By Hum Bhandari, Acting Executive Director at NGO Federation of Nepal, member of Forus 

Civic space became relatively encouraging in Nepal after the reestablishment of democracy in 1990. NGOs/CSOs flourished subsequently and have contributed to the political awareness and social and economic development. Constitution of Nepal, promulgated by the constituent assembly in 2015, further ensured the fundamental rights in an unprecedented way along with freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, with good potential for civil space in Nepal. 

However, disappointingly, thoughts of the political leaders and the governments in Nepal has not yet been as progressive as the constitution. NGOs/CSOs continue to be governed by Associations Registration Act, 1977; The Social Welfare Act, 1992; and National Guidance Act, 1961 which were promulgated under undemocratic regime. It has been over a decade since CSOs demanded for a progressive, relevant and integrated legal provisions to govern the CSOs/NGOs. Yet, this has not been realized.  

Ironically, the contribution CSOs/NGOs have made in developing political awareness, social transformation, service delivery and economic development, particularly during the decade-long Maoist insurgency and the People's Movement in 2006, have been largely undervalued. When public trust on the political parties was weak, the then king was moving ahead with his autocratic regime and the Maoist insurgency was at the peak, Nepalese CSOs, led by NGO Federation of Nepal, supported the political parties to lead the decisive political movement in 2006 for federal democracy in Nepal.  

Without recognition of this and against the spirit of the constitution, present government, under the influence of bureaucracy, has made multiple attempts to restrict civil society, discouraged NGO activists and created multiple hurdles in registration and renewal of NGOs/CSOs 

After the federal restructuring of the country, confusions ensued over overlapping roles to govern NGOs/CSOs. The Local Government Operation Act from 2017 requires NGOs/CSOs to work in close coordination with each local government by getting approved and aligning their activities with that of the concerned local governments. The NGOs/CSOs which work in multiple local government levels and districts have to go through multiple requirements and obligations. Besides, the International Development Cooperation Policy from 2019 and other policies have largely constricted funding to CSOs in Nepal.  

More recently, Ministry of Home assigned the responsibility of drafting an integrated law for social organizations to Nepal Law Commission which came up with a draft bill that disappointingly undermined international principles and disregarded the spirit of the Constitution and of Nepalese civil society. Although CSOs/NGOs should come under the constituency of Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens, the Ministry of Home has been taking control of the bill drafting process.  

To this, Nepalese CSOs/NGOs have expressed their serious concern as the draft CSO Act requires anyone willing to register NGOs/CSOs to furnish character reports from Nepal Police, income details, etc. The bill has envisaged of multiple control mechanisms; this is ill-intended to control rather than facilitate civil society. In addition to this draft bill, government is also in the process of introducing Nepal Media Council Bill and Bill on Mass Communications, and Information Technology Bill. They also reveal the government's intention to restrict freedom of association, assembly, expression and pressand civic space in general 

However, civil society campaign, lobby and advocacy has continued; as a result, government has not yet been successful to introduce the legal acts as it intends. Hopefully, civil society campaign in Nepal will be able to push the government for legal frameworks that foster human rights, support to implement the fundamental rights granted by the constitution and create enabling and favorable environment for civil society. And, Nepalese CSOs/NGOs are determined to fight for what they want.  

Photo credit: Sanjog Manandhar