Forms and Functions of Civil Society in Nepal – Telegraph Nepal

Dev Raj Dahal

Senior political Analyst, Nepal


Civil society is a critical mass of human associations, identities, networks and movements of citizens formed to shield themselves from the arbitrary actions of the holders of power and wealth and cultivate their public will and action.

The contemporary civil society discourses transmitted by citizens all over the world have refreshed universal values of human rights, democracy, justice, peace and rational order.

Sustained defense of public interest has been the only recognized common denominator of civil society though citizens from various stripes can situate it in numerous ways suitable to their contexts.

Socialization of self-seeking nature of human beings towards civility through the normative processes of education, communication, laws and institutions has remained a historical project of sages, scholars, scientists and statesman.

Transition of the state of nature to civil society has created a condition to secure human freedom, basic needs, social pluralism and solution of the problem of collective action within various micro and macro systems.

The desire of human beings for society with other human beings and abolition of the state of nature has established the raison d’ etat of state with legitimate monopoly on power.

But, without the civilization and moralization functions of society, it would be difficult to overcome the challenges posed by the state and “post-national constellation” (Habermas, 2001:58) of forces.

Post-national tendency of science, trade, commerce, human movement and sources of threat produce an “anarchical society” (Bull, 1995:63) lacking a sovereign for global governance.

The evolution of international cooperation is necessary but not a sufficient condition for the creation of common ground of all the actors of governance to a shared stake in mutual survival, justice and peace.

In this new context, some civil society groups have liven up a strong social feeling of a democratic community while others are susceptible to imperil it by a lack of civic virtue.

True civil society is disposition of human wills to selflessly serve others and a basis of community building.

In Africa, torn by tribal conflicts, civil society purports to establish a national culture by resolving a tension between the authority of customary and civic power. In Latin America, civil society discourse is pivoted on seeking the autonomy of politics and development. In Europe and North America, it is concerned with the liberation of people from techno-bureaucratic domination.

In Asia, civil society is concerned with recapturing the spirit of local self-governance rooted in popular sovereignty. The functions of civil society very much depend on the nature of the state, the market and international regime because they define the space for its role, legitimacy and social utility.

What sort of civil society can moderate the state of anarchy and attain stable peace? Immanuel Kant finds this answer in civil constitution of a democracy where human beings as rational creatures are ends in themselves.

The liberals find the utility of civil society in cultivating the harmony of freedom of economy and functional interdependence, the political realists in the balance of power and idealists in the establishment of world government.

How does civil society defend the supremacy of public in a world dominated by the anarchy of wills of powerful actors? How can they develop consensus out of varied traditions of civil society, such as right-based vs duty based, utilitarian vs charity-inclined and legal vs ethical norm-mediated one?

How does civil society invent knowledge to mediate these competing traditions taking into account different contexts such as industrial and agrarian, core and periphery and developed and least developed and even indigenize the rationalistic, industrial and modernist tradition of Western social sciences in rural, agrarian and folk Nepali context and combine reason and faith in public life and public policy?

This paper attempts to explain basic value premises of civil society, main contending approaches, the fusion of ritual and rationalistic Nepalese tradition, its relations with state, society and market, political culture and development discourse.

Civil Society and the Market:

Market cannot be de-linked either from society or from politics as it is embedded in certain ideology, actors, institutions and incentives. It requires a reliable system of property rights, contract enforcement, and rule of law and conflict resolution mechanism.

Economic decisions are made by politicians and economic policy has attendant effects on politics.

Market fosters efficiency, the ability to fight, not equality and free will. It rewards those who can compete in the market transactions, not those who are inefficient and dispossessed.

Nepal has more than hundreds of pockets of markets not articulating to each other and even in some cases strongly monopolistic in tendencies.

Its implications for majority of people living below poverty line facing shortage of natural resources, climate change and erosion of the natural foundation of life are enormous.

In Nepal, the implementation of class-blind neo-liberal policies founded on Washington Consensus disrupted not only constitutional vision of social justice and equilibrium among the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the government but also a balance between labor and capital.

Nepalese policy makers socialized in a different educational context and far removed from local society read the farewell of nation-state in the 8th Five-Year Plan, ignored macroeconomic realities and compounded economic ills of masses in favor of economic growth.

Retreat of the state from segmental market institutions made poor vulnerable and created insecurity to the middle class—the mediating agencies of society. State took the side of capital and the middle class left the society of their origin and is attempting to migrate in safer areas.

Democratization was not consolidated because post-democratic regime did not enlarge, rationalize and modernize public institutions and expand productive sector of economy corresponding to population growth.

Methodological destruction of public enterprises and privatization of essential services, such as education, health and communication for rents (Ghimire, Kinley and Shakya, 2000) reflects the failure of political classes to fulfill their democratic mandate and enable public sector to play strategic role in investment, production and trade.

Market economy, like democracy, cannot function in the absence of institutional vision of strong government policy, social support and security.

Ironically, de-industrialization in Nepal compressed the process of social modernization and the growth of a democratic citizenship.

The primacy of market over democracy allowed governments skate back politics “into the control of privileged elites in the manner characteristic of pre-democratic times” (Crouch, 2004:6) and transform citizens into economic migrants, jobless workers and consumers.

Civil society has to prevent this counter-revolution of elites against the egalitarian effects of democracy.

Globalization has internationalized the Nepalese market.

But, it has also contributed to the regional and global participation of national civil society and ignited fresh reasons for hope from a sort of global political renaissance articulated in the social charter, emerging social movements and world social forums.

The universality of human rights has endorsed the legitimacy of the plurality of liberal values in the country.

But, political sovereignty would be meaningless if there is no “policy sovereignty,” to enable the Nepalese decide the type of political, economic and social system they prefer for themselves and their children.

The competitive spirit of the Nepalese citizens, farms and the state, however, requires strong economic and social foundation of politics.

Nepalese civil society groups can help the leadership to articulate the policy sovereignty of politics in economic matters, define national priorities for action, seek the support of international community and achieve the economy of scale through market efficiency and social integration.

There is also an imperative to build trust and seek the synergy of civil society-private sector partnership, politicize the welfare state policies and enable the fragile state to assume basic governance functions—security, rule of law, voice and participation, delivery of public goods and conflict resolution.

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