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Thursday, February 15, 2024

NGOs: Difficult relationship with Pakistani state and society?

Why International NGO's have ended up developing a tense and difficult relationship with the Govt of Pakistan; why even general public has developed such a negative view of NGOs that the word "NGO" has become almost a cuss word? What went wrong and how both sides can work together to fix this. Brilliant analysis by a young Pakistani analyst.

There has been increased skepticism about the motives and operations of NGOs as they have, over time, moved away from the apolitical civil society and gained political influence. In a world where power has, generally, disseminated from the center towards an array of stakeholders and institutions that form a ‘state’, the space in which NGOs exist is considered the third sector due to its influence.

The increased influence is seen as a threat in many third world countries that strive to protect their sovereignty from political intrusion, Pakistan is no stranger to this.

Apart from the perceptions of the common people, the term ‘NGO’ is commonly used by the government, donors, and the NGO community to describe the nonprofit and volunteer sector in Pakistan as a whole.

What are NGO’s? 

A document produced by the Ministry of Planning and Development, Government of Pakistan states that “the most striking feature of NGOs is their ‘voluntary grouping’ on the basis of freedom of association as contrasted with the ‘involuntary grouping’ of families, kin, castes, races, classes, government, and military organizations on the basis of cultural demands, administrative urgencies, and defense requirements.” The characteristics of an NGO described in this definition, by and large, coincide with some of the criteria of the structural and operational definition, i.e., organized, voluntary, and private.

Read more: European NGO uncovers India’s Anti Pakistan Propaganda: 265 websites working against Pakistan, study reveals

While the government is supportive at the policy level, it is obstructionist at the operational level of line departments in federal, provincial, and local governments, who see nongovernmental organizations as competitive with respect to funds and influence. Enhancing the role of the latter is seen as cutting into the functions and responsibility of the former.

Secondly, the government is generally supportive of the welfare and service providing role of the nonprofit sector, but openly hostile with regard to the role of nonprofit organizations in social and political advocacy.

Why Govt of Pakistan is threatened by International NGO’s? 

However, the government seems increasingly threatened by nonprofit organizations’ role in mobilizing the support of civil society on issues such as violence against women, honor killings, blasphemy law, freedom of the press, accountability, and corruption. The resulting hostility has been reflected in attempts to penetrate various nonprofit organizations and, in extreme cases, in attempts to close them through deregistration.

This fearful outlook towards the non-profit sector hinders the process of defining a clear legal status for NGOs and helps understand why provisions of an NGO bill include aspects such as requiring all NGOs to re-register with the Ministry of Social Welfare within a specified period; arbitrary powers to government to de-register, suspend, dissolve an NGO, or to remove any provisions of the constitution of NGO; and compulsory external audits, as they grant a degree of control over these organizations to the government.

This has led to the expulsion of several INGOs in recent years on the basis of having ‘anti-state agendas’. In late 2018, the Pakistan Ministry of Interior ordered 18 INGOs to halt their operations and leave the country within 60 days.

While the government stated their reason as the organizations’ inability to provide documents for regulatory transparency, many suspect it to be the general mistrust and suspicion on part of the government instead as an official from the Ministry made the following comment, “they were working against Pakistan’s national interests, and were involved in matters related to security and religion”.

Similarly, in 2019, the president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan (an organisation protecting the rights of religious minorities) reported government officials using intimidation tactics against him, his family, and members of his organization. HRFP’s activists were stopped on the road, their bank account blocked in July, and the government refused to renew papers.

There is a greater tendency to support indigenous nonprofit organizations that mobilize resources locally and frequently operate at the grass-roots level helping communities organize the provision of local services.  In contrast, there is hostility towards foreign-funded nonprofit organizations whose operations remain largely outside the regulatory control of government, either because they are part of a larger international umbrella nonprofit organization, or because they receive funding directly from bilateral or multilateral donor agencies.

Do INGO’s follow external agendas? 

However, the hostility arises not only because of their financial and functional autonomy, but also because many of these nonprofit organizations have taken up causes such as women’s rights, the environment, political freedom, and nuclear disarmament which are considered politically and culturally sensitive or have security implications.

INGOs aren’t seen as apolitical bodies seeking to improve Pakistan’s conditions, but as bodies extending the interests of foreign countries/institutions. Hence, their resources and support come with informal and undefined conditionality, and the strategies would be questionable.

At least, that is the dominant public opinion. But it’s not only the government that opposes the existence of INGOs in Pakistan as other institutions in the civil society that feel their purpose and values don’t align with the supposedly politically motivated non-profit sector hop on the bandwagon.

Since matters of public and political security always take precedence, especially in a country like Pakistan, they permit the state greater control over NGOs and the civic space. The political motives that accompany INGOs come through in certain projects but this narrative of ‘us vs them’ was largely publicized by the media to a local population already weary of ‘them’ (foreign interventionist states represented through NGOs) in order to curb their influence and increase government control.

Therefore the normative glow surrounding NGOs has diminished over the decades as a consequence of foreign intervention, tightening state control, lack of collaboration and communication in civil society.

Read more: Gang using NGO to sell SIMs to criminals busted in Karachi

What’s the way forward? 

This highlights the importance of narratives that identify good guys and bad guys, consequently establishing the role of NGOs and defining what development is. However, at a time when democratic government chooses to police the civil society, muzzle dissenting voices, and manipulate narratives in the media, this seems like an impossible task.

I believe this chaos following the presence of NGOs is partly a product of Pakistan’s political history of constantly switching between democracies and dictatorships which hindered the process of forming policies that would elicit beneficial practices by NGOs, as well as religious and cultural fault lines that keep the population polarized.

Rather than expelling NGOs from the country, the state should focus on developing a more participatory form of democracy that gives agency to the people over the change they wish to see, encourage freedom of speech, establish clear policy guidelines on the role of these organizations, and amend the Pakistan Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to make intimidation, threats, and attacks on NGOs a criminal offense.

Amna Zaman is currently employed as a consultant at the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services (PIPS) following her role as Associate Editor at Global Village Space. She earlier did her Masters in Public Policy & Governance at the University of New South Wales (Australia).