Donor agencies have reiterated their stance that suspending aid is the only way to ensure security of their project staff. Most importantly, they want to get the message across to both the Maoist rebels and the state authorities that they are serious about implementing commitments set out in the Basic Operating Guidelines (BOGs).
On 15 May, a team of influential aid organisations led by the German Development Agency (GTZ), the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) and the Dutch Cooperation Agency (SNV) decided to suspend their food for work project, Rural Community Infrastructure Works (RCIW) in Kalikot district, after two staff working with their local partner organisation were abducted and severely beaten up by low-ranking cadres of the Maoist rebels.
The suspension of one of Nepal's most effective and laudable projects from a food-deficit district like Kalikot, 400 km north-west of the capital, has provoked severe criticism from both the national NGOs and the local community. But the donor agencies say that every development organisation should consider protection of their staff in a conflict area as their prime concern.
The Maoist brutality especially against a young female worker Debkala Acharya from the Himalayan Community Development Resource Centre, a local NGO, was clearly a human rights violation, aid representatives maintain. Acharya was beaten up so severely by Maoists, allegedly demanding money, that she had to be hospitalised for a week. Even her two brothers were abducted and severely intimidated until they agreed to pay up as the Maoists demanded.
"It was clearly a horrific incident. We were all deeply shocked by what happened," Mark Mallalieu, chief of the Nepal office of DFID, told IRIN. Mallalieu justified that the aid agencies had little choice in the matter but to suspend the project.
"We have always made it clear that we will not attempt to run development programs in situations where staff are being subject to violence or at risk of death," the DFID official said.
This was not the first time that RCIW project staff had been attacked. In November 2003, a female worker Durga Rana of RCIW's local partner organisation, Everest Club, was shot dead by the rebels in Dailekh. This led to temporary suspension of the RCIW.
Despite declarations by Maoist leaders that aid projects and staff would not be harmed as long as they didn't carry any political bias, the Maoists have not been able to live up to their promises.
Now there is a certain level of fear among the development community as to whether the Maoist leaders are able to control their junior cadres, especially the more militant members, in order to allow the smooth functioning of development activities.
The suspension this time may take longer than in the previous incidents. The aid agencies now want the government and the Maoist leadership to issue publicly a formal and explicit endorsement of the BOGs.
"This suspension will continue until we have a firm commitment that such incidents will not repeat and that our principles will be respected," WFP representative in Nepal, Erika Joergensen, told IRIN.
Joergensen explained that the suspension could lead to some hardship among poor communities depending on their local project but the measure always proved to be effective in the end. In the WFP's experience, the local community will eventually understand why this drastic step was necessary.
"WFP has initiated suspension in at least five cases where rice was looted. In each case, we have set our criteria based on BOGs and the recipients of our assistance got involved and we could lift the suspensions," the WFP official said. "This gave [rise to] discussions and a higher understanding on why we are setting these benchmarks," she added.
Agencies like DFID and WFP are working in Nepal's most remote areas and do not expect to encounter too many difficulties with the rebels, especially for their poverty-alleviation projects. The Maoist leadership, which has already alienated itself from the general population because of the escalating violence and killings, does not want to jeopardise relationships any further. This is particularly the case with the poorest communities where the Maoists don't wish to be seen as responsible for the suspension of development programmes that benefit local people, aid workers maintain.
"I think the BOGs give a clear guideline of the level of risk one can take and we are taking all the risks we feel we can. We had our vehicles hijacked, rice looted and people threatened. These types of incidents tell us that we do have BOGs and we insist that all parties respect them," explained Joergensen.
RCIW has so far remained highly transparent in both financial dealings and programme activities, which are the main reasons why the Maoist leaders have welcomed and even cooperated with organisations working with such model projects.
"We make it clear that we won't tolerate any corruption on anyone's part including our own staff. And it has proved remarkably effective as we have been able to continue working and supporting people throughout the country," Mallalieu noted.
Meanwhile, there is continuing uncertainty as to when RCIW will resume. All the donors are asking for is a public apology from the Maoists but so far there has been little hint of the leadership taking the incident seriously.
"We always make it clear that all development partners are only interested in reducing poverty, social exclusion and discrimination that exists. We want to operate in a way that is transparent to everybody so that the beneficiary communities and anybody involved in the conflict knows exactly what and why we are doing it," Mallalieu said.