27 May, 2014

ENGAGING THE GOVERNMENT





I was recently in Kapilvastu for an assignment when we stopped by the District Development Office. An officer there immediately gave me a piece of my mind.

Pointing to two colleagues who accompanied us from a local NGO, he said: “We have an employee here who is also engaged in this NGO in some capacity. He was a former employee of the NGO, and now remains on the board as a volunteer. He’s been presenting our work on citizenship as work done by the NGO. To bideshis who come, it appears all this work is being done by the NGO when in fact its his work he is paid to do, as a government employee! Can you imagine? And this is how fundraising is done—taking the work of government agencies and passing it off as the work of NGOs!”

 My colleages from the NGO nodded politely and didn’t contradict him at this point. Later in the jeep they told me that they had been doing this work of getting citizenship papers to their constituency for a long time, and it wasn’t that the man in question was taking credit for government work and inserting it into the NGO report, but that in reality they were engaged in this work on their own initiative. Another colleague said this inclusion of government assignment into the NGO report was a form of politeness, and a courtesy to the government not to make them feel left out. The government officials scoffed at this and said that this was NGO cunning rather than a courtesy. The NGO workers also pointed out that government offices and officials were inefficient and underfunded, and they had a much larger and dedicated presence in the field than the government ever could.

And this, in a nutshell, seemed to be the crux of the problem. There are over 300 reigstered NGOs in Kapilvastu. About 8 of them work actively in the field, and are receiving generous funds. According to the officer at the Woman Development Office, NGOs receive up to 5 crores (500,000 dollars.) Add that up for 8 NGOs and you get around 4 million dollars. “Our budget is 2 crores,” the Women Development Office’s officials said. In other words, the government agency that deals with women’s issues gets $200,000, and remains understaffed and underfunded, while NGOs get the lion’s share of the funding.

It is clear the Nepali Government is inefficient, corrupt as well as inept. NGOs in general have provided much needed services to underfunded and marginalized communities in a much more dedicated fashion. And yet, we should question whether this model is sustainable in the long run. Eventually the INGOs funding the NGOs will “phase out,” at some point or another, and the very same people working in NGOs will one day have to take over the reigns of government. Perhaps the time has come for the INGO and donor movement to think about ways in which NGOs can work together—instead of in opposition—to a weakened and debilitated government.

It is clear that the Nepali Government is not inclusive. Almost all the officials at the government ministries were Pahadis, in a Madeshi area. Without the inclusivity in hiring, the government will come to be seen as an interloper and a competitor for funding. The donors and INGOs can help change this by providing incentives to  the government to hire locals in the areas in which they operate.

 In addition, they should also think about ways in which work done by the NGOs could be better integrated with the work being done by the government. In the same DDC office, we learnt that one of the village development committees had been declared a “violence free zone”, that monitoring committees had been set up to take note of incidents of violence and to compile them for future reference that would be kept at the VDC level. In addition, local officials had also met with parties engaged in incidents of violence and as far as possible tried to provide justice. “We also took a government lawyer with us who provided advice,” he said.

The official who explained this process to me presented it to me in a systematic fashion, and in a methodical way proceeded to tell me how violence could be eradicated. Government, of course, functions, in just such a systematic manner—which the piecemeal and hot-button fashion of work done by NGOs cannot replicate. And if we are to truly engage in ending violence against women, the government has to step up and create a system in which it can be checked, controlled and eventually eradicated.

Government officials, formerly apathetic and lackadaisical, appeared to be engaged, at least on the intellectual level, with this issue. My sense is that the funding received by NGOs is suddenly motivating formerly apathetic and obstructionist beaureaucrats to be cooperative, as they realize that working in a positive fashion could bring more resources and credit to their offices, and that they are being left behind as NGOs show greater level of dedication and commitment in bringing about active social change.

The Nepali Government needs to think about ways in which the ministries that engage with social issues can receive adequate funding on par with NGOs. And this means providing—and ensuring the funds reach—district and local level branches of offices working to supporting the end of violence against women. This means dedicating resources and funding to the Ministry of Women and Children, and giving them a generous budget which can shift social relations at the grassroots level.

Allocating budget is one thing, ensuring it gets to the intended constituency is another. The meager funding allocated to each VDC for women, Dalit and other minorities gets released only if the government beaureaucrats gets a share of it. Clearly the solution is stronger grassroots groups that can advocate for, and demand, their budget without giving a “cut” to officials in the ministries. Some system of making budgets public would also help in reducing corruption and ensuring the funds get to the right people.

Bypassing the government, which the donors have done, has only led to the further weakening of an already weak system. The answer is not to further weaken it by putting the NGOs in competition, but providing adequate support on par with, and in collaboration with, NGOs working in social movements.


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