Traditions of Volunteerism & Civic Service in Nepal

Features Issue 85 Jul, 2010
Text by Bhuvan Silwal & Don Messerschmidt / Photo: Bhuvan Silwal

There’s a story that every Nepali school child knows,which teaches the virtues of charity, service and volunteerism. It describes a village grass cutter, materially poor but rich in spirit, who dug out a spring for anyone to use who needed a drink. That simple act of charity to his community created a monu­mental legacy for all.

The story has been immortalized in what is probably the best known short poem in the Nepali language: Ghãsi Kuwa (‘The Grass Cutter’) by Bhanubhakta, Nepal’s 19th Century ‘Pioneer Poet’.

In English translation, ‘The Grass Cutter’ begins:
Devoting his life to cutting grass,
he earned some money,
and, wishing to be remembered, dug a well.
The grass cutter is so poor, but what spirit!
And I, Bhanubhakta, have done nothing with my good fortune.
Of wells, inns or resthouses I have made none. All my wealth lies at home.
And from this grass cutter, what do we learn?
That it’s a shame to sit idle doing
no good deed...

Doing volunteer work is not new to Nepal, though it tends to drop out of the news in the face of everything else that is going on. Nonetheless, volunteering, or ‘civic service’, is built upon strong cultural and historical traditions. Digging a spring or well (kuwa, inar), constructing a fountain or waterspout (pani dharo), building and maintaining a shady trailside resting place (chautaro) or a resthouse (pati or pauwa), or contributing free labor (shrama­dan) to public works, are all traditional acts of volunteer­ism, good neighborliness, public service and charity. Many Nepalese aspire to perform some such service in their lifetime.

At the root of volunteerism in Nepal are the notions of ‘duty’ (dharma) and ‘service’ (sewa) that, together, promote a dharma-based ‘good society’ where the weak and the powerless are served by those living in better circumstances. Performing some voluntary good deed or service to society is easily interpreted as one’s moral duty.

Famous individuals in community service
Over the past century, a number of prominent Nepalese individuals have gained notoriety by performing selfless service to others. They include the late Om Prasad Gauchan of Baglung District and Ram Swarup and Ram Sagar Shah of the eastern Terai, each of whom invested much of their lives to educating others. Likewise, the late Phalgun Lingden was considered a remarkable social reformer in the eastern hills. In Kathmandu valley, the names of Tulsi Mehar Shrestha, Daya Bir Singh Kansakar and Khagendra B. Basnet stand out, each well known for a lifetime of service to others, especially in the fields of health and well-being.

These role models of their time are too easily forgotten today. But they did not toil in vain nor do they stand alone. Today, for example, we can look to the examples of such selfless men and women as Sewai Lal Chaudhari of Sunsari District, who has spent much of his life planting trees on marginal land; Mrs Sita Pokharel, who has been feeding the elderly and orphans for the past few decades; and S.S. Rauniar, a homeopathic doctor who has worked hard to feed the street orphans of Kathmandu and help socialize them back into society. Dr Rauniar has also been successful in generating scholarship funds for poor students from the hills. These are just a few of the many unselfish volunteers of every caste and ethnic group working quietly and without fanfare in villages and towns all across Nepal.

Mutual aid societies
Besides exemplary individuals, there are also some unique community-based systems of mutual aid designed to assist others to get ahead in life. They include the traditional dhikur or dhikuti among the Thakalis, a rotating credit association that even the poorest person can join to gain access to investment capital. It works on a rotational basis with all members contributing a specified amount to the pool, then each member in turn taking the lump sum with which to make some profitable investment or pay for a family need. When the member pays it back (within six months or a year, for example), a small amount of interest is added. Thus the pool grows incrementally each time, so that whoever waits the longest is compensated for his patience by receiving the largest sum. The entire operation is run on mutual trust and with great communal pride.

There are many other traditional self-help systems. They include movements that arise at times of disaster or epidemic; the donation of free labor and labor exchanges (parma or nogar); charities and philan­thro­pies (sadar­varta, guthi); temple man­age­ment groups (also called guthi); forest user groups (ban samiti) and other community resource management schemes; along with mother’s groups (ama samuha) and youth clubs (yuva samuha) that take on local community service projects.

Modern service movements and programs
A more modern version of community service has recently been introduced to Nepal by the international association of Non-Residence Nepalese (NRNs) which, taking a cue from past tradition, has constructed a special shelter for elderly people at the sacred site of Devghat, in Chitwan District. Foreign individuals and organizations have also joined in pursuing civic service in Nepal. Sir Edmund Hillary, for example, returned many times to Nepal after climbing Mt Everest/Sagarmatha to build schools and health centers and promote resource management programs in the Sherpa villages of the Solu-Khumbu region. On a larger scale, international volunteers with such organizations as JOCV (Japanese Overseas Volunteer Cooperation) and the American Peace Corps have, over the years, engaged in some very successful community service programs. (One of these days, we hope to see the Peace Corps back in Nepal.) There are also a large number of non-governmental local and international volunteer programs in Nepal (by ‘googling’ the Internet we came up with dozens).

The UN Volunteers program, under auspices of the UNDP, has also been busy in Nepal. In the 1980s, for example, UNV implemented several projects with international volunteers, and it has also recruited a number of volunteer-minded Nepalese to work on international assignments elsewhere. In the past decade, Nepal has become one of the tenth largest sources of UN Volunteers worldwide.

In Nepal’s contemporary rural development context, a number of government departments and development agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also established popular and successful community service oriented programs. One of the most well known is in micro-credit that provides access by the very poor, especially women, to savings and credit resources. The first micro-credit program was established (and is still running) by UNICEF. Many such programs are paired with literacy training. The success of all these systems is demonstrated by extremely high (usually 100%) rates of repayment on the loans. There are some great stories of success of women’s credit programs changing the lives of the poor in significant ways. Some poor women are bringing new income to their families by opening tea shops or raising and selling livestock, for example, after receiving small loans from local women’s empowerment groups. And whole communities of otherwise disenfranchised Dalits and other poor people have successfully improved their lives through participation in these sorts of civic service programs.

A belief behind all such programs, underlying both individual volunteerism and community-based civic service, is summed up in a well known Nepali saying: ‘Helping others is virtue, while giving others trouble is sin’ (‘Paropakar punnaya ra parapidaya papam’).

Of course, not all civic action is constructive or selfless or service-oriented. We have all seen what groups of disenchanted people can do in a society and to the infrastructure by protesting, often destructively, in the streets, in front of government offices, or on school campuses. We dislike the atrocities perpetrated under various high-sounding slogans, including ‘progress’ and ‘change’. Most of us would rather see socially beneficial and constructive protests, if and when needed, that demonstrate the power and the tools of peaceful nonviolence, following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, for example.

Nepal’s National Development Service
The Nepal government has not shirked from bringing social progress through civic service and community action although, certainly, a great deal more can be done. During the 1970s, for example, national education authorities implemented a form of national peace corps called the ‘National Development Service’ (NDS) or Rastriya Bikas Sewa. Under the NDS  every university masters student was expected to spend a year as a ‘volunteer’, teaching, doing social service and learning about life and local conditions in the nation’s rural villages. Between 1974 and 1979 (before it was closed for political reasons), nearly 3,000 NDS students spent a year (or more) in a total of 1,735 villages (some very remote) in 72 of Nepal’s 75 districts.

The NDS program is a remarkable example of a type of volunteerism and civic service focused on bringing educated and largely urban youth into the country’s rural hinterland. The objectives of the program were noteworthy: to make education broader in outlook and more practical and attuned to national development needs, to encourage students to assist in rural development activities, and to give them the opportunity to interact with rural people and become involved in practical development experiences. The program began with a two months orientation, followed by 10 months residence in a rural community. Many opted to serve longer. While there, each student was assigned to prepare a village profile, teach in the local school, engage in special projects benefiting the local people, and write a final report. For some, it was a life-changing experience.

Many of today’s influential people working in national development were NDS volunteers in their youth. And, Nepal’s successful program became a model for other countries. One early NDS volunteer has observed that the NDS “was a great program, with the students making such rapid changes in the villages! It brought important political, social and economic exchange and awareness…” And, an international aid worker recently noted that the “NDS was perhaps the best thing that Nepal ever did for rural development… If you ever meet people working in rural development in Nepal who seem to stand out from the pack, just ask them if they were in the NDS. Chances are that they were, and remember it as transformational in their lives…” These statements indicate how important the 1970s NDS program was and how, in retrospect, it is still considered to have been instrumental in transforming the lives of the volunteers as well as many of the communities in which they worked.

The NDS program was highly respected, and many educators and students have worked hard over the years since to see it re-established. In 1983, for example, a new scaled down version was inaugurated. Because it put students into the villages for only one month, the true spirit of service was never fully realized. It was viewed as a mere “formality”, “nominal and symbolic”, as some students and administrators were heard to say, and it died a quiet death.

Following the People’s Movement of 1990, a strong national civic service spirit began to arise in Nepal, largely through the work of local and international NGOs, along with some liberalization within government. In 1998, amidst Nepal’s phenomenal new civil society movement, the National Planning Commission set out to revive the NDS once again. A new ‘National

Development Volunteer Service’ (NDVS) was formally inaugurated in April 2000, in time to join in celebration of the International Year of Volunteers 2001. By this time Nepal’s political climate was in some respects more favorable, more progressive, and the objectives of the new student volunteer were more broadly conceived than before.

The first NDVS volunteers were fielded in a pilot program in 1998. Since then hundreds of dedicated volunteers have been mobilized and posted widely across the mountain, hill and lowland districts of Nepal. Unlike the NDS, however, the new NDVS volunteers are not students, but are mostly new graduates armed with techni­cal skills in agriculture, engineering, solar energy, health sciences, and water management and the like, along with a few from liberal arts, manage­ment and planning. The emphasis on technical expertise marks one of the basic differences between the new NDVS and the old NDS, which was more of a rural teacher corps.

The nation is now entering a phase, the “new Nepal”, in which it is hoped that a new democratic and socially inclusive political system will emerge. Perhaps this is a good time to revisit the spirit of volunteerism and civic service that flourished in the past and
apply it to the future. Volunteering and civic service to one’s community brings out the best in everybody.

Bhuvan Silwal has worked in the field of local governance, social work and development with UN agencies in Nepal and abroad. He frequently volunteers to do social work and research in the field of civil society organizations, and works as a free-lance consultant. He can be contacted at

Don Messerschmidt, the Associate Editor of ECS magazine, first came to Nepal as an American Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s. He can be contacted at

Silwal and Messerschmidt, with their colleague Gautam Yadama, have recently published ‘History and significance of NDS (National Development Service): Creating ‘civic space’ and commitment to service in Nepal during the 1970s’, in Occasional Papers in Sociology and Anthropology, v.10 (2007), from the Central Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tribhuvan University, Nepal.