The idea of organising community-based groups (CBOs) for political mobilisation, albeit in a non-partisan way, is well-known to many donors. Just check out, for instance, this project description or this one. It’s a familiar concept to support local NGOs and – through them – organise and mobilise CBOs for advocacy purposes. It’s called politial empowerment: to help give the “poor” and “marginalised” a “voice” in the “decision-making” by organising them into women’s groups, savings’ groups, and so forth, motivating them to “demand their rights”.
Political parties in Nepal are familiar with the concept too but in their case, it’s also about partisan mobilisation. Their aim is not only to help alleviate poverty or empower the marginalised people, for example, but also to foster CBOs that can help to promote partisan interests. Or, more specifically, their goal is to mobilise groups that can in turn be used by party’s leaders in the area to expand their power and influence. It’s actually not easy to find references on this aspect of local politics. But we have observed it first hand many times.
The Vice Chairman of a District Party Committee once put it bluntly to us. “Yes, now the UML is in power in the DDC here, so they have hired their own people as social mobilisers under the Local Development Fund. When we get into power, we’ll do the same.” In the same district, we saw many social mobilisers at UML Village Party Commitee meetings. Several Village Party Chairmen from the NC told us that only “UML groups” could get funds and other assistance from the social mobilisers, while NC groups were told to wait. A social mobiliser admitted that he was UML and of course tried to inform the CBOs about why UML is a good party.
Is this a general pattern? Well, in our experience, at least, it varies how easily such “politicisation” of CBOs can be done. But it is a widespread tendency to attempt it and to shape and use CBOs in that way.
We have witnessed NGOs in Nepal’s districts mobilising CBOs within the “poor” and “marginalised” communities – such as among the Dalits or Madhesis – ostensibly to simply, say, “alleviate poverty” and “demand their rights”, but also, in effect, to bring these groups in line with the party which the NGO in question supports. To illustrate it, let’s take a down-to-earth and extremely common example:
A VDC Chairman we know was once advised by a party friend in Kathmandu, who was a consultant with a donor, to form a local NGO and a line of CBOs. So the VDC Chairman did, and then he applied for funding from the donor. To the donor organisation, this was simply an application for funding for “income generation”: the CBOs were comprised of less wealthy villagers from a traditionally marginalised ethnic group. But to everybody in the VDC, on the other hand, it was a well-known fact that in this way the VDC Chairman was able to link local CBOs – comprised of over a hundred villagers – closely to his party. UML workers regretted it.
It’s on the basis of examples like this that we find this aspect of relevance in the crash course. Are all NGOs and CBOs linked with political parties and mobilised for partisan purposes? Not at all. But many are. That’s not surprising either, considering – as will be clear through the crash course – that access to resources depends above all on political connections. Some CBO leaders even seek such connections for the same reason.