November Issue 2015
The Politics of NGOs
On October 26, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on unregistered non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The petitioner, barrister Zafar Ullah, claimed that over 100,000 unregistered NGOs were working in Pakistan and were “destabilising the country through foreign funding.”
“The unregistered NGOs are posing a serious threat to the national integrity and solidarity. Terrorism and chaos is being spread in the country through these NGOs,” he maintained. Zafar Ullah urged the court to issue an order imposing an immediate ban on the unregistered NGOs and freezing their accounts as well.
Zafar Ullah’s petition came after the federal interior ministry had announced a new policy on October 1, for the registration of international NGOs (INGOs). According to the policy, all INGOs would be required to apply online for registration within 60 days.
“No application will be entertained after the 60-day period,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told the media. “After receiving the application, the ministry would decide within another 60 days to accept or reject it. In case of acceptance of an application, there would be a memorandum of understanding between the government and the aspirant INGO to operate in the country,” he added.
According to the new policy, the registration process of INGOs has been simplified, Nisar claimed, adding that the government would be facilitating anyone who wants to work for a “good cause” in the country. The interior ministry has asked all INGOs to apply for fresh registration — they would not be allowed to work after the expiry of the new deadline.
“Previously some NGOs were working outside their allowed domain and areas,” Nisar said, adding that, “registration of INGOs found involved in illegal funding, financing, or interaction with proscribed organisations, will be automatically cancelled.” The registration process of INGOs has been handed over to the interior ministry.
The matter even came up during Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington, with the joint statement released by Nawaz and President Obama saying that the new policy guidelines would allow the better functioning of INGOs and Obama reiterating that the policy should be transparent and in line with international norms.
On June 11, the INGO Save the Children’s office in Islamabad had been sealed by the police. The federal government had asked the organisation to wrap up operations and leave Pakistan within 15 days. The government had alleged that an influx of ‘anti-state elements’ were working with the organisation. Even though Save the Children has partially resumed operations since then, it has been limited to Punjab and Sindh. The NGO was unequivocally asked to keep its offices closed in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
There are fears that the new INGO policy announced by the interior ministry would give it similar dictatorial clout, negatively influencing the work of various organisations.
“First of all an INGO isn’t even clearly defined,” says an INGO worker. “The definition can be manipulated by the interior ministry to target any organisation that it wants to,” she adds.
“Secondly, considering the fact that all INGOs will now be seeking permission from the interior ministry, for virtually anything they might want to initiate — from starting a new project to accessing a region the interior ministry might be apprehensive about — this would cause excruciating delays in the functioning of the NGOs. Of course, the bureaucrats would want to cash in on this cycle as well. The more pockets filled, the longer the delays.”
She continues: “Vague terms like ‘anti-state activities’ or ‘anti-Pakistan elements’ will be used and interpreted at the government’s discretion. This means there is no consistent policy or guideline that NGOs can work in synchrony with. Everything is left at the interior ministry’s mercy.”
Another senior politician criticised the interior ministry’s ‘undue interference’ in the working of organisations that can help many sectors in Pakistan.
“The government’s focus on registering the NGOs and monitoring their funding is important,” he says. “Anyone guilty of working against Pakistan should be punished, but these terms need to be defined properly and clearly. The licenses of NGOs can be cancelled on the grounds of indulging in any activities that are ‘inconsistent with Pakistan’s national interests,’ or ‘contrary to government policy,’ but no one knows the exact meaning of ‘national interest,’ or ‘contradicting government policy.”
He adds: “The new NGO policy is designed to ensure greater accountability after the interior ministry claimed that numerous NGOs have been involved in anti-state activities. But this will further vitiate the working climate for NGOs to do any positive work.”
Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, says: “The regulations are an invitation to arbitrary use of power and will put at risk any international organisation whose work exposes government failures. This new policy harks back to an era of military rule when the government used phoney claims of threats to national security to muffle critical voices in civil society.”
Another INGO worker agrees while commenting off the record.
“It is obvious that any NGO revealing the government’s lack of work or effort would not be working for a ‘good cause’ and would probably be indulging in ‘anti-state activities,” he remarks. “The interior ministry’s paranoia would mostly be dedicated to Balochistan and KP, as we’ve seen with the Save the Children episode.”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.