Sustainable localization – local policy advocacy and the road to country ownership

According to the most recent edition of the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Person’s (TIP) report, Nepal continues to be a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Although Nepal continues to make forward progress to eliminate trafficking, much remains to be done.  Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission estimated earlier this year that as many as 1.5 million Nepalis are at risk of trafficking. It also estimated that 35,000 Nepali citizens – 15,000 women, an equal number of men, and 5,000 children – were trafficked in 2018.

The situation in Nepal illustrates some of the challenges in the journey to self-reliance. I saw firsthand the enormity of the task of ending human trafficking when I recently traveled with a group of Plan International USA staff, board members, and donors to Nepalgunj, the location of one of 14 checkpoints in the 1,100 mile-long open border between Nepal and India.

The checkpoint in Nepalgunj is, as one might expect of any large border crossing point, very busy. There is constant movement, a seemingly nonstop, slow-moving parade of tuk-tuks, donkey-drawn wagons, cars, and large commercial trucks all moving back and forth between the two countries, swerving to avoid hitting wandering cows, dogs, and people on foot.

Imagine in this context the huge challenge facing the two women responsible for running an information booth about one kilometer from the crossing. These women were placed there to provide counseling and raise awareness about trafficking, but they go above and beyond. They really see their role as trying to detect a potential trafficking situation and break it up. What are they looking for? Anything and everything – an argument, new faces, “odd behavior.” The most common situation, as they describe it, is of girls or boys being lured by the promise of a job in India or overseas.

What happens to those who are rescued? When the counselors in the information booth are able to intercede they provide a referral to the shelter, which we visited next. The shelter provides counseling to both the victim and their families as the reintegration and reunification of the trafficked child with the family is not always straightforward (not every family is keen to get the girl back and may have, at times, been the instigator of the trafficking). In the past, the shelter also provided skills training. This is probably one of the more effective aspects of the services provided; all too often trafficking is driven by poverty and desperation. We were told of several success stories of women and girls who had acquired beautician or basic accounting skills that provided them with the prospect of a job. On average the girls stay in the shelter for six months. Some are as young as 14 and others are women in their 40s.

The information booth and shelter are run by a local NGO called Saathi. Plan and Saathi have been working together on anti-child trafficking for 15 years. While Plan’s direct support has now stopped, Plan initiates every activity with a sustainable exit plan in mind. It is simply not viable nor advisable to continue supporting each and every information booth or shelter as this should be the job of the country to support.

It was always our intent to exit from direct support to Saathi in Nepalgunj. The exit strategy? To get the Government of Nepal to allocate budget for these types of activities and for the needed support to now come from public funds. And we did it! Plan’s advocacy efforts helped secure a government budget allocation for the information booth and the shelter activities, this allowing us to end direct support. This is what we want to see happen everywhere we work: government authorities taking ownership of child protection and prevention of trafficking by allocating sufficient budget to continue to support these activities well after Plan’s assistance stops.

All good, right? Not quite. Nepal’s move to a federal system of government in 2015 has given municipalities control of their budgets. This type of decentralization is good; it potentially moves the government closer to its citizens and (assuming robust citizen participation and strong civil society) increases accountability. It also complicates the budget appropriations and allocations processes. Somehow, we were told, budget was never allocated to these specific border child protection activities. The budget is still being sorted out. Everyone agrees these activities are necessary; no one can agree on who is responsible for the funding.  The local NGO service providers are caught in the middle. In the meantime, Saathi has received some support through a USAID grantee. They will continue to provide at least basic counseling and shelter services in the months ahead.

Plan, like other INGOs and donors, does not believe it is healthy to be in the business of funding and delivering services that are really for local governments to fund and provide. We believe we have more impact and add more value if we focus on policy advocacy – on just the type of policy win we saw in Nepalgunj. But policy advocacy is complex and requires much more than getting on our soap boxes. Getting a law or a budget approved, or new budget allocations passed, is only the beginning.

In the meantime, when essential child protection services are not being delivered, when Plan has already exited, what are we to do? Tell the communities with which we partner to be patient and that things will eventually be resolved?  That is unsatisfactory.

These questions do not have easy answers. But we need to be asking them. We want to create resilience and not encourage dependency. However, our transitions out of service delivery cannot leave communities without services.

As our industry continues on the journey to self-reliance and as global INGO strive increase our effectiveness, we must not lose sight of the needs of the communities, women, men, boys, and girls we are ultimately here to serve.

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