December Issue 2019

By | Newsbeat National | Published 5 months ago

Increasingly, civil society organisations (CSOs) have found themselves at the receiving end of endless invasive scrutiny by agents of mysterious agencies. Those non-profits who have been in existence for the last few decades say they are facing a third major cycle of crackdowns.

The first cycle of restrictions was during Musharaf’s dictatorship by the then Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Dr Sher Afghan Niazi. When a delegation of non-profits approached the Minister for a face-to-face meeting, the reason he gave for his directives was that several local terrorist and militant organisations had registered themselves as civil and welfare societies. The representatives tried to reason with him to catch militants and terrorists on the grounds of criminal acts rather than cracking down on NGOs who were compliant with all the rules and regulations under which they were registered, such as the Societies Act of 1860, the Trust Act 1882 and the Companies Act 2017.

Ten years later, under Nawaz Sharif came the second round of NGO clampdowns under Muhammad Binyamin Rizvi, the then Minister for Social Welfare, Women Development and Bait-ul-Maal of Punjab. The Minister tried his utmost to shut down all the NGOs, in particular human rights organisations and within that category, the women’s rights organisations – Aurat Foundation, ASR Resource Centre and Shirkat Gah were specifically targeted.

The Minister’s directives could not be implemented in Sindh, since the registration of civil society organisations falls under Industries or Section 42 of the Companies Ordinance 1984, which permits the registration of a company for promoting commerce, art, science, religion, sports, social services, charity or other useful objectives. When a few NGO representatives inquired of the then Industries Secretary in Sindh of the situation, he informed them of a blanket shutdown of NGOs. However, he had taken a stance that he would only do so if he was provided a basis for it. He couldn’t see how he could order the closure of CSOs that were compliant with all the rules and regulations under which they were governed.

The third wave of crackdowns that continues till today came after the promulgation of the 18th Amendment, after ministries were devolved at the federal level and transferred to the respective provinces. The Finance Ministry, however, remained in the hands of the federal government, through which NGOs are now being regulated.

Punjab has already revised its provincial Societies Act which they have enacted through an ordinance under which all societies in the province have to renew their registration every year. Even if non-profits and CSOs are registered with the Social Welfare department, the Bill gives them the authority to take control, change the Board of Directors, go over the society’s finances or freeze them. Applications for the annual renewal have been known to take more than a year, leaving applying organisations in a state of limbo.

Sindh has not changed the Societies Registration Act of 1860. Minor amendments in the Act have been made such as submission of NoC for Memorandums, etc but the Act itself and the Memorandum are intact. CSOs never had to re-apply and re-register as long as they complied by giving in their annual reports and other documentation.

The Economic Affairs Division  (EAD) introduced a policy in 2013 titled, ‘Policy for Regulation of Organisations Receiving Foreign Contributions’ which says, “until such time that a legislation is passed, this policy will be as follows: All international organisations and local organisations desiring foreign assistance – all their requests will be processed in four months.” Between 2013 – 2016, there was a lack of awareness about the policy as it was not circulated to the various NGOs registered under different ministries and departments.

In 2015-16, word spread among the CSOs, and donor organisations, about the mandatory EAD registration. Donors were informed that to work with local non-profits and CSOs, the latter would have to comply with the new rules, otherwise they would not receive any funding.

In December 2017, the Ministry of Interior gave 27 international NGOs 90 days to conclude operations in Pakistan and shut down, according to the Minister of State for Interior Affairs, for doing work, “which is beyond their mandate and for which they have no legal justification.” Eighteen foreign relief organisations mostly working on humanitarian issues appealed against expulsion orders. The appeals  were all rejected. The letter mentioned no reason for expulsion but allowed the aid groups to “re-apply for registration … after six months.” Many left the country; two went to court and obtained stay orders to continue their work.

Presently, the 2013 policy in place states that it “serves as a framework to facilitate the NGO sector in accessing foreign funding for their planned activities. It is important to note that under the said policy, an NGO enters into an MoU with the EAD for receiving foreign funding directly from an external donor. This funding is project-specific/area-specific and covers a defined set of activities. EAD, on receipt of a proposal from an NGO, scrutinises the proposal as per Policy 2013 and undertakes the necessary process of consultation with federal and provincial stakeholders. Based on this process, EAD approves and sometimes disapproves the project proposals submitted by the NGOS which do not meet the requirements of the Policy.”

So now not only do non-profits and CSOs need to follow standard procedures, they need to fulfil a set of new requirements. To operate, they need permission from the Ministry of Interior, from provincial authorities as well as from district level officers. And therein lies the crux of the problem, particularly for those non-profits and CSOs that are working on gender. As per policy, their activities cannot hurt the religious or cultural sentiments of anyone. Very simply, it means you cannot work on gender without hurting people’s cultural beliefs, because it is a matter of trying to change the cultural mindset.

A major donor agency recently informed the government about a project that had been approved, and they listed their local partners and the activities on the political empowerment of women. In response, they received a standard letter issued on March 1, 2019, by a section officer who has since then moved on but the notification is still circulating – that “EAD does not have the legal mandate to register or de-register any NGO.” However, every institution needs an NoC for which they need to sign an MoU and for an MoU, an organisation or society needs registration – in other words it is not an approval of a project that is required but the approval of an organisation.

For receiving funds, an institution needs EAD registration. On the Finance, Revenue and the Economic Affairs website under Wings/Section are 1) List of NGOs registered with Economic Affairs Division (and who have signed an MoU with the EAD) – only 95 at present; and 2) List of local NGOs whose cases are under process in the Economic Affairs Division. And it goes on to say that 69 NGOs have been approved but does not detail how many have applied or how many have been rejected.

The EAD policy stipulates the applications shall be processed expeditiously and in any case within four months, but organisations have been waiting for 1.5-2 years for responses. Each organisation is required to submit 14 sets of their application for 14 different institutions. That includes the Social Welfare Department, Ministry of Interior, the Economic Affairs Division and a myriad of agencies nobody knows about. The agencies don’t share information among themselves either.

Thereafter, established NGOs are visited by umpteen number of agents. Some of them have existed for years. There is no way for the non-profits to confirm whether the agents visiting their offices are authentic and the junior officers don’t specify what they are looking for or investigating. There is no accompanying letter explaining the reasons, nor what are their questions. All intelligence agents, whether civil or military, possess a square blue card that they say is their ID card – whether it’s federal investigation or special branch – these are civilian branches – all of whom conduct their investigations, as do military branches of intelligence. The FIA is one of the key agencies in collecting the data. Meanwhile, an officer of the Social Welfare Department in southern Punjab said they get calls to close down meetings – no reasons are given – and they have no choice but to go with the police to conduct raids.

The new trend is questioning NGO personnel about their immediate family members and their political affiliations. They also ask for the ID cards of the Board of Directors and their personal bank statements. That’s enough to discourage anyone from serving on any board. During the renewal process, a society is either on the list of organisations under process or under those who have been approved – otherwise they are taken off the list and met with complete silence. One of the EAD requirements is that an NGO’s registration with the EAD has to be renewed every year. Recently a women’s resource organisation applying for renewal received an EAD rejection letter and was not provided a reason or basis but the letter said that that they can appeal.

Groups with a human rights approach are being specifically targeted.  Shadow reports prepared for the United Nations, reporting on the government’s international commitments, are deemed to portray a dismal image of the country internationally. The achievements, frequently also listed in these reports, detailing the progress made, are ignored.

Women’s organisations are soft targets. Questions are constantly asked about participation in and support for the Aurat March in the EAD ‘verification’ process. Micro-enterprises with no political affiliation or human rights angle to the work that they do, except working on women, are neither on the accepted list nor on the list of those organisations under process.

International obligations have become an alarm bell. “We are very good at making international commitments that we have signed and ratified – almost all the seven key human rights instruments – but we don’t want to apply them or make any progress on them. We practice a dual face – on the international front we want to show that we are pro-human rights and pro-women’s rights and on the other hand our bureaucracy knows nothing of the international commitments Pakistan has signed and ratified,” said the CEO of a major non-profit. “From the National Institute of Public Administration (NIPA) to people in Staff College, they don’t know anything about CEDAW.”

In 1996, Pakistan ratified CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Along with it came a declaration, making the compliance subject to its Constitution and a reservation under article 29 para 1. However, translating the CEDAW provisions to its domestic laws was never adopted in any legal framework. Furthermore, there was a lack of awareness in the bureaucratic machinery, the myriad of agencies, and the masses about CEDAW. Civil Society Organisations that are not involved in the implementation of CEDAW in domestic interventions are unaware of it.

Countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Algeria were among the sponsors of the original Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in November 1967, the precursor to CEDAW. So why has CEDAW become an issue now and why portray it as a western agenda? It is very much an agenda of developing countries which realised that development was not possible as long as women are discriminated against. Bureaucrats are unaware of CEDAW’s history and lack the understanding that once it is signed, it is not the government that has committed to it, but the state itself. Countries are asked twice, first to sign and the second time to ratify any international declaration. Once it is ratified, it becomes a state obligation, from the federal level right down to the local government. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy and its various branches are never briefed.   

Of concern is that whenever Pakistan signs international declarations or enacts a Bill, there is no state narrative. Sindh passed a myriad of pro-women Bills such as making the legal age for marriage 18. On the other hand, where is the state narrative that says what a terrible impact underage marriages have on society? That it reinforces a cycle of poverty, perpetuates gender discrimination, illiteracy and malnutrition as well as high infant and maternal mortality rates.

Similarly, where is the narrative for the blood-curdling incidents of domestic violence, despite the Domestic Violence (Prevention & Protection Act) passed in 2013? Is there any official narrative that speaks of the economic, social and cultural implications of domestic violence? No. The entire narrative is dominated by the political religious right, with no state narrative to counter it, whatsoever. The government needs to honour all that the state is signatory to.

For decades, CSOs have been fighting for the Right of Collective Bargaining.

In August, the Sindh Cabinet approved the ‘Sindh Women Agricultural Workers draft Bill 2019,’ under which female workers in agriculture, livestock, fisheries or other agro-based work would be given the rights and benefits that are given to workers in the industrial sector. With this law, Sindh would be the first province to have taken such a decision in South Asia.

The question is, how many agricultural women will know that they can register themselves and be officially recognised by the state as agricultural workers and get the same rights as workers in urban centres.

Governments lack the understanding of how to present themselves. They do not bother to take into account whether non-profits and CSOs acknowledge the slew of legislations the federal and provincial governments have passed as well as fine-tuned in the last five years. The governments also fail to properly mention them in their own presentations and reports.

In the CEDAW report, the government has stated that the Gender Crime Units are functional and non-profits immediately pointed out that that they are not. The CEDAW committee took it up with the government, questioning how the data was being collected, instead of focusing on the positive, such as the fact that Punjab has a good GMIS point (Gender Management Information System).       

Meanwhile, recently a women’s resource centre’s application to the EAD for renewal was rejected. The organisation went to court and received a stay order which was given because the EAD did not provide the legal grounds or cogent reasons for the rejection. At the time several organisations were notified by their respective banks that unless they provided an approval by the EAD, the banks would reject the funds that donors disperse to them from abroad.

This begs the questions that if CSOs are complying with all requirements under which they are registered, why this need to create more roadblocks in their work? If the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is asking questions,  relating to terror activities, which human rights and women’s rights groups are unlikely to be involved in – they are often the target of terrorists themselves – the government should not use that as an excuse to clampdown on NGOs and civil society organisations.

The writer is working with the Newsline as Assistant Editor, she is a documentary filmmaker and activist.