuals are roped into higher rank and file of political parties or they are offered one or the other senior positions, including the ministerial and the constitutional positions.
“We have a number of institutions. But the trouble here is even these institutions do not seem to have been institutionalized.”
Then they start ignoring, or even turning blind eyes, to the very agendas they initially fought for or advocated. This is what has happened in Nepal in the last one and half decades. Soon the leaders are co-opted by the political parties and the government. This happens with civil society as well, which is why they are not able to fight with the government because the government knows that if they can co-opt two or three people the whole civil society movement can collapse. This is very unfortunate and frustrating.
In this context, how do you assess the changes in terms of rights, justice, economic development and inclusion promised by Nepal’s political parties and the actual changes on the ground?
Personally speaking, the agendas that political parties had when the people’s movements or insurgency started were good. The movements were against injustice. Their fights were for women’s rights. The movements were about ensuring rights to the farmers, workers, Dalits and marginalized and helpless people. Those were fights against the unfair system which had deprived millions of people of their fundamental rights. They were fighting for the change that Nepal desperately needed which is why several development agencies supported their agendas.
“The members of civil society need to do a real soul-searching. They need to ask themselves the reason for which they are members of civil society.”
Political parties, regardless of their ideology, make the same promises even today. If we read the election manifesto, we can see promises and pledges to transform the society in terms of participation, economic development and quality of lives.
But later on, political parties started to get deviated from their promises when they reached into power. The goal and gravity of the initial movements were lost. The leaders who seemed committed to bringing changes in the lives of the people went astray. They were influenced by the system or started to think about their own personal benefits rather than the larger good of the people. They started forgetting the very people on whose strength they had risen.
Looking back, there is room to doubt if these leaders were really committed to the welfare of the people both philosophically and practically. If they did, there would have come a real change.
There is a big gap between what the political parties and civil society leaders profess to do and what they actually do. That’s basically the reason why people are losing trust in them.
In this scheme of things, where have development agencies made mistakes? They have also not been able to deliver as much as expected.
Development agencies have done a lot. They have reached out to the places and the people where the government has not been able to reach out. They have worked in remote hills and mountainous places where there is little or no government presence. If the development agencies did not work for the people whom the government failed to bring to the development mainstream, the situation would have been much worse today. They have done a lot for the development of the country, especially in the rural areas and for the people who are helpless and voiceless.
The development agencies, broadly known as NGOs and INGOs, have worked to ensure the people’s access to health, education, livelihood, income, sanitation, awareness and empowerment. They were the ones to complement the government’s efforts during the times of earthquakes and the pandemic. The government alone would not have been able to work on these fronts if NGOs and INGOs did not contribute from their sides. They also have contributed in advocating the government formulate or amend policies favorable to the people. Earlier, the government policies were not as pro-people as you would find them today. Many of the government policies are still gender insensitive. Imagine, what would happen if the development agencies did not advocate for or encourage the government for policy changes and reforms.
“Slowly and gradually civil society institutions have begun to treat the people based on which political party they are close to or affiliated with.”
Development agencies have worked on policy areas as well. To illustrate with an example, in 2017 when I was the chairperson of Association of International NGOs (AIN), the government came up with very repressive policies which could fully restrict and control the civic space, civil society movement and NGO movement. Together, we resisted it and the government later corrected the course. To sum up, I would say that the development agencies have done a lot but that does not mean that there is no room for better change.
What are the areas they need to make amends to?
First, they need to be self-critical and find out if there are better ways of doing the same things in a more cost-effective way. Second, they also need to see if there is duplication of work they are doing. Third, at times, they do a tiny bit of things at one place and claim that they have brought transformation in the whole region or even the country. Such tendencies should be discouraged.
“The development agencies, broadly known as NGOs and INGOs, have worked to ensure the people’s access to health, education, livelihood, income, sanitation, awareness and empowerment.”
Fourth, the agendas that drive them to work in Nepal should be people’s agendas, the ones which come out after massive consultations and discussions with the relevant stakeholders of the society. They should not work for externally driven agendas. Some agencies are religiously active working for the promotion of certain political and religious beliefs. That’s the area where we have to be careful. It is not that everything is right with development agencies. There are areas they need to correct.