In a sign of its new assertiveness, the Nepal government has issued a draft document laying down strict guidelines about what aid agencies and non-government groups can and cannot do. But critics say its provisions are too broad, and could easily be misused to silence critics at home and restrict the activities of international groups in Nepal.
The National Integrity Policy is aimed at ‘promoting integrity and transparency’ in all spheres of public life, guiding the conduct of public officials, and regulating the activities especially of western aid agencies, INGOs and civil society groups working on democracy and human rights.
Detractors say it is prompted by the establishment class feeling insecure about losing its grip on power and privileges. The document appears to be a backlash against the funding indigenous and excluded groups received from western donors during the Constitution-drafting process. It also seems to be a reaction to heightened activities of evangelical groups in Nepal.
Here are just some of the items in the new directive:
- INGOs cannot forward any reports to headquarters or donors without first submitting them to, and securing approval from, the government.
- NGOs must report foreign individuals or agencies involved in ‘activities against Nepal, Nepali civilisation or social harmony’ to the authorities.
- I/NGOs and foreigners are barred from ‘levelling unwarranted charges against Nepal … and spreading hatred’.
- Security agencies under the Home Ministry will monitor foreigners to check if they are working against the ‘national interest’.
- Nepali officials meeting foreign diplomats should not work against Nepal’s ‘national interest’ and should maintain secrecy.
- l Foreign embassies cannot disburse development aid directly.
The Association of International NGOs in Nepal and the NGO Federation have slammed the draft, arguing that they are impractical and create unnecessary hassles, while admitting there may be some wayward and opaque NGOs that need to be reined in.
What diplomats and aid officials are worried about is that the policy has ambiguous provisions that can be used to shut down any I/NGO, aid agency, or deport foreigners. Such broad rules could also be used to target critical civil society groups and political dissidents.
To be sure, the idea to silence civil society is not new. After king Gyanendra’s coup in February 2005, the Army cracked down on pro-democracy forces, putting Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba under house arrest, jailing political dissidents, and forcing many to go underground.
As political parties regrouped, thousands of NGOs and civil society members fought back to reclaim democracy. The king saw civil society as a direct threat to his authoritarian ambition, and jailed many members. He announced new controls on non-profits, INGOs and donors similar to the ones in this draft National Integrity Policy.
Deuba returned to power 12 years later, and his first decision in 2017 in his fourth term as prime minister was to do exactly what king Gyanendra had tried: restrict civil society, international donors and diplomatic missions.
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He chose two government secretaries known to be vocal critics of international agencies and donors to formulate his National Integrity Policy. It was clearly guided by suspicions that proselytisation was undermining Nepal’s Hindu identity, and the conviction that western embassies, their aid agencies and INGOs were behind conversions.
Gopal Lamsal, who is now President of the NGO Federation of Nepal, was a young activist when the king tried to silence critics in 2005. He remembers how they had to hit the streets, burning copies of the NGO regulations and clashing with police.
Lamsal says some of the provisions of the new National Integrity Policy seem to be directly lifted from the king’s and Deuba’s rule-book. He says the Policy is full of vague, impractical and outrageous clauses like the one asking NGOs to report anti-national activities. He says: “It is ridiculous that the government wants us to be its spies.”
The real reason Deuba ordered a National Integrity Policy last year seems to be because his advisers had concluded that over 65% of NGOs in Nepal were close to UML, and could use their budgets to finance the party’s election campaign.
Deuba’s NC party lost the elections anyway, and UML Chair K P Oli replaced him as the new PM in February.
Ironically, it is now the Oli government’s turn to revive a Policy paper he inherited from Gyanendra and Deuba. An activist explains that Oli is endorsing the controversial draft because it has so many broad provisions that it can be used to snare political enemies.
He says: “Gyanendra or Deuba or Oli, they all hate an independent and critical civil society.”
Another rights activist interviewed for this article told us the policy was initially mooted in 2011 when Janajati lawmakers, supported by the British aid agency DfID through the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), formed a caucus to push for greater representation in the new Constitution.
Indeed, even five years ago, various line ministries delayed a UNDP medium-term plan document and demanded that words like ‘structural discrimination’, ‘gender’, and ‘inclusion’ be removed.
“The Kathmandu elite began to create a false narrative that foreigners are funding Janajati-Madhesi NGOs to perpetuate political instability and promote proselytisation in Nepal,” the activist said.
However, Ex-secretary Sharada Prasad Trital, who led the team drafting the Policy, defended the document: “Does the Chinese government allow an INGO to publish whatever report it writes about China? If not, how can INGOs expect Nepal to allow it?”
Trital argues that the guidelines will actually protect Nepal’s international image. “If this policy had been in place, the EU Election Observation Mission could never have been able to publish its one-sided report about Nepal’s election laws in March,” he says. “Such biased reports harm Nepal’s reputation, without allowing the government to put forward its own perspective.”
A board member of AIN argues otherwise: “Of course, I/NGOs need to be within the Constitutional framework, but it is also their role to monitor the government and be critical if necessary.”
He adds: “Some NGOs are required to submit shadow reports to the UN pointing out the government’s failures or weaknesses. The government is obliged by several international treaties to allow these NGOs to draft independent reports.”
To be sure, the National Integrity Policy has tried to assert the government’s authority after many decades in which donors and international agencies were allowed to do what they liked without much scrutiny. Many of the provisions in the document could actually help make aid agencies more transparent and accountable.
For example, more than one person of a family can no longer be in the executive committee of an NGO, one cannot hold executive posts for more than two terms, and I/NGO budgets cannot cross a threshold for administrative cost. It also reduces the role of Social Welfare Council by empowering the Finance Ministry to approve budgets and programs of all
UML leader Rajan Bhattarai assured Nepali Times: “The guidelines are not intended to curb any freedoms. There will be no compromise on democratic values.”
However, the policy has alarming provisions like the setting up of a surveillance network to monitor foreigners working in Nepal, check their past records and scrutinise if they are involved in undermining the national interest.
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One such mechanism will be at the Ministry of Home Affairs overseeing surveillance teams made up of the Army, Police, Armed Police Force and National Investigation Department. Those found guilty can be deported, or declared persona non-grata.
What troubles many is that the draft is being issued at a time when a joint communist government is in power – parties historically not known to be supportive of democratic freedoms and human rights. see Editorial, page 2) Critics say such a policy, instead of strengthening Nepal’s standing in the world, would undermine its democratic and liberal credentials.
Said one: “If the government fairly implements this policy, it could promote integrity. If not, its provisions are so sweeping they could be used against anyone. Even the most upright and law-abiding citizen can be punished.”
It is an indication of the degree of fear the policy paper has already spread that most civil society members interviewed for this piece wanted to remain anonymous.
Ex-AIN President Deepak Raj Sapkota is not so worried. He says: “We are almost certain the government will not pass the policy in its current form without addressing our concerns.”