August Issue 2015
Under A Cloud
On June 11, Save the Children’s Islamabad office was sealed by the police, following a government order asking the organisation to wrap up its operations and leave the country within 15 days. The government maintained that the seemingly hasty action against one of the most renowned global non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was the culmination of years of scepticism and distrust with regards to the influx of ‘anti-state elements’ and ‘spies’ under the guise of charity organisations.
“There were some intelligence reports suggesting that some of the international NGOs, funded by the US, Israel and India, were involved in working on an anti-Pakistan agenda,” federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said at a press conference in Islamabad on June 12, adding that “offices of any international NGO found [indulging in] anti-Pakistan activities would be shut down.”
Save the Children has had an acrimonious relationship with the federal government and intelligence agencies for several years now. The NGO got involved — unwittingly, claims one of its representatives — in the CIA raid to hunt down Osama bin Laden in 2011, after Dr Shakil Afridi conducted a bogus Hepatitis B vaccination programme in Abbottabad. Afridi was collecting DNA samples from bin Laden’s family members in their compound, which is believed to have eventually helped the CIA track the then world’s most wanted terrorist. Afridi was arrested soon after the bin Laden raid, and Save the Children’s expatriate staff was asked to pack up and leave in 2012 while the local staff continued operations. The INGO was kept under close surveillance.
Repeat scenario; on June 14, Save the Children was allowed to resume its operations. A letter issued by the Ministry of Interior read: “The undersigned is directed to refer to this ministry’s letter dated June 11, 2015 on the subject noted about. The competent authority has desired that the action on above letter may be held in abeyance till further orders.”
Following the verdict, Nisar said that the government would work on streamlining the operations of all NGOs working in the country with a view to regulating their activities.
“If I buy Chaudhry Nisar’s claim — which is not easy to do — against Save the Children, the way he handled the entire episode was absolutely wrong,” says Mohammad Tahseen, founding Director of South Asia Partnership Pakistan (a consortium of Canadian and South Asian NGOs).
“It was completely unwarranted. I met a FATA senator recently and he was full of complaints about the NGO. I’m not sure if Save the Children was doing something really grave, but why create such a scene?” he adds.
Tahseen continues: “It has left a bitter taste in the mouth. And I hold the federal government completely responsible. Two persons should be held accountable: Tariq Fatemi and Chaudhry Nisar. They made all of us look absolutely stupid.”
“I believe that both the national security establishment as well as the PML-N government (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) are weary of all NGOs,” says Usman Qazi, a community development, human rights and humanitarian relief worker.
“The former, because of its chronic scepticism of any entity that proclaims to be ‘neutral, independent, rights-based,’ and the latter, because it somehow believes that the NGOs are biting into funds that would otherwise be channeled through the government,” Qazi adds.
Gul Bukhari, a human rights activist and columnist for The Nation, agrees.
“Clearly, [the action] wasn’t thought through at all, and very quickly Chaudhry Nisar was made to eat humble pie,” she says.
When Save the Children was allowed to resume its operations on June 14, it was limited to the Punjab and Sindh provinces, and the NGO was clearly instructed to keep its offices closed in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Bukhari is mystified by this differentiation.
“It seems to be a face-saver at best,” she says, adding that, “it probably also suits the military to restrict access to areas where there are active insurgencies.”
However, Tahseen maintains that Punjab is “no less volatile.”
“Constructing beautiful roads doesn’t mean you’ve addressed the issues at the grassroots,” he says. “Moreover, the NGOs in KP and Balochistan are as pro-status quo or as independent as organisations elsewhere in Pakistan. They take principled positions. And again, I didn’t hear anyone speak out against Save the Children.”
He also suspects the intelligence agencies’ involvement. “The fact that Save the Children’s operations haven’t resumed in Balochistan proves that the decision was actually taken by the agencies. Officials who don’t have the remotest idea about NGOs are now taking decisions regarding them,” he argues.
‘Misuse of funds’ is another pretext being used by the Interior Ministry to clamp down on NGOs.
“‘NGOs’ is too broad and varied a category for anyone to have a general view on all of them,” maintains Qazi.
“The larger and more established NGOs maintain strict internal and external controls to ensure that leakages and corruption do not occur. The smaller NGOs are less developed. However, whether the funds spent via the NGOs are used in a judicious and efficient manner, is a matter of opinion.”
Bukhari claims that, generally, there is strict scrutiny of how the donors’ money is spent.
“Regular audits are carried out. So there’s not much room for misuse,” she claims.
Tahseen says that all NGOs are registered under assorted Pakistani laws, and if there are any organisations that are misusing funds or involved in terrorism, they should be taken to court.
Isn’t the government’s claim that some NGOs are involved in ‘anti-state activities’ and hence need to be viewed with skepticism reminiscent of the ‘good/bad Taliban’ policy? Are we in for an era of ‘good/bad NGOs’ as well?
“‘Anti-state activities’ is a non-specific term and can be equated with a weapon that has become blunt because of its indiscriminate and unsubstantiated use against political opponents,” says Qazi. “In the absence of an agreed-upon criteria to define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ entities, it would be a futile exercise and quite likely to be embarrassing for the government.”
Bukhari urges the interior ministry to define ‘anti-state activities.’
“This allegation, without giving names or specifying what the NGOs are doing wrong, is preposterous and unacceptable. In every sector, every field, there are all sorts of players. But this act of the interior ministry is akin to maligning the entire sector and opening them up to hate attacks,” she says.
“If any organisation (be it an NGO, in the private or public sector) is involved in any illegal activity, it should certainly be held accountable — no one is saying NGOs should not be held to account. But levelling baseless accusations is uncalled for.”
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar claims that the government is working on streamlining NGO operations and regulating their activities.
“First of all, it’s quite offensive to speak of ‘regularising’ NGOs as if they are illegal dens of gambling, drug-dealing or prostitution,” says Bukhari. “Most are doing very important social and human rights work. They are filling up the vacuum left by the government. If Nisar was talking about unregistered organisations, yes, they must be made to register, be audited and declare their sources of funding. It’s a very normal procedure and the government should just get on with it, instead of weaving a conspiracy around it,” she adds.
The question is: does the government have any role to play in the streamlining of NGOs?
“Yes, the government should monitor the sources of funding and where the funds are being spent. But the government cannot tell me that I can open schools but I can’t talk about judicial reforms — that challenges my autonomy,” says Tahseen.
“What they need to really be focusing on are mosques, madrassas and their imams — the real terror factories,” says Bukhari. “I have never heard of NGO or INGO employees blowing themselves up in markets, shooting schoolchildren, or providing safe havens and logistical support to terrorists,” he adds.
“The government needs to reform the regulatory framework in consultation with the stakeholders, and increase its capacity at all levels to regulate the NGOs,” says Qazi. “The existing laws and regulations are grossly inadequate and the size and understanding of the staff that is mandated to do this work is way below the requisite standard.”
Tahseen had a word of advice for the interior ministry: “We’ve been working on development and people’s rights in this country for 30-35 years. Why don’t you take us on board? We might help you get rid of the people you have problems with.”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.