The decision to allow Chinese NGOs to operate in Nepal, at a time the government has otherwise adopted a hard line against INGOs, is yet another indication that the ruling left coalition wants to minimize the role of the West and maximize the role of two big neighbors. It increasingly appears that Prime Minister KP Oli has decided that both his interest and that of his country lies in enhancing neighborly ties and developing Nepal as a ‘vibrant economic bridge’ between India and China. Since PM Oli has taken both India and China into confidence, the ‘scheming Westerners’ are needed no more. Neither India nor China wants to see the Americans and Europeans meddle in their backyard. It is no secret that over the years the two neighbors have repeatedly asked the government of Nepal to tighten the noose around Western countries and agencies. It was under their pressure that the government first bid farewell to the UNMIN in 2011 (which was set up in 2007 to supervise Maoist arms and army) and then to its successor, the Department of Political Affairs, this year.
Then came the National Integrity Policy, whose main aim was to circumscribe the role of INGOs and make things difficult for undocumented foreigners (read: Westerners) in Nepal. This was not just to keep India and China happy. Successive Nepali governments have been uncomfortable with the role of many INGOs they suspected of being active in proselytization and of thereby trying to fundamentally change the Nepali society. Repeated news stories that spoke of up to 90 percent funds of these INGOs being repatriated to the countries of their origin only added to public skepticism.
PM Oli has clearly tried to cash in on the recent thaw between India and China, and perhaps really does believe that they can now together contribute to Nepal’s growth and development. And if western NGOs can work in Nepal, why can’t Chinese or Indian NGOs? But whatever his broader goal, the strategy of admitting Chinese NGOs into ‘soft areas’ like livelihood and community development while also simultaneously pushing out their western counterparts from these areas is not without its risks. The Chinese NGOs are virtual appendages of the Chinese government, much more so than the Western NGOs work for the interests of their countries of origin.
Thus, in a way, the government is making the country ripe for active Chinese interference that Nepal has been lucky to escape thus far. Should India-China relations sour again, or should there be another blockade, Nepal will also have fewer friends abroad speaking on its behalf.