International aid agencies in Nepal are paying the government hundreds of thousands of US dollars in fees and having to hand out stipends to bureaucrats, to get their projects approved and monitored. They accuse the government of hampering their work, citing year-long delays before aid projects are approved.
The country’s public officials can earn US$2,500 per year just for attending meetings to approve aid projects in a country where the prime minister’s salary is US$750 per month, aid groups said.
Nepal is still struggling to recover from a 2015 earthquake which killed almost 9,000 people. Tens of thousands of earthquake victims are still living in temporary shelters, while less than 1 percent have received more than the first tranche of compensation from the government of US$475.
Fees to secure project approval and cover monitoring and evaluation range from US$6,000 to US$15,000 per project — which can be a sizeable slice of the project’s budget.
“Governments all over the world charge service fees, but it’s very clear and everyone is charged the same amount. Here it’s a bit more opaque,” said the director of a non-governmental organization (NGO), speaking on condition of anonymity. “When you have an environment that is opaque, it’s a lot easier for people who want to abuse that system to do so.”
The director of another group said some agencies are pressured to host meetings attended by officials in upmarket hotels, with dinner and drinks included.
“I feel so strongly that our resources have to get to people in need and to see this money leaking out the edges is so unethical,” the director said.
Aid workers who spoke to the Guardian said they are repeatedly asked for bribes and also face demands for “donations” from political parties and pressure to partner with Nepalese charities favored by bureaucrats and politicians.
“We were told we had to pay bribes and exactly how to pay those bribes,” one said. “Not only do I have to pay each of them a stipend, but I also have to pay their drivers. One of them couldn’t attend the meeting so he asked me to bring him the meeting minutes to sign, along with the stipend. If they turn around and refuse to come, you’re non-compliant, so what do you do?”
Aid organizations in Nepal must convene multiple meetings with central and district level bureaucrats and up to 11 government ministries.
According to a government directive, these meetings should take place out of office hours, which allows government employees to demand payments to attend.
Dilli Prasad Bhatta, the head of the Nepalese Social Welfare Council, the government body that oversees the work of local and international NGOs, said aid groups are not required to pay.
“It’s not necessary … [but] if someone offers you something, you can’t reject it,” he said.
NGOs said the approvals system has existed for decades, but has become more difficult to negotiate following the earthquake, when 100 new agencies came to work in the country, bringing an influx of money and people.
One NGO consultant said the practice is unsurprising.
“They see the conditions in which we [foreigners] live, and they think, ‘Where’s my share,’” the consultant said.
Prabin Manandhar, chairman of the Association of International NGOs (INGOS), which represents 145 INGOs in Nepal, said the project approvals process is designed to exercise control over civic society organizations and create opportunities for political patronage.
“Nepal has had 22 governments in the past 26 years ... creating many layers [of bureaucracy] gives space to all the different political parties and creates loopholes for the possible misuse of resources,” Manandhar said.
Bhatta denied his organization was to blame for delays.
“We do the approval much faster than before, but for a few organizations we may need some justification [for their projects],” he said.
The consultant for a donor agency said that in some cases local bureaucrats are right to question INGOS’ activities.
“Why do we get to complain about lengthy approval processes? They can’t just let us run amok. You’ll find the district government officials often have quite good instincts around fairness,” the consultant said. “The coordination of this is a nightmare for them. There’s pressure to launch projects very, very quickly. Organizations that can guarantee they will be able to get approvals are seen as more competent [by donors], so there is pressure just to sort it out any way you can.”
Nepalese Minister for Social Welfare Kumar Khadka acknowledged there are problems, but said aid agencies were also at fault.
“I have found that what some INGOS are doing in the field is very different to what was in their [agreements]. That is worrisome,” Khadka said.
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