Tuesday, 23 July, 2024

Expanding Civic Space At Local Level

Mukti Rijal

A national dialogue was convened the other day to explore into the issues of engagement between civil society and local government institutions in Nepal. The objective of the dialogue as pointed out by the organisers has been to gauge into the state of civic space at the local level and suggest the ways and means as to how local civic space could be expanded at the prevailing context of the country. The CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations, supported dialogue organised by the civil society organisations, including Democracy and Election Concern Nepal, was chaired by former chief election commissioner of Nepal Neel Kantha Uprety.

Removal of bottlenecks
Participated in by Parbati Rawal, the chair of the federal parliamentary committee for intergovernmental coordination, the dialogue emphasised the need to remove institutional, bureaucratic and behavioural impediments and bottlenecks that often restrict local civic space to jeopardise the constructive relationship between civil society organisations and local government institutions across the country. Findings from the dialogues held at the seven Pradesh (states) in the country were presented in the dialogue stating that the two Provinces (Province 1 and Lumbini Province) have already formulated laws that indirectly seek, on the excuse of coordination and collaboration, to coerce the CSOs into submission to the sub-national governments.
It was also pointed out that the several procedural complexities and cumbersome rules appertained to registration and renewal, taxation and certification make operation of the civil society organisations difficult. In the declaration adopted at the dialogue it was clearly mentioned that section 25 of the Local Government Operation Act, 1974 can be used if not abused to restrict the independent and autonomous space needed for civil society organisations. Parliamentarians, civil society leaders, media persons and local government leaders who attended the dialogue issued a declaration committing that they would work to advocate for civil society-friendly policy environment to further positive engagement of the civil society at the local level.
In the declaration, the dialogue participants committed that civil society organisations are very important to foster democracy and citizen empowerment. However, to be effective, civil society organisations should preserve their autonomy and independence and stay outside the sphere and influence of the state and private sector. Often in heavily politicised social environment like in Nepal where political parties and their fraternal bodies seek to control and exercise dominance, it is very difficult for civil society organisation to retain and preserve their neutrality and independence. Political parties and state authorities often times do not tolerate the right to dissent, and fail to listen to the civil society groups that disagree with them or do not fall in line with them.
The declaration mentioned further that civic space has been the bedrock of any open and democratic society. When civic space is open, citizens and civil society organisations are able to organise, participate and communicate without hindrance. When people are free to participate, they are able to claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a state fulfills its duty to protect its citizens and respects their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express their views and opinions. The robust and democratic civil society organisations are indeed vital in strengthening democratic system and culture in the country. The basic role of civil society is to keep vigil over the use of the state power. Civil society actors should watch on how state officials use their power and authority.
Moreover, civil society should help promote political participation of citizens. Civil society organisations can do this by educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens. They can also help develop civic skills to work with one another to solve collective civic issues and problems, to debate civic issues, and express their views. Similarly, civil society organizations can help develop the values of democratic life. The values of democratic life are tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view. Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot thrive and work.
These values cannot simply be taught, they must also be experienced through practice. Civil society also can help to develop programmes for democratic civic education as well. The declaration highlighted: "In fact, by making the state at all levels more accountable, responsive, inclusive, effective and hence more legitimate and vigorous, civil society strengthens citizens' respect for the state. A democratic state cannot be strong unless it is effective to command respect and support of its citizens. Civil society organisations are a check, a monitor, but also a vital partner in the quest for this kind of positive relationship between the democratic state and its citizens".

Common interests
Democracy cannot prosper if people only associate with others of the same religion or identity. When people of different religions and ethnic identities come together on the basis of their common interests as women, artists, doctors, students, workers, farmers, lawyers, human rights activists, environmentalists, and so on, civic life becomes richer, more cooperative, accommodative, and more tolerant. However, in Nepal the real danger lies in the fact that the political parties do attempt to capture civic space and oftentimes use it to promote their narrow and vested interests and identities.
Moreover, as the findings of the dialogues held at the province level indicated that the state authorities seem not cognizant to the important role civil society organisations can play in strengthening democratic institutions and values. It is therefore incumbent upon the civil society organisations to work together to keep vigil and defend the civic space to empower citizen .and their democratic capacity to engage with government.

(Rijal, PhD, writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues. rijalmukti@gmail.com)