16 August, 2004



Tom Arens first came to Nepal in 1972 as the South Asian representative of World Neighbors, a small American INGO. He stayed for 28 years. He was one of the founding members of the Federation of NGOs. Arens talked with Sushma Joshi of the Nation Weekly about the changes he has seen in the development scene in Nepal, as well as his thoughts about the direction in which the nation should take in the coming years.

What was Nepal like in 1972?

When World Neighbors first started, we worked with The Nepal’s Women’s Organization and Paropakar. These were the only two established smaller NGOs. We started with small funds: $50,000-100,000 the first couple of years. The government was ambivalent about smaller non-profits, so we couldn’t get registered until 7 years later, when the Social Service Welfare Council was established. The Queen was the chair. The Council helped to give status to smaller non-profits and to facilitate our work.

What was your first program?
Our first program was with the Nepal’s Women’s Organization. After 11 years, it evolved into Dhukuti, the Association of Handicraft Producers. Dhukuti employs over 1000 women today. They get their produces from a far-flung network all over Nepal, and are self-sustaining. They evolved as they went, and the leaders went on to start their own NGOs. It’s still a successful project.

How has World Neighbors been different from other organizations?
World Neighbors was a poor organization – we didn’t have a lot of money. So we expected a lot more from people in villages, and we’ve received a lot more participation. The money we had went further.

What changes have you seen in the non-profit world in the last thirty years?
There was very little civil society thirty years ago. Now there are 25,000 non-profits. It doesn’t mean all of them are functional. Some of them just exist on paper. But think of the changes in that sector alone. It’s remarkable.

What’s the most dramatic changes you’ve seen?
Even fifteen years ago, a health worker who didn’t feel like walking to the village would dump his stock of vaccines, write up a report saying he had vaccinated this many children, and return to headquarters. Now that’s not possible. All these women’s groups have become much more aware. I saw a group of women from Sindhupalchowk walk to Chautari and squat for two days outside the hospital until somebody came and vaccinated their children against measles.

There are some theories that international donors, by flooding Kathmandu with funds and marginalizing the rest of the country, are to blame for the current crisis.
International organizations should not come in with their own priorities. The National Planning Commission should lay down guidelines, and the donors should follow those priorities. They should also have a one-stop approval process like India or Bangladesh. Currently, it takes almost two years for any program to get approved, since they have to go through many ministries. The Social Service Welfare Council should be empowered to make that decision.

Many INGOs are now leaving Nepal.
There is certainly a reduction of INGO work in the hills. World Neighbors will phase out of all five hill districts by next year. We are moving to the Terai and to Bihar. We were paying the salary of a nurse in Charikot who was asked to give 10% of her salary to the Maoists. She decided it wasn’t financially viable, and the health post closed down. INGOs are having a difficult time retaining staff and are finding it impossible to implement their programs. A shift out of the hills seem to be the trend unless the political situation improves.

What do you foresee the international organizations are going to do this year?
INGOs are going to make the decision about whether to stay or leave in this “crunch” year. The Maoists have challenged the INGOs directly, and said they can’t work without their permission. This might force a lot of them out.

What’s your impression of the Maoist movement?
Their 40 point demand – who wouldn’t agree with about 37 of them? But their process – I don’t agree with it. I really believe in the democratic process. It’s not a perfect system. But who was it that said: democracy is the worst type of government possible, except when you compare it with others?