Emerging Challenges Of CSOs
Nepal has undergone far-reaching process of political transformation over the last few years. The constitution, enacted by the Constituent Assembly in 2015, has restructured Nepal into three tiers of government – federal, province and local. In the federal architecture of functional assignment, the local governments- rural (Gaupalika) and urban municipalities (Nagarpalika) – are entrusted with important roles and functions. These functions are concerned with local policy and law making, development planning, school education and health service delivery and so on. The Local Government Operation Act 2017 elaborates the functional duties and responsibilities of the local government institutions. The roles and responsibilities do range from governing, regulating to management of local development planning and service delivery.
At the core of these functional allocations among the three-tier of the government lies the imperatives of the representation and active participation of citizens and their active collaboration with local government. The preamble, directive principles of state policy, fundamental rights chapter of the constitution, Acts and guidelines issued by the government time and again indicate this clearly. Moreover, the Local Government Operation Act 2017 intends to promote collaborative governance. This necessitates active citizen participation at the local level. Furthermore, the Good Governance Guidelines 2018, issued by the government in enhancing transparency and social accountability practices at local government, posits citizens and civil society organisations (CSOs) as key actors to engage with local governments to strengthen good governance practices.
Generally, the legal framework is thus supportive of and friendly to the citizen engagement with local government. However, the implications of the constitution’s “one-door policy” for CSO regulation are not yet clear. According to Article 51(j) of the new federal constitution, one of the government policies regarding social justice and inclusion is to involve civil society organisations in the areas of national needs and priority by adopting a one-door policy for the establishment, endorsement, engagement, regulation and management of such organisations. All of the laws affecting civil society organisations will have to be amended and updated to conform to the new constitution. However, there is a simmering concern that the amended laws will give the government more control over the civil society sector. In the meantime, .the laws governing civil society sector are often outdated and irrelevant.
According to a study done by the NGO Federation of Nepal, only 24 per cent of CSO representatives surveyed believe CSO-related laws are relevant to the work of CSOs; 38 percent believe the laws are partially relevant; and the remaining 38 percent believe the laws are irrelevant. The constraints are gradually emerging and shaping up to hinder the establishment and operation of civil society organisations in Nepal .
There are several procedural constraints civil society organisations face in Nepal. The multiple ministries, including Ministry of Home Affairs , Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration (MoFAGA)), Ministry of Forestry (MoF), and Ministry of Commerce and Industry register and regulate CSOs in Nepal, each with their own legal framework. However, most CSOs register under the Associations Registration Act (ARA) of 1977. But the Act is considered to be out-of-date as it envisions civil society organisations only as service providers and therefore does not readily apply to Nepal’s diverse range of civil society organisations
The constitutional and legal framework exists for CSO operation and citizen participation at the local level, the intent of the incumbent government seems not very positive about encouraging CSOs. The proposed national integrity policy and directives issued by the Home Ministry lately to rein in on the activities of the CSOs have given rise to apprehensions on the intention of the new government in dealing with civil society .
Moreover when we talk about the citizen participation especially at the local level we can refer to restructuring of local government carried out prior to local elections in accordance with the recommendations of the Local Level Restructuring Commission (LLRC) in 2016. The Commission has slashed the number of municipalities from around 3300 to 753. This has increased size of the local governments both in terms of territory and demography. It has also impacted on political density with significant variation in population –representative ratio.
Moreover, the local government offices have been removed from the walking distance of local communities presenting difficulties in contacting the representatives and officials apart from accessing services. Since the local level elections held last for the rural municipalities (Gaupalikas) and Municipalities (Nagarpalikas), the elected representatives have formulated policies, plans , programmes and projects for the last fiscal year and this year in succession.
It is generally found that the local projects are selected and formulated without consultation with the local citizens. The projects are generally found allocated based on the partisan consideration, not on the basis of the local needs. Moreover, local tax rates and service fees/ tariffs have been revised allegedly without consultation with local community and concerned stakeholders. The settlement based resident associations (Tol Bikash Sanstha) have been envisaged as mechanism for citizen representation and participation in local development project prioritisation and formulation, monitoring process in the municipalities. However, their composition in terms of representativeness and inclusion, the effect of their functions and roles in articulating civic interests and fostering civic engagement for democratisation and development has not been effective.
Time has come to ensure that local citizens effectively engage with local governments without any constraints. Moreover, an objective assessment of the emerging trends and tendencies to curtail and inhibit the citizen and CSO participation at local level needs to be undertaken to pinpoint the substantive and procedural areas that handicap the participation of the citizens at the local level.