Nepal’s national budget for 2021/2022 is about US $ 14 billion. Of which about a quarter i.e. $ 3.5 billion is estimated to come as foreign aid. About two third of it comes as bilateral support and is spent via government channels and the remaining portion which is still more than $ 1 billion is brought in and operated via International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) based in Nepal or outside in partnership with government authorized non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Here I want to discuss how aid supported work by the Nepali non-profits have challenges to keep up with the spirit of the locally led development and maintain bottom up approaches in planning and implementation of the development activities. To debunk the myth of community partnership, locally led strategy or bottom up approaches, I put here more than a decade of experience as an aid worker. I have had the first hand experiences on how the fences of compliance, funders priority and national partners complete dependency on the funders clamps the claws of the implementers in strictly maintaining funder driven protocols in running community development projects.
I am not saying that several substantial works have not been done. Many notable organizations operate with zero tolerance in corruption, provide rigorous delivery of projects and produce outstanding results in the sector of health, agriculture, human rights, inclusion and economic development. What I am highlighting here is the lack of stakeholder partnership, community engagement, and locally led planning and operation of projects. In fact, it has become a false rhetoric maintained and is almost a myth. While every organization claims their approach as right based and community led, that is also something they have to maintain verbally in order to be eligible to receive the funding. Because our funders want us to tell them so, a requirement to maintain rhetoric rather than the actual practices. In reality, everything is funders led because they bring money and they have practical powers. Here are five reasons why aid supported development via non-profits is a ring-fenced world.
Strict Compliance Policies
Most of the reputed international organizations and donors have their own compliance policies of procurement, recruitment, limits of expenditure on headings, guidelines for project implementations. The implementing partners are strictly required to adhere to them otherwise the expenses or activities are disallowed. This sort of micromanagement prevents the implementers from being creative and community friendly. Fulfilling the donor requirement is a necessity.
Multilayer Approval Process
Aid supported projects come via different layers when they reach the beneficiaries. A typical project funding first goes from government or intergovernmental aid agencies or individual donors to the big consultants or international INGOs. These organizations then work with their in-country offices to design and allocate budget. Once the funding comes in the country these partners, select the domestic partners who are registered as NGOs to implement the project. Some select National NGOs, some select local NGOs and some also partner with the local government. In each level of fund transfer there is an agreed frame of the work and indicators that have to be met. If a community feedback in the project inputs to making any changes in the project structure, it has to go all the way to the headquarters of the international NGOs and the most of the time the amendment is denied because it will be understood the proposed activity is beyond the scope of the project and agreement. Thus, any community feedback in these sectors is heard, but never actually addressed. Donor’s decisions are final.
Giver Taker Psychology
The implementing partners i.e. the NGOs or the local government prefer being accountable to the funders and run the projects as per the reporting requirement rather than inputting community engagement and voices to change the project strategies as it is more convenient. Satisfying the funders by fulfilling their requirement in excellent ways means developing long term relationship and goodwill with them. Involving community voices, asking them to continually change their strategies will only increase the hassles and sometimes discontinuation of funds in the pretext of being difficult or non-abiding partners. So the rule of thumb is to be accountable to the donors, not the beneficiary community. After all, like other businesses, non-governmental organizations are also a sector. It wants to thrive. Givers have an upper hand role; partners have to always abide their ways either vocally or silently.
While all the practices are somehow donor driven, these community projects have to maintain in their report that there is good coordination with the stakeholders and that the community voices are well heard and responded to during the planning and implementation of the project. This is hypocrisy but it is maintained because funders require it to justify their findings. The meeting with stakeholders and community people is a pseudo-coordination. What is discussed there, does not value much. The project will be implemented as it was already planned. These discussions are just to tick the boxes.
Nobody Governs It
There are authorizing bodies who monitor the progress and fair expenditure of the funds in the projects but nobody governs the community engagement aspects. The projects are forced top-down without well addressing current needs and priorities of the beneficiaries. The concerned authorities and funders themselves often overlook this.
This is a reality how every year; more than a billion dollars of funds are spent without much involvement and voices of the beneficiary themselves in planning and implementation of the project. This is how good projects fail after its completion because the locals do not feel ownership and become passive recipients.
Community engagement thus should be in actual one not only in the reports and loud rhetoric but also in action. It is ironic that the advocates of bottom up approach are the same people who are in action further strengthening the top down blanket approach; after all, they are givers which gives them power.
Koirala The Author is an Mphil Scholar at KUSOED.