strictly legal terms, there is no ban on
the operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Pakistan. Yet, in
the span of a few years, this once thriving sector has reached the brink of
extinction. This is well in line with the current version of statecraft in
which an overzealous state apparatus is stifling all voices and avenues that
offer a national narrative different from the one espoused by this apparatus
all of this being done without breaking any
International NGOs have been the first to face this
strategy. Being foreign entities, they have to sign agreements with the federal
government each time they intend to fund any projects in Pakistan. For decades,
they have got approval for such agreements without any major problems. Over the
last few years, however, the approval processes have been getting slower. In
some cases, the delayed processes have ended in no agreements. In others,
signing of agreements was delayed so much that the funds available for the
concerned projects lapsed (because most foreign NGOs are required to consume
their funds within specific time frames).
The government provides no reasons for delaying or
refusing the agreements. The applicants, instead, are intimated that working in
Pakistan is not their right but a privilege granted by the government at its
own pleasure so the government is not bound to follow any rules and principles
vis-a-vis the agreements.
Even if the funding agreements go through, local
administrations, especially intelligence operatives, create many hurdles in the
implementation of projects. They enter NGO offices at any time, sometimes
seeking project-related documents and at other times asking hostile questions
and issuing aggressive instructions. The default perception among government
functionaries at the local level is that NGOs are some 'non-combatant foreign
enemies' that need to remain under a permanent watch. Having a foreign staff
member serves as 'the final proof' that an NGO has 'ulterior' motives.
Local NGOs are facing even bigger obstacles. They have
to seek project-to-project based permissions from the federal government even
if their donor has already signed an agreement with the relevant authorities
for the same project. It is, of course, extremely difficult for organisations
working at the district level to navigate the corridors of power at the federal
In yet another administrative measure to choke the
workings of the NGO sector, many national-level non-government entities have
been told by their respective registration authorities to submit an affidavit
to declare that they are neither receiving any foreign donations nor will they
accept any in the future. These, effectively, are orders to shut shop.
Ostensibly, the clamp down is being enforced in the name
of compliance with the latest conditions imposed by the Financial Action Task
Force (FATF), a global forum, which has put Pakistan on its grey list for not
doing enough against money laundering and terror financing. The task force
wants the country to improve its regulation of the not-for-profit sector which
in many cases has worked as an important link in terror financing.
Many religious organisations and charities, including
some that have been banned by the government, are registered under the same law
that governs NGOs working in the development sector or for human rights causes.
Technically, the latter are becoming collateral damage in the war against
The damage, however, is not unintentional. Instead of
making any attempt to separate NGOs from entities involved in terror financing,
the government is trying to settle some imagined score with the NGO sector as a
whole. This is not something new though its intensity is unprecedented.
Successive governments have sought to delegitimise NGOs by promoting the same
rhetoric that conservative religious groups espouse. The organisations working
for regional peace are dubbed anti-state and unpatriotic. Those active against
child labour are accused of undermining Pakistan's economy. And the ones
championing equal rights for women are alleged to be working on a western
agenda that runs 'contrary' to our religious and cultural traditions.
There is nothing wrong in a government, or anyone else
for that matter, critiquing the efficiency and effectiveness of NGOs as agents
of change and development. Asphyxiating them, however, will certainly not make
us a better country or a better society.
works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group focused on
understanding governance and democracy.