Since 1945 the NGO sector has been growing worldwide. At present, it is said that there are approximately 10 million NGOs worldwide, out of which only 25,000-30,000 exist in Pakistan. Some countries support their expansion and growth by giving them tax benefits and recognising their work whereas others step up monitoring with stringent legal requirements. For the last few years, Russia and China have been trying to stop foreign funding to their respective countries. Treatment of NGOs in Pakistan has been a mixed experience — supporting and discouraging.
In Pakistan, the NGO sector mainly thrives on foreign funding or the country’s expatriates and little donation come from local sources. Whatever little funding that comes from corporate or private entities is selfish and mainly directed for brand promotion. As a result, heavy reliance on foreign aid agencies has undermined the independence and choices of civil society organisations in Pakistan. Despite the emphasis on sustainability in project documents of every NGO, there is not a single project in the country which has continued functioning once the funding dried up. This clearly points to the strategic mistake the local NGOs have been making and repeating over decades. As a result, there is a trust deficit between NGOs, beneficiaries and the local population in general, not to speak about the mismanagement and bad governance. Hence, NGOs are spineless, mostly a one-person organisation.
Due to the prevailing negative perception, it has been relatively easy for the government to take any unjustified action against the NGOs because the public generally remain aloof and indifferent. Recently, in a bizarre move, the government has advised 21 International NGOs (INGOs) to wrap up their operations without giving them any specific reasons. But there has been no reaction from the public — no hue and cry or protest at all following the decision. There is, however, a split public opinion about it — some people support it because they believe NGOs undermine the sovereignty of the state whereas others think that these NGOs are not involved in any sort of suspicious and illegal activity but they are rather making significant contributions towards development of society in Pakistan, hence such a decision is not well-thought out. Irrespective of the public understanding, the real factor that has caused scrutiny of INGOs in Pakistan is Dr Shakil Afridi, then an employee of one of the INGOs, that allegedly helped the CIA in determining the location and identity of Osama bin Laden. He is currently in prison.
However, on the basis of just one incident, it is not a prudent approach to start a crackdown on the NGOs. It is unfair to both recipient and givers of the foreign aid. Apart from criticism on the role of NGOs, these organisations have helped Pakistani people in emergencies like earthquakes, floods and droughts, as well as supported a wide range of activities for improving health, education et al indicators. I personally know of BRAC, a Bangladesh-based INGO, which has reached out to poor communities in uncharted and far-flung areas in Sindh, Punjab and K-P to provide them access to schools. It has closely worked with provincial governments as well as federal entities concerned. Another organisation which has been ordered to close down operation includes the International Relief and Development. The organisation is undertaking an assignment of building 106 modern state-of-the-art child-friendly schools in flood-affected areas of Sindh. Considering the pathetic school infrastructure in Sindh, these school buildings are not less than a blessing for the poor children of Sindh. So, are these activities out of bounds to INGOs? Instead of over-emphasising documentation compliance, the federal government should have taken stock of the situation on the ground because such a decision is likely to hurt the interest of the most vulnerable segment of the population whose needs have been put on the back burner by the ruling elites. Therefore, the federal government should revisit its decision.
Meanwhile, Pakistani NGOs should look at best practices and examples from around the world where civil society organisations have won the trust of communities. They don’t look to foreign donors or the corporate sector for funding but to their volunteers and members. One such example is America. There are around 1.5 million NGOs in the US, which are one of the core strengths of the American society. The US government encourages civil society organisations and individuals by offering them tax benefits. The total contribution the civil society organisations received in 2016 was $390.05 billion. The breakdown of the contributions indicates that three quarter (72%) of the contributions came from individuals, while a meagre percentage of 5% came from corporations. Moreover, NGOs in the US have millions of volunteers who contribute their time for the cause they care about. So, if NGOs in Pakistan wish to grow in influence and importance while remaining relevant to the needs of the communities they have to increase both local funding and volunteers. Otherwise, over-reliance on foreign aid will continue to haunt them in one way or another in the days to come.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2018.