The Implications of Closing Civic Space for Sustainable Development in Nepal
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This report on Nepal is one of a set of four country case studies designed to study the implications of closing civic space for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The case study was commissioned in response to the wave of legal, administrative, political and informal means to restrict civic space and the activities of civil society actors in countries around the world in the past decade. Based on a literature review and conceptual framework developed for the study (see also Hossain et al 2018), the report documents how changing civic space in Nepal, a country characterized as a competitive democracy with strong commitment to inclusion, has impacted on development outcomes, with a focus on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) outcomes to do with SDG 4 (access to education) SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 6 (access to water and sanitation), SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and the principles of inclusion and ‘leaving no one behind’. The study found that: The civic space in Nepal has changed rapidly in recent years. Civil society actors have played a critical role in defending and defining political and civil rights since the democratic transition in the 1990s. Yet many civil society organizations (CSOs) are perceived as Kathmandu-based, donor-driven (in their agendas and work), and with weak grassroots links and accountability, weakening their legitimacy with respect to the state; Since 2015, the civic space has become more fragmented and partisan. Yet despite recent administrative and legal changes and efforts to clamp down on specific movements, civic space in Nepal is in no current danger of closing down for actors directly engaged in inclusive development. However, CSOs may have weaker collective capacity to build broad issue-based alliances to demand accountability from the state, a potential concern for women’s organizations, while rising nationalist politics may single out faith-based international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) for particularly tight control; As the Nepali state shifts its focus to ‘big development’ (bikas), the inclusion agenda will take a backseat. An emphasis on poverty alleviation will leave space open for civic engagement with the state on service delivery, and no short-run impacts on access to public services is anticipated. However, the quality of basic services such as education and water will remain a concern, in particular for marginalized groups. In the longer run, a CSO mandate for service delivery at the expense of a focus on strengthening rights and inclusion, and at a time when the inclusion agenda is also losing ground in public policy, is likely to be adverse for development outcomes; Decentralization may enable local and grassroots organizations to engage with the state on development planning and delivery. But much depends on how successfully they engage with the process, which in turn depends on their capacities and the political will and state capacities to include them. CSOs at the local level are vital for ensuring inclusion and that ‘no one is left behind’ by development; The power of Western donors is in relative decline, as China and India gain prominence in the region. This creates challenges for INGOS and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), who have historically been funded through international aid. The increased Indian and Chinese presence as development partners and investors allows the state to counter the frameworks and development agendas that come with dependence on official development assistance. It has seen the SDGs dethroned by a new infrastructure-heavy framing around ‘Big Development’, and seen CSOs newly vulnerable to the appearance of being ‘pro-India’, an accusation used specifically to close space for Madhesi struggles.