Civil society in the form of NGOs/INGOs seems to be regularly attacked as not providing much help to those in poverty, de-politicizing rights holders, by providing them with a few “crumbs” to keep them pacified . In speaking with some friends, they also seemed to feel, that on some level, many civil society organizations are not effective. In Nepal, I’ve come upon the term “bottom-up, rights based and non-governmental (BORING) approach to development, and Gaisasagiri or NGOism as negative in the sense of equating this with the “intense de-politicization of the disadvantaged population”. In the civil society organisations that I’ve worked with these somewhat negative connotations couldn’t be further from the truth.
Civil society plays a vital role in providing empowerment opportunities, raising awareness regarding vital public issues and capacity building, in order to impart skills which rights holders can use to advocate for themselves. Without civil society doing this type of work, there would be a much greater economic divide. Through civil society advocacy, people living at the lower rungs of the economic ladder have a voice and are not totally forgotten.
Civil society helps to bring people into politics in order to advocate for themselves. A prime example of this is the land rights movement throughout Nepal, where local activists work to develop, in harmony with community members, empowerment opportunities. All of this occurs at the ground level, in a rights based fashion and in collaboration with government at all levels. I’ve found that people who have lived a primarily agrarian lifestyle and have been voiceless throughout their lives, become powerful voices of change for themselves and their families, once they are made aware of their rights. This also enables the rights holders to have greater passion and assertiveness vis-a-vis politics, locally, as well as nationally. This can lead directly to national policies which take into account those impacted. In the disability sector there is a saying, which I first learned in India, stating that, “nothing about us without us”. This also seems to also be the case in the land rights movement, facilitated through civil society organisations.
Through working for three years at the National Trust, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, I came into contact with more than 900 NGOs, throughout the country working in the field of developmental disabilities. These civil society organisations made it possible for Persons with Disabilities to have a direct link to the Indian Government. More importantly the NGOs enabled those with disabilities to collaborate, making the movement much stronger. The strongest voices in this movement were those of Person with Disabilities and/or those having direct family links .
Another example, although from the West where I was the Executive Director of an HIV/AIDS NGO, is that through civil society we were able to help those living with this disease to bring their issues directly to legislators at the State Capitol and local political bodies. These actions were about facilitating and providing empowerment opportunities for lower income, disenfranchised People Living with HIV/AIDS, to advocate for themselves.
Civil society in Nepal is also helping to bring the conversation regarding Violence Against Women (VAW) and other gender issues into a national conversation. Women’s organisations are the ones that have again helped to give voice to those who might have thought that they were in a hopeless situation. Through continued advocacy and government engagement, in the longer term, women will make further societal gains, not only in Nepal, but throughout the world.
Civil society also helps to ensure that good governance is in place at all levels, including in NGOs/INGOs. This is a not an easy task, but through individual capacity building and learning to advocate for one’s rights is very possible.
There will always be those civil society organisations that are not “worth their weight”. But this has more to do with individuals than anything else. Painting a sweeping generalization of anything in life makes little sense. Although the words behind the BORING acronym, do make sense, I would rephrase this because the work is EXCITING and INCLUSIVE. This is about working with the voiceless, the disenfranchised, those who have been forgotten and focusing on a rights based approach facilitating right holders to receive their fair share of the economic pie, leading to the same type of life which we all long for. In fact, this is what the civil society organisations that I’ve worked in and am aware of, are doing.
Michael Rosenkrantz, Kathmandu, possesses an MBA and an MA-Sociology and has worked in the NGO and government sectors. Michael has been Executive Director of NGOs in the US, and has worked at the top levels of local government and volunteered for the Indian Government in the field of disability. Michael presently works, as a VSO volunteer, on Corporate Social Responsibility issues and in land rights through Community Self Reliance Centre (CSRC).