COVID-19 and non-governmental organisations in Nepal

Author: Dipendra KC1
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  • 1 Thammasat University, , Thailand
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This research note highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in developing countries. It takes Nepal as a case study and illustrates the effects of the pandemic on NGOs in the country and their contribution to the response to and recovery from the pandemic. It presents the findings of two surveys, one conducted in 2020 and one conducted in 2020–21, among 482 NGOs. The study’s findings suggest that NGOs faced a three-fold pressure in terms of a spike in demand for their services, a reduction of funding and other supporting resources and a challenge in dealing with state-imposed restrictions on mobility.

Abstract

This research note highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in developing countries. It takes Nepal as a case study and illustrates the effects of the pandemic on NGOs in the country and their contribution to the response to and recovery from the pandemic. It presents the findings of two surveys, one conducted in 2020 and one conducted in 2020–21, among 482 NGOs. The study’s findings suggest that NGOs faced a three-fold pressure in terms of a spike in demand for their services, a reduction of funding and other supporting resources and a challenge in dealing with state-imposed restrictions on mobility.

Background

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, we are learning more and more about the early impact of the pandemic on the broad third sector (Macmillan, 2020). In addition, several surveys (CSIP, 2020; Deitrick et al, 2020; Epic-Africa and African NGOs, 2020; KC et al, 2020; Grønbjerg et al, 2021) and country-specific case studies (Cai et al, 2021) document myriad impacts the pandemic has had on third sector organisations. This research note contributes to this growing body of evidence to document the impact of the pandemic on these organisations and the organisations’ response activities in the context of a developing country, Nepal.

Studies have outlined civil society’s crucial role in fighting against COVID-19 as a proliferating infectious disease, either by reinforcing government-led efforts or filling institutional voids left by the government in many countries. For example, civil society in Japan responded by delivering services, disseminating information and providing advocacy. In the same vein, South Korean civil society responded by giving charitable donations, delivering services and providing advocacy (Cai et al, 2021). Similar evidence was observed in India, where more than two thirds of not-for-profit organisations were engaged in relief work during the first wave of COVID-19. In addition to this, organisations were involved in distributing relief material and sanitation kits, generating awareness, community sensitisation and managing health screening camps and isolation facilities hand-in-hand with the government. They were also active in supporting stranded migrants and rehabilitating village communities (CSIP, 2020).

As of 25 May 2021, more than 166 million COVID-19 cases were confirmed worldwide, resulting in over 3.4 million deaths (WHO, 2021). Nepal alone has more than 530,000 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tested positive cases and over 6,700 deaths (MoHP, 2021). Although the government of Nepal continues to grapple with the public health and socioeconomic challenges posed by the pandemic, civil society engagement is essential in providing services during extreme events such as this.

Although NGOs are in the front line of crisis response, they often do not get recognition for their vital work in developing countries. Like any other organisation, NGOs are not exempt from the effects of the pandemic. Their mobility was stifled and their operations were significantly reduced with the onset of the virus and subsequent movement restrictions imposed by the government. During the first wave of the pandemic, 90% of Nepali NGOs reported either a halt in the services they provided or a significant reduction in the first month of the nationwide lockdown (KC et al, 2020). There is a dearth of studies stemming from developing countries documenting these organisations’ vital contributions during the pandemic and the adversities they face. Most of the existing studies are cross-sectional and often do not capture the longitudinal effects of the pandemic on NGOs. Hence, this research note aims to document the long-term impact of the pandemic on NGOs and their response activities. In doing so, the study attempts to tackle the following key research questions:

  • What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on NGOs?

  • How have NGOs responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

  • What has the funding landscape for local NGOs during the pandemic been like?

The research note is organised into three key sections. The next section provides an overview of the research methodology. This is followed by a presentation of the results. The final section consists of a discussion and the presentation of conclusions.

Methodology

This research note has the twofold objectives of exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the contribution of NGOs in the response to and recovery from the pandemic. Therefore, two cross-sectional surveys were conducted among these organisations, the first between 14 April and 1 May 2020, and the second between 1 December 2020 and 15 April 2021. Questions about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the NGOs were repeated in both surveys. A total of 482 NGOs participated in the two surveys.

The study used the database of NGOs that are affiliated with the Social Welfare Council, the database of members of the NGO federation in Nepal and the registration information of not-for-profit companies from the company registrar’s office. All three databases were merged, which resulted in 57,967 organisations, of which 96.9% were registered as NGOs and the rest (3.1%) were registered as not-for-profit companies. A simple random sampling technique was used in identifying the organisations to participate in the surveys.

Data collection instrument, administration and analysis

The survey instrument developed by the non-profit institute of the University of San Diego (Deitrick et al, 2020) was adopted, and more questions were added to understand the organisational context. The survey was translated to the Nepali language and the respondents were given the survey in both Nepalese and American English. Two independent researchers checked the accuracy of the translation. Finally, two organisations were asked to participate and provide feedback on the instrument before sending it to other participants. Table 1 summarises the types of questions in the two rounds of the surveys.

Table 1:

Summary of questions in the two rounds of the survey

QuestionsRound 1Round 2
Impact of COVID-19 on NGOs – five-point Likert scale53
Operational concerns of NGOs
 five-point Likert scale57
 open ended42
Response activities carried out by NGOs225
Emerging opportunities for NGOs1
Donor and NGO communications and relations4
Organisational demographics1419

An open-source suite for data collection, Kobo Toolbox, was used to deploy a web-based survey. Board members and executive directors of the organisations were invited through an email to participate in the survey. A follow-up email was sent and a reminder telephone call was made during the data collection period. In the first round of the study, 488 organisations were invited to participate, out of which 235 participated. The total response rate for the first survey was 48.2%. Twenty-seven entries with incomplete information were dropped from the analysis. In the second wave of the survey, 800 organisations were invited to participate, out of which 301 participatate, out of which only 274 were used for analysis. The response rate for the second survey was 37.6% (see Table 2). The higher response rate for the first survey was achieved due to the timely nature of the study and the availability of respondents online because of the lockdown imposed by the government. However, during the second survey, no lockdown measures were in place and the survey instrument was longer and more detailed.

Table 2:

Survey details

Survey roundSampling frameNumber of valid respondentsData collection modeResponse rateRespondent
Round 1 (14 April – 1 May 2020)Database of NGOs that are affiliated with the Social Welfare Council208Online survey48.2%Executive director or board member
Round 2 (1 December 2020 – 15 April 2021)Database of NGOs that are affiliated with the Social Welfare Council274Online survey37.6%Executive director or board member

Except for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on NGOs, this research note mainly presents the findings from the second survey. The survey findings are discussed and triangulated with secondary data wherever they are available.

Results

Impact of the pandemic on NGOs

The COVID-19 pandemic had a severe impact on the ability of NGOs to deliver their regular programmes and services. During the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, 87% of NGOs (n = 274) reported some form of reduction in their ability to provide them (see Figure 1). As the pandemic situation improved during the second phase of the study (2020–21), they reported a slight improvement in their ability to provide their services. However, 58% of NGOs still reported a decline in their ability to deliver regular programming (see Figure 1).

Bar graph showing the impact of COVID-19 on NGO's programme delivery in 2020-21 and 2021.
Figure 1:

Normal programme/service delivery of NGOs

Citation: Voluntary Sector Review 2022; 10.1332/204080521X16445716346083

Note: Author-generated chart.Source: Survey data

Of the organisations, 14% reported in the second survey that their programmes/services had come to a complete halt. This is an alarming finding. It suggests that approximately 1,400 NGOs had not provided their programmes and services for nearly a year. This indicates that these NGOs are at risk of being shut down. In addition, the findings hint that the effects of the pandemic on NGOs can have long-term impacts on their operation.

While no statistically significant difference was observed between advocacy-oriented organisations (n = 76) and service delivery organisations (n = 198), advocacy-oriented organisations still reported a slightly greater impact on their ability to deliver regular programmes and services (see Figure 2). Of the advocacy organisations, 52% reported either a moderate or severe reduction in their ability to provide their programmes/services compared with 42% of service-delivering organisations. Similarly, 44% of service delivery organisations reported a normal or greater ability to provide services, compared with 37% of advocacy organisations.

Bar graph showing the difference in impact of COVID-19 on advocacy- versus service-oriented organisations.
Figure 2:

Normal programme/service delivery of NGOs – advocacy- versus service-oriented organisations

Citation: Voluntary Sector Review 2022; 10.1332/204080521X16445716346083

Note: Author-generated chart.Source: Survey data

NGOs’ response to the pandemic

NGOs are providing essential humanitarian support to their constituencies. Several initiatives have been spurred in response to the pandemic across Nepal. The top three activities are: distributing sanitation kits, generating awareness and community sensitisation (see Figure 3). Similarly, NGOs have disseminated information about relief other related programmes to their beneficiaries. In addition, they have also provided psychological counselling to people in need.

Bar graph showing the percentage of NGOs involved in different COVID-19 response activities.
Figure 3:

Percentage of organisations involved in COVID-19 response activities

Citation: Voluntary Sector Review 2022; 10.1332/204080521X16445716346083

Note: Author-generated chart.Source: Survey data

The survey results indicate that Nepali NGOs made approximately US$30 million worth of cash/in-kind donations during the first wave of the pandemic. NGOs provided more than 156,000 sets of personal protective equipment (PPE), more than 76,000 testing kits and hygiene kits in the millions. Several NGOs also established and helped in managing isolation and holding centres and provided food and other subsistence materials to several needy communities. In addition, approximately 300,000 volunteers have contributed to the pandemic response and recovery. NGOs have prioritised excluded and vulnerable communities in their response activities. For example, eight out of ten NGOs reported serving people from marginalised Dalit communities. Similarly, six out of ten NGOs provided support to indigenous people.

Funding for NGOs

More than half of the NGOs reported not getting any financial assistance during the pandemic despite their significant contributions. Only 41.5% of the responding organisations indicated they received funding during the pandemic. The traditional top funders of NGOs continue to remain the primary funders of NGOs. As shown in Table 3, 67.9% of the funded organisations received funding from international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), followed by 33.3% from the government and 24.7% from membership fees. Private sector funding continues to be limited for NGOs in Nepal. The share of funding from private organisations increased by 5% during the pandemic. However, in totality, the private sector’s contribution to NGOs remains relatively low (see Table 3). The growing expectation among local governments and the public for NGOs to actively partake in the response to and recovery from the pandemic and a lack of sufficient funding are likely to put pressure on NGOs.

Table 3:

Source of funding for NGOs during the fiscal year 2019/20 and the pandemic

Funding sourcesFiscal year 2019/20 (%)*Nepal (%)*Africa (%)EECA(%)
INGO54.067.923.134.0
Central/provincial/local government50.433.311.915.0
Membership fee47.824.7
Private/individual donation24.522.241.812.0
Bilateral donor12.821.012.6
Multilateral donor8.819.812.6
Local NGO10.914.820.418.0
Private organisation7.712.325.918.0
Other9.18.619.4

Source: * Survey data. Data for Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) and Africa are from AFEW International (2020) and Epic-Africa and AfricanNGOs (2020) respectively

Funding was one of the major concerns of NGOs in the study (see Figure 4). More than half expressed their grave concerns on several issues related to it. There were concerns that their organisations would lose existing funding and also anxiety over the decline in donations. Similarly, NGOs also expressed concerns about potential delays in processing their grants. These issues may stem from the fact that several projects needed an extension to the deadline to complete the project activities. Several organisations expressed concerns about not completing designated activities due to restrictions on mobility. NGOs consistently requested more flexibility from donors in terms of implementing existing projects.

Bar graph showing the percentage of organizations concerned over funding and donations.
Figure 4:

NGOs’ concerns over funding and donations

Citation: Voluntary Sector Review 2022; 10.1332/204080521X16445716346083

Note: Author-generated chart.Source: Survey data

Discussion and conclusion

The pandemic has introduced a three-fold challenge to the civic space in Nepal. First, 14% of existing NGOs are at risk of shutting their doors permanently due to the pandemic. This is because by the second survey they had not delivered their programmes and services for almost a year, since the start of the pandemic. Second, there has been a steep decline in the registration of new NGOs in the past two years. The registration of new NGOs declined by 52% in 2021 and 47% in 2020 compared with 2019 (see Figure 5) (Social Welfare Council, 2021a). This should concern government, citizens and donors. Democracy and democratic ideals can only be strengthened in the presence of a strong and vibrant civil society.

Line graph showing the annual new NGO registrations between 2015 and 2021.
Figure 5:

Rate of new NGO registrations

Citation: Voluntary Sector Review 2022; 10.1332/204080521X16445716346083

Note: Author-generated chart.Source: Social Welfare Council (2021a)

Similar studies conducted elsewhere have demonstrated the magnitude of the impact on NGOs, particularly on their ability to provide services and meet the needs of their communities and the operational challenge NGOs and other civil society actors face. For instance, more than half of survey participants in one study in Africa reported the likelihood of seizing their operations during the pandemic (Epic-Africa and AfricanNGOs, 2020). Similar evidence is available for civil society organisations from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where 40% of respondents expressed their inability to provide services to their beneficiaries (AFEW International, 2020). While these studies show the reality of the situation faced by NGOs and civil society organisations, they are short in providing details on the pattern of the formation of new civil society actors such as NGOs.

NGOs serve as service providers in addition to being watchdogs and defenders of democratic ideals. They have presented themselves as crucial actors in containing the proliferation of infectious disease either by reinforcing government-led efforts or by filling institutional voids left by the government. Despite the vital role they play, they are grappling with several concerns. Several NGO leaders and volunteers have contracted the virus and have lost their lives on the front line. The psychological fear created by losing a colleague, the possibility of not covering their operating expenses and the fear of laying off employees do not help NGOs during these difficult times.

Official government statistics support the present study’s findings when it comes to funding. Out of all the foreign-funded projects approved in the fiscal year 2019/20, only 10% of them were targeted for COVID-19 assistance, which amounted to only 1.3% of the total funding. There was a slight improvement in the fiscal year 2020/21, where 22.5% of the approved projects were for COVID-19 which amounted to only 5.1% of the entire funding for approved projects (Social Welfare Council, 2021b). Relatively higher numbers of projects and a smaller share in funding indicate somewhat smaller-sized and fragmented projects for COVID-19 assistance. Such projects are essential for the immediate response to the pandemic. However, long-term recovery will require more significant investment and a boost in the size of projects from international development partners.

In terms of the funding environment, the survey results indicate that 14% more NGOs reported receiving funding from INGOs during the pandemic than in the fiscal year 2019/20. However, at the same time, 17% fewer NGOs received funding from the government during the pandemic than in the previous year’s budget. While there was a positive outlook towards donors when it came to adjustments of grants and awarding new response-related activities, NGOs felt that donors had not demonstrated sufficient commitment to their institutional growth and support. Only two out of ten organisations felt that their donors showed any commitment to helping them strengthen their capacity to raise funds. The growing expectation among local governments and the public for NGOs to actively partake in the response to and recovery from the pandemic and a lack of sufficient funding are likely to put pressure on NGOs. Hence, local governments and donors must critically consider providing additional resources to NGOs.

The evidence from elsewhere also suggests similar pressure on NGOs regarding funding. Only 23% of responding NGOs in Africa indicated receiving financial support from INGOs. Similarly, 34% of NGOs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia received such funding. The share of individual and private donations to support NGOs was much greater in Africa compared with Eastern Europe and Central Asia and Nepal (see Table 3) (AFEW International, 2020; Epic-Africa and AfricanNGOs, 2020).

In addition, only half of the responding organisations had a website and only a third used messaging applications (AFEW International, 2020; Epic-Africa and AfricanNGOs, 2020). These numbers are a testament to several NGOs’ reality and the inherent challenge they face in terms of digitisation and taking their work online. Furthermore, only 10% of the responding organisations felt that their donor demonstrated any commitment to strengthening their digital capacity and infrastructure. A vibrant civil society cannot be envisioned without institutional capacity development and continuous organisational growth and development support. Hence, the donor community has a responsibility to focus on the digital transformation of NGOs.

Amidst the chaos, institutions supporting NGOs should make flexible assistance a priority. This call has been echoed by several other studies and voices from the field (AFEW International, 2020; CSIP, 2020; Epic-Africa and AfricanNGOs, 2020; Hasanah, 2020). The time ahead is probably the best time for aid providers to walk their talk. Aid-making institutions have talked about flexible funding for local civic groups for a long time. However, only a tiny group of funders have held to their promises. The time to overcome old habits requiring projectised assistance, cumbersome administrative requirements and limited timeframes is now. Aid providers should take on board the depth of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, listen to grantee partners and, together, explore how they can best help NGOs face the crisis, trusting they know best what is needed in their contexts.

Another critical priority is to help civic groups connect effectively to government pandemic responses when needed and possible – or at least not be actively attacked and harassed by government actors. As they negotiate new assistance packages relating to the pandemic, funders are responsible for pushing governments to incorporate civic actors as implementing partners. Similarly, public and private sector actors can create bridges for civil society to connect to larger pandemic-related support packages. Finally, NGOs can actively monitor these new assistance packages throughout the procurement and implementation processes.

NGOs should identify their primary risks due to mobility restrictions, their reserves and the impact on programme participants and staff from missed work or reduced funding. Then they should communicate transparently and honestly about the expected effects on their stakeholders and organisation. In addition, they should speak openly with their employees about their needs during this time and create a supportive culture. Also, NGOs should coordinate with the broader community, including other NGOs, funders, staff and local government, to understand how to support each other through this period of turmoil. Finally, NGOs are encouraged to keep their long-term mission at the forefront of decision making.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the editors and reviewers of Voluntary Sector Review for their helpful remarks. The author is also thankful to the NGO Federation of Nepal and to Bijay Bhandari for his support in data collection.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest

References

  • 1 Thammasat University, , Thailand

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