The number of civil society organizations (CSOs) operating in Nepal increased rapidly following passage of the Social Welfare Act of 1992. However, only Nepali citizens may form associations, which must register and re-register with the government annually. CSOs must receive governmental approval before accepting foreign and domestic funding, and all funding received must pass through Nepalese banks.[i] If approval is granted, an organization must enter into a general agreement with the government before using any funding received, in addition to signing a bilateral agreement with the donor.
These bureaucratic processes can be burdensome and subject to crippling delays. For example, in 2016, after 29 years in print, the magazine of one CSO, The Southasia Trust, suspended its operations in part to delayed approvals, including an approval to receive a grant from an international donor. Other organizations have been awarded grants from foreign donors, but have been unable to accept the grants, because they didn’t receive government approval in a timely fashion.
CSO representatives believe the government prevents them from receiving funding, because the government assumes funding will be used harm national security, incite violence, or otherwise threaten society. The government argues that organizations that seek foreign funding highlight Nepal’s problems and damage the county’s reputation internationally. It also accuses CSOs that protect minority rights of exacerbating ethnic and social tensions.
The government strictly controls how funding that is received by CSOs is used, requiring CSOs to spend 60% of the funding received on infrastructure projects or the provision of goods and services. This requirement necessarily limits access to funding for human rights and democracy initiatives, including research, advocacy, and educational programs.
International organizations must also register with the government to open offices in Nepal, conduct programs in Nepal, or implement programs with Nepalese partners. CSOs have noted that registration fees cost international aid agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The financial burden these fees place on donor agencies further limits the amount of money they are able to invest in projects that help Nepalese communities. [ii]
In 2016, Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare began considering a Draft Social Welfare and Development Act. Civil society representatives report concerns that the Act will make it difficult for a broad range of civil society actors to access international funding. The Act would also grant the Social Welfare Council broad authority over CSOs, and force them to conduct only certain types of programs in specific geographic regions.
Civil society has developed a number of arguments to protect their right to access resources. For example, when the government argues that the proliferation of CSOs across Nepal threatens to create a parallel state, activists counter that the 2015 Constitution of Nepal grants them the right to form associations. When the government justifies arduous bureaucratic processes and strict regulation of civil society by arguing the need for greater coordination across the development sector, activists maintain that bureaucracy limits both their independence and effectiveness.
In addition to these arguments, Nepalese CSOs use four main strategies to protect their right of association and to receive foreign and domestic funds. First, they actively conduct research and publish opinion pieces, such as those linked above, in local newspapers. Their opinion pieces cite national laws guaranteeing the rights of citizens, identify ways in which the government attempts to limit their rights, and explain why these rights are essential to the public’s interests.
Second, they facilitate public debates on issues related access to funding and freedom of association such as “Challenges of Nepali Democracy”, “Bureaucracy and its Relationship to the Idea of Open Society”, “Scope and Ramifications of the Proposed Social Welfare and Development Act, 2073”, and “Challenges of NGO Activism in Nepal” among others. One CSO, Martin Chautari, carried out more than a dozen such debates in 2016 and 2017. Debates provide citizens opportunities to directly engage with policy experts, government officials, journalists, academics, and politicians on topics such as these.
Third, CSOs analyze public policy and publish reports on issues affecting freedom and democracy. One Nepali research organization assembled a bibliography of essential reading for CSOs and INGOs to help them navigate the restrictive legal environment in Nepal.
Finaly, Nepalese CSOs consult legal experts on ways to challenge unconstitutional provisions appearing in new bills, regulations, and guidelines. While CSOs have yet to challenge such laws in court, they use legal analyses to advocate against harmful policies in the media.