Oped

Revisiting the NGO discourse

  • Most of the entities affiliated with the Social Welfare Council perhaps do not match the definition of NGO
- DEEPAK THAPA

Oct 4, 2018-

Even though it glosses over the good work done by hundreds of NGOs,one cannot but concede that there is an element of truth to the very Nepali descriptor applied whenever someone wants to hurl an insult at these organisations: dallarkheti--dollar farming. While this is true for many countries around the world, and unfairly discrediting NGOs also takes place at the hands of a variety of actors, including the state, this piece is not about defending or attacking NGOs but a related issue that is intrinsic to the public discourse on NGOs.

In general, the next statement after decrying ‘dollar-farming’ NGOs is how many of them there are. Various figures are bandied about, with all running into the tens of thousands, further buttressing the impression that NGOs are set up left, right and centre and run by those without scruples for the sole purpose of personal enrichment. The truth of the matter is that no one knows how many NGOs there are in Nepal.

Just to take a couple of examples from these pages. In August, a news report stated that ‘the number of NGOs is over 20,000’. Another report some days later said there were ‘46,235 NGOs’ affiliated with the Social Welfare Council (SWC) ‘as of 2017’. Strangely, there is an element of truth in both, as I will elucidate below.

 

Do not go by the numbers

The SWC, one of the main government bodiestasked with regulating the non-governmental sector, provides some figures on its website. Accordingly, and supplemented by information accessed separately from the SWC, a total of 54,466 organisations had been registered with it by the end of the fiscal year 2017-18. That is a staggering number of non-government institutions indeed, and a source of bemusement to some and angst to others. What is not mentioned in almost all the discussions and debates on NGOs though is that these figures are to be taken with a number of important caveats.

Let’s start with the definitional issue of what constitutes an NGO. Although I plan to take this up in a future column, the one description that perhaps best captures the NGO spirit came from Canadian academic Anna Vakil two decades ago when she submitted that NGOs are ‘self-governing, private, not-for-profit organisations that are geared to improvingthe quality of life of disadvantaged people’.

Many of the 54,466 entities affiliated with the SWC do not match this definition at all. As an exercise, I randomly chose 20 from among the more than 50,000 to get a sense of what they do.Nine of the 20 were registered in Kathmandu, which is not surprising since 17,504 (that is 32 percent) of the 54,466 organisations registered with the SWC are from Kathmandu.A caveat within a caveat is necessary here since the 17,504 is not the true figure. The SWC data also includes erroneous information such as the column for district showing ‘Banasthali’ for ‘Apangata Adhikarka Lagi Mahila Samuha, Kathmandu’ and ‘Arcade Colony Kalanki, Ktm’ for ‘Goshika Foundation Nepal’. Since it is not possible to go through each entry to clean up the data, we cannot be sure how many organisations have been placed in wrong or non-existent districts. The SWC datasheet also has 131 entries with absolutely no information, not even the name,with only the SWC affiliation number provided.

Going back to the 20 chosen at random by a computer programme, five definitely would not fall within Vakil’s definition of an NGO or how NGOsare commonly

viewed in Nepal. Readers can judge for themselves based on the names of these five: Shailun Paryatan Bikas Kendra Nepal, International Watercolour Society Nepal, Almunae Association of Sidhartha Banasthali, Shree Sathya Sai Sewa Sangathan Nepal, and Sanskritik Yuwa Club.

Furthermore, not all the 54,466 organisations are likely to even exist. Affiliation with the SWC (then the Social Service National Coordination Council) started in 1977, with 17 organisations registered that year and on the very same day. Apart from the No 1, Nepal Red Cross Society, most are youth and sports clubs and religious organisations, hardly the kind of groups understood to be NGOs. More importantly, only a few seek renewal. According to the SWC, in the last two fiscal years, 2016-17 and 2017-18, only 2,642 and 1,056 organisations, respectively, were renewed. Granted, SWC renewal is required only every three years, but by no stretch of the imagination can we expect the remaining 51,000 plus to do that this year. Hence, we can safely say that, at most, only a few thousand of these organisations are actually operational.

 

Shooting in the dark

Registration (and renewal) of non-government bodies is provided by the concerned District Administration Office (DAO). Hence, logically, the DAOs should have the information, and compiling data from all 77 districts should give us an idea about how many such organisations there are in Nepal. Unfortunately, that is not so easy for although we might learn how many have been registered since 1977, unless there is painstaking effort to put together information on how many have sought renewal or have been active over, say, the previous five years, we will never know the actual figure.

To complicate the narrative, not all organisations registered with the DAOs are affiliated with the SWC. One prominent case is the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, now a political party. Registered in 1997 in Morang, it does not figure in the SWC list (unless it is among the missing 131 mentioned above). Likewise, there were 5,607 organisations registered with the Lalitpur DAO as of August 26, 2018, whereas only 3,411 from Lalitpur had taken SWC affiliation (as of September 6, 2018).

Alternately, take the case of Morang. According to the SWC, until the end of Bikram Sambat2070 (mid-April 2013), there were 573 organisations from Morang registered with it. But, the district profile prepared by the District Development Committee (DDC) of Morang showed only 59 ‘local NGOs’ in 2070. (Surprisingly, the BS 2074 profile still showed only 59 until one noticed that the ‘updated’ profile had self-sourced the 2070 publication, a telling indicator of the state of government data-keeping.) Going through the Morang DDC list, one could make out that most were what we could call NGOs in the true sense and did not include groups such as the Dip Jyoti Club or the Nepal Homoeopathic Chikitsa Sangh that would make up the 573 ‘NGOs’ registered with the SWC.

A prominent member of the NGO Federation of Nepal (NFN) recently asserted to me that membership of that body is one sure guide to learn how many NGOs there are. As of yesterday, the NFN website showed 6,183 members--an impressive number. But, I do know for a fact that not all organisations registered with the DAO and/or affiliated with the SWC are NFN members. I am sure entities like the Dip Jyoti Club or the International Watercolour Society would not be part of the NFN either.

We have only the Association Registration Act of 1977 governing everything from football clubs to film societies to neighbourhood associations to research institutes to spiritual centres to self-help groups to advocacy organisations to service delivery NGOs. Unless that legal structure is transformed to allow for a multitude of organisations pursuing a multitude of interests, all we will be doing is shooting in the dark about the 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 or 50,000 NGOs engaged in ‘dollarfarming’, hardly a conducive context for the development of a healthy civic society that is so essential to our still-nascent democracy.

Published: 04-10-2018 08:15

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