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Nepal Gains Ground in Civic Space Efforts

June 28, 2023

By Ajay Das, Carolyn O’Donnell, and Stephanie Ma

On a warm June morning, a group of young activists and home-based entrepreneurs gather in the village of Thabang, 113 kilometers north of Butwal, in Lumbini province. Once the epicenter of the civil war in Nepal, the village has become popular with tourists for its scenic, hilly terrain, its rich flora and fauna, and the warm hospitality of the locals. The young people gathered here are eager to discuss their vision for Thabang. They describe their volunteer work, their efforts to conserve the local arts and culture, and their ideas to promote tourism. They are excited by their dreams, but they also recognize the challenges they face: their isolation from the rest of the country, the lack of a vibrant civil society, and their invisibility in the media.

A group of women from the Magar community in Thabang. Once at the center of Nepal’s civil war, Thabang is now dreaming of development. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The Constitution of Nepal envisions civil society and the media as partners in the pursuit of “sustainable peace, good governance, development, and prosperity.” Since the nation declared itself a federal democratic republic in May 2008, Nepal has been building a federal system that provides new opportunities for subnational governments, civil society, and the media to deepen their partnership for more inclusive development.

These efforts have met with some success.

At a time when South Asia is experiencing a closing of civic space, Nepal has resisted the trend. Freedom House rated the country “partly free” in its 2023 annual study of political rights and civil liberties worldwide. The V-DEM (Varieties of Democracies) Institute of the University of Gothenburg, in its Democracy Report 2023, found that a worldwide decline in democracy was most pronounced in the Asia-Pacific region, which has reverted to levels last recorded in 1978, but that Nepal had progressed from the status of “electoral autocracy” in 2012 to “electoral democracy” in 2022, earning a place among the top 10 democratizing countries of the last decade. The 2023 report ranked Nepal 62nd of 179 countries on their Liberal Democracy Index. This progress can mainly be attributed to changes in the electoral process, and Nepal should continue its efforts to ensure free and fair elections.

When it comes to press freedom, Nepal made great progress in 2022, advancing from 106th to 76th among 180 countries in Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, surpassing India at 150th and Pakistan at 157th. In 2023, however, Nepal regressed to 95th. There is room for better representation of marginalized communities in media leadership positions, in the diversity of the newsroom, and in the coverage of their communities. And the new Media Council Bill, ostensibly intended to “deal with fake news and improve the media environment,” would establish a powerful new state media regulator that could put press freedom at risk, with potentially serious consequences for democracy.

Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index for Nepal. Nepal advanced to 76th among 180 countries in 2022, but it regressed to 95th in 2023. In the chart, the smaller numbers are the scores, and the larger, bold numbers are the rankings among the 180 countries rated. The overall score is the average score of the five indicators. (Image: Reporters without Borders)

Though Nepal’s civil society is more open than its South Asian counterparts, there is more to be done. Despite quotas meant to guarantee more inclusive government, many constituencies are still underrepresented in elective offices. Communities are still finding their way under federalism and learning how to work with the new subnational governments. This is especially true as the locus of development shifts from national to local governments.

So, how can Nepal nurture its democratic character in defiance of regional trends?

Through the newly launched USAID Civil Society and Media program (USAID CSM), The Asia Foundation is partnering with civil society organizations in Nepal to support civic engagement in areas that advance the interests of subnational communities, particularly historically excluded groups such as women, youth, and marginalized communities. The program is focused on the provinces of Lumbini and Madhesh, which face special challenges due to their large and diverse populations, their history of local grievances, and their evolving implementation of federalism. Most of the groups and coalitions that were central to the push for federalism had their strongholds in these provinces. Sharing an open border with India to the south, Lumbini and Madhesh both manage large populations of cross-border transients, making governance more complex than in other provinces. Like other provinces, however, Madhesh and Lumbini are also grappling with the rising influence of social media (Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube are the most popular) which have released a torrent of mis- and disinformation.

Map of Nepal highlighting Lumbini and Madhesh Provinces and Kathmandu. (Image: The Asia Foundation)

The Foundation works with civic organizations on issues and ideas developed with provincial leadership. The program team works to link these provincial actors to one another, to resources, and to the media, with the idea that making these connections can lead to community-driven solutions to complex problems that provincial and local governments are trying to resolve. At their core, the USAID CSM partnerships promote grassroots organizations, associations, and networks.

An important component of the project is the promotion of digital literacy and fact-checking projects to help communities navigate the confusing and often deceptive contemporary information space, which can have powerful effects on public opinion and democratic norms. The populations of these provinces also suffer from a significant digital divide, making access to useful and reliable information a privilege of the few. Working with our strategic partners, the CSM program is working to reduce this divide and promote information equity.

While the project emphasizes grassroots perspectives and local solutions, we are also partnering with the international NGO IREX on the first South Asian implementation of their Vibrant Information Barometer (VIBE), an annual study that tracks how information is produced, spread, consumed, and used. The VIBE will measure the capacity of the local information system to support democratic norms among individuals, civil society, and governments by examining the resilience of the formal media sector, the quality of information products, the ability of information consumers to recognize and reject misinformation, and the inclusion of marginalized groups in the regional discourse.

The program offers grants to local organizations to provide fellowships to emerging journalists, drawn from among women, youth, and marginalized communities in Lumbini and Madhesh Provinces, to develop their skills. As Nepal watches global and regional trends for lessons to guide its own democratic development, the USAID CSM partnership will bring additional rigorous comparative analysis to the discussion.

As one of several programs implemented by the Asia Foundation supporting Nepal’s priorities for civic space, USAID CSM will also support a broader learning agenda within the Foundation to better understand how resilient organizations are able not only to survive, but to thrive, in an increasingly difficult environment for civic engagement.

CSM is funded by USAID through the Civil Society and Media–Strengthened Together and Advancing in New Directions (CSM-STAND) consortium, led globally by the INGO Pact and in Nepal by The Asia Foundation.

Ajay Das is program director of CSM Nepal. Carolyn O’Donnell is a monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning director, and Stephanie Ma is a senior program officer, for The Asia Foundation. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Nepal
Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Subnational Governance in Nepal

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