Rita Thapa

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1998
This description of Rita Thapa's work was prepared when Rita Thapa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.


Rita Thapa is breaking new ground in the field of philanthropy in Nepal by encouraging the mobilization of local resources in the country. Her organization, Tewa, aims to increase the self-reliance of Nepalis, particularly rural women, and ultimately reduce dependency on foreign donors.

The New Idea

Through her organization, Tewa (meaning "support" in Nepali), Rita Thapa is pioneering the idea of local, social philanthropy in Nepal. In a country where the presence of foreign and multilateral donors has created a culture of dependency amongst many development organizations, this concept is path-breaking. Rita sees Tewa as a model for development work and philanthropy in the country. Fundraising is carried out by approaching local sources, rather than foreign, which is the first way that the organization promotes a sense of ownership amongst Nepalis for the development initiatives that are being funded. Tewa itself then awards grants, as opposed to loans, emphasizing primarily the commonly overlooked sector of women in rural areas of the country, as the next step in building stronger communities and empowering local people. Eventually, these same grant recipients become Tewa donors, thus bringing the process full-circle.

The Problem

By virtue of its geostrategic location between two of the developing world's superpowers and its rugged attractive mountainous areas that attract increasing numbers of western tourists, development in Nepal is overwhelmingly influenced by the agendas of foreign donors, whether they be governmental or non-governmental. In the valley where Kathmandu is located there are more than fifteen thousand registered local NGOs. Most of the developed world's countries maintain active aid programs in Nepal. Partly because of the narrow base of higher education, the Nepali economy has not diversified as rapidly as its neighbors. One result of this is that, to be successful, leading local NGOs behave like lobbyists, honing their skills on the foreign donor cocktail circuit to get them informal access to people who have grant-making decision authority. They adapt to and adopt the shifting agendas of foreign donors to ensure a continuing source of funding to their organizations.
As local Kathmandu elites become increasingly caught up in the web of donor agendas they lose touch with the needs of people in the rural areas, where 80% of Nepalis live. One symptom of this estrangement: the recent re-occurrence of local guerrillas/gangs intent on discouraging outside influence and expanding their control over portions of the rural countryside.

The Strategy

Rita has established a vision for Tewa to be an alternative model for both philanthropy and general development work in the country. The two main elements of Tewa's work are fundraising and grant-making. There is also a heavy emphasis placed on transparency within the organization to ensure its sustainability. On the fundraising side, Rita is tapping into a network of personal and professional contacts cultivated over nearly twenty years of working in the development field. In 1996, Tewa's first year alone, Rita and her team were able to raise over 650,000 Nep.Rps. (approximately US$ 11,500); in 1997, they were able to raise nearly three times that amount for a total of 1,700,000 Nep.Rps. The bulk of these donations came from Nepali corporate sources, and 80% were repeat donors from the previous year. Rita is establishing an endowment from these initial successes to ensure Tewa's long-term ability to award grants. She is also trying to encourage donations over longer periods of time so as to cultivate relationships with contributors and allow them to see that their investments are not only morally correct but economically beneficial to the country. Rita intends to build a comprehensive network of domestic philanthropists so that eventually the development agenda of the country will not be established by foreign donors and will be much more sensitive to a broad range of women's development issues.
On the grant-making side, Tewa is targeting rural women's groups that are usually so small that they are not even considered by foreign donors. They are identified through Tewa's network of nongovernmental organizations that work directly in rural areas. Although Tewa requires no collateral, it does only grant funds to groups of women, rather than individuals, and requires that they be officially registered with the government. The idea is simply to draw women together across lines of caste, class, ethnicity and age and provide them with the means by which they can tackle common problems and become self-sufficient. At the same time, this creates a type of social accountability, which goes a long way to ensuring that the grants are being used as intended. The grants range from 10,000 Nep.Rps. to 50,000 Nep.Rps. and can be used for purposes as diverse as setting up income-generating schemes, providing legal literacy assistance, setting up office space or simply purchasing common goods for the community to improve the quality of life.
Transparency is one of the most critical attributes of Tewa's management. For example, funds are awarded quite consciously in the form of grants rather than loans because the latter are so much more difficult to monitor. In addition, since Tewa is above all an organization engaged in philanthropic work to promote independence, it does not want to create its own class of dependents, specifically women, who are then indebted to it and forced to repay their loans. Instead, it hopes to promote a culture of citizens' awareness that such endeavors are worth pursuing and that everyone has a stake in seeing them succeed. In this way, Tewa encourages its grant recipients to eventually become contributors to the organization from which they benefited.

The Person

Rita was born in Kathmandu on January 18, 1952, into a very traditional and conservative family. Since her father was in the military, the family traveled a great deal, and Rita was able to see a Nepal that was completely outside of her usual milieu; it was a perspective that took hold of her even as a child. In keeping with tradition, Rita was forced to marry at the age of eighteen, and were it not for her tenacity and commitment to finishing her Bachelor's degree, would have had to forsake her higher education altogether. Her education and her desire to work for the improvement of society created such conflict that she eventually broke ties with her family in order to be able to carry on her work. Rita then proceeded to get involved with several women's groups and found her own organizations. She launched one of the first department stores in Nepal and founded a women's group that evolved into a network of development organizations. Over the years she has experienced both sides of the donor world in having sought funds for organizations with which she has been involved and in having worked for organizations such as Oxfam, UNIFEM, UNDP, GTZ and the Canadian Cooperation Office. In 1995, Rita spoke on a panel at the NGO Forum in Beijing entitled "Funding our Future," and it was during the preparation for that engagement that she began to understand the development challenges facing her country. She declined a scholarship to study in New Zealand and left her job at UNIFEM in order to devote herself full time, and on a voluntary basis, to developing Tewa and its goals on a much broader scale.