Bhima Pun’s life is very much like that of so many women in the hilly rural areas of Nepal. She wakes up early in the morning, often before sunrise. The house needs to be swept first, and then she sets out on the trek to get water for her family. These days it’s just a short walk to the gravity-fed water point near her house, but it used to take hours to walk to a reasonably clean water source and return with her heavy pot of water. Although this was just one of her many daily tasks, it took so much time and energy that Bhima wasn’t able to be involved in much else. Bhima and her friends longed for a water point close to their homes, but had no idea how they could make it happen.
So many folk in Nepali villages are in a similar situation. They have lots of ideas about how they would like to improve their lives. They have lots of energy and are willing to contribute their time and labour, but they don’t have the resources. The frustrating thing is that the kinds of activities they want are relatively cheap, and the funds for them are actually available within the Government of Nepal’s development budget. But how can women like Bhima find out about them, let alone access them?
Nepal’s Local Self-Governance Act (1998) includes a wonderful opportunity for communities to be part of local development planning and budgeting through the Participatory Planning Process (PPP). The Act provides for community-level meetings where people can voice their concerns and propose small-scale development activities that would meet their needs. The communities’ suggestions go to the Village Development Committee (VDC) and the VDC uses the suggestions to develop its budget and plans. Larger projects that might cover several VDCs are proposed at district level.
But there is a problem. Most villagers have no idea that this process exists. They see the VDC funds as belonging to the government, not to them. Why would the government listen to poor farmers, landless labourers, low-caste communities, women, children and people with disabilities? In practice, important people (the wealthy, the politically-connected, the educated) make the decisions, while ordinary folk like Bhima are completely left out.
To give ordinary villagers access to the process, UMN’s advocacy team, along with its local partners, runs PPP training programs which have been extremely helpful.
Here’s how it works: at community level, trained local facilitators visit each household, inviting everyone to attend the initial meeting. Because they know their communities intimately, they can particularly encourage poor and low-caste families, people from minority ethnic backgrounds, the elderly and people with disabilities or affected by HIV to take part. A special focus is on including women and children. Sometimes, several visits are necessary to persuade people that they really can influence how things are done in their VDC.
At the meeting, the facilitator explains that the VDC funds for development belong to them, the people, and they are entitled to have a say. The facilitator describes the process for doing this, the way proposals are developed and the current government priority areas. After that, the community:
The facilitator helps them find other local resources and access technical expertise if needed. Representatives then take their proposals to the VDC. The program also includes ways of monitoring how fair the process is at each step.
This is what happened in Bhima’s community. She went along to a local meeting, and when the facilitator had explained the process and asked the villagers to consider their priorities, Bhima suggested a drinking-water system. To her delight, of the many ideas put forward, hers was selected! She says: “When the choice between the plans was being made, most of the women wanted my plan, as it was their concern as well. So together, we were able to ask for what was needed most in our village.”
Now Bhima’s community has four water points and a big water tank. The daily chore of fetching water is so much easier for the women of the village.
Each year sees more people participating in the process, more funds released for community-initiated purposes, and more lives changed.
This kind of success has been reflected across many communities. In one year, 166 settlement-level meetings were held in six VDCs. More than 4,000 people participated, and AU$87,820 worth of small-scale local projects were approved. These projects included walking path and road construction and maintenance, micro-hydro installation, school building repair and construction, small irrigation systems, village drainage works, bus stop shelters, training for female farmers, and of course drinking water schemes. UMN’s outlay for the year on this project was just NRP 1,400,000 ($17,000), meaning that $1 spent resulted in $5 for projects – not a bad return!
The exciting thing is that these outcomes are cumulative. Once facilitators at village-level have been trained and have experienced success in getting projects approved, they continue their efforts year by year. In one year, UMN trained 101 new facilitators; every year they’ll be out there in villages, encouraging people to be involved. So each year sees more people participating in the process, more funds released for community-initiated purposes, and more lives changed. Like Bhima’s. Having had a taste of what can be achieved, she has enrolled herself in a non-formal education class, hoping that she can continue to contribute to positive change in her community.
UMN conducts advocacy by building the capacity of community groups, as well as engaging with policy issues at the national and international levels. Most advocacy strategies focus not on influencing the government on change policies, but on influencing them to implement the policies they already have.
Related projects have received support from the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).