Inclusive civic participation: Where democracies thrive

Civil society helps ensure inclusive participation and public oversight in governance. It also plays a critical role in enshrining the ideal of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people

This year, 2017, is the 70th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between the United States and Nepal.

We are using this year of commemoration to reflect on the values and issues common to both our nations. It has been nearly eighteen months since the historic adoption of Nepal’s constitution. As key aspects of the constitution are implemented and we move closer to holding local, provincial and national elections, it has been encouraging to see the critical role Nepal’s civil society has played ensuring that the diverse voices and needs of Nepalis are represented throughout the democratic reform process.

Civil society actors such as non-governmental organizations, professional associations, community-based organizations, think tanks, labor organizations, academic groups, and the media enable inclusion. Which is why it is imperative that during the democratic transition civic space remain open to support an active civil society.

As I’ve traveled across Nepal and interacted with Nepalis in the Kathmandu Valley, I’ve been delighted by the range of civil society actors working in Nepal today. I’ve come to appreciate what a difference dedicated civil society organizations (CSOs) make to the quality of society and a country.

As Nepal implements the new constitution, including new policies impacting the media and civil society, the government has the opportunity to revise more than one hundred laws, and the challenge of doing so in a way that will achieve more inclusive and effective governance.

It should use this opportunity to foster an enabling legal framework for CSOs, both domestic and international.

Since 1990, civil society has served as a vibrant vehicle for social transformation and democratic transition in Nepal. The vitality of these organizations is a bell-weather for the vitality of Nepal’s democracy, just as it would be in any other country.

Civil society helps ensure inclusive participation and public oversight in governance. It also plays a critical role in enshrining the ideal of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people a vision that America’s forefathers set out.

As Nepal strengthens its democracy, civil society organizations also need to become embedded in the democratic framework. Their advocacy on behalf of the public, analysis of policy issues that affect people’s lives, mobilization of constituencies in support of reforms, and monitoring for accountability of government functions provide important checks and balances.

It is important that as new regulations and laws are taking shape, that civil society is protected, and that legislators are careful not to inadvertently draft language that shrinks the civic space.

Given that many government ministries in Nepal play a role in supporting the lawful activities of civil society, and that each ministry has its own legal mandate, it is not always clear which set of rules and regulations prevail.

Article 51(j) of the constitution empowers but also tasks the Government of Nepal with pursuing policies that relate to social justice and inclusion, including by adopting a “single door system” for “the establishment, endorsement, engagement, regulation and management of community-based and national or international non-governmental organizations, and by making the investment and role of such organizations accountable and transparent.”

If implemented properly, the one-door policy could help to resolve conflicts between the different government entities regulating CSOs, freeing them to serve their essential role and facilitating a vibrant relationship between civil society and the state.

A new Social Welfare and Development Act currently being drafted, however, appears to run counter to the constitution’s call for a “single-door system,” requiring CSOs to obtain multiple approvals from different agencies in order to operate.

The draft Act also restricts CSO access to foreign funding by requiring CSOs to obtain permission from the Social Welfare Council to implement projects using foreign aid or support.

This is in addition to the initial approval a CSO must obtain when it applies for affiliation, thus essentially requiring CSOs to make two separate applications to the same government agency one for affiliation and one to receive foreign support.

Besides being an unnecessary burden on these institutions, restricting foreign funding in this way would be in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states the right to freedom of association.

While civil society, including our friends in the media, can, at times, be difficult or a challenge to the government, that is precisely why our democracy needs them, and why we work with other democratic governments to enhance civil society.

We engage with CSOs in Nepal to build capacity and provide them with tools and skills required to advocate on behalf of the people they serve more.

The United States remains committed to helping Nepal continue to progress as a democracy that is of the people, by the people, and for the people.

In doing so, our shared vision of a nation where all Nepalis regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, caste, geographical location, or background have an equal opportunity to learn and to lead healthy, prosperous lives will no longer be a vision or a dream, but a promise fulfilled for all.

Teplitz is US Ambassador to Nepal