Currently, a debate about shrinking of civic space to NGOs is taking place in the country. Sadly, the email activists seemingly have failed to involve the larger civil and political society or academia in the debate, yet have raised serious concern that requires debate and resolution urgently as delay will negatively impact the social development in the country.
The current trigger emanated from an act of the Punjab government, which ordered all NGOs even if they are already registered in the province to re-register with the Charities Commission that has been created under the Punjab Charities Act 2018 by August 15. More than a dozen NGOs appealed against the order in the Lahore High Court (LHC). On July 27, Justice Shahid Karim of the LHC passed the order in which he restrained the Punjab government from “taking coercive measures” against NGOs in terms of their re-registration under Punjab Charities Act 2018. Stifling NGOs is not peculiar at all. All successive governments since early 1990s in the country have tried this in some way or the other but failed.
The PPP government (1993-96) is likely to be remembered as a pioneer in this regard. Late Dr Sher Afgan Niazi, minister for social welfare, introduced a bill which would have caused re-registration of already registered NGOs. This generated huge anger. NGOs held protest rallies across the country. Resultantly, Dr Niazi met with NGO representatives. As part of the NGOs’ delegation, I remember we categorically refused to budge. Finally, the bill was shelved. But antagonists of NGOs became active again when Nawaz Sharif formed government in 1997. His government picked the same bill from the shelf, made few amendments and reintroduced it. Though his ministers ran a dirty campaign against NGOs through press and PTV, and state agencies were encouraged to harass outspoken NGOs, the PML-N government sponsored bill faced the same fate.
The military government of General Musharraf adopted rather a clever route. He offered financial incentive to those NGOs who would get FBR or Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy certification, but didn’t bother the others. After forming the third-time government in 2013, Nawaz Sharif introduced major structural changes in the not-for-profit sector. A paradigm shift took place — from management to control of NGOs. For instance, role of civil and military intelligence agencies, and interior ministry was radically enhanced in the registration, de-registration and working of INGOs and NGOs. More than two dozen INGOs were kicked out of the country. For every project NGOs must get prior and separate NOC from district administration. This has hugely stifled the development sector’s working.
The Imran Khan government has not only kept the PML-N policy intact but also tried to achieve what the PPP government wanted to (re-registration of NGOs) in the 90s. Therefore, we could conclude that almost every successive government since 1990s has tried its best to strangulate the NGO sector.
But Pakistan is not alone in this. According to a 2015 report, only 5% of the world population lived in “open” civic space, while 28% lived under completely “closed” space. Rest of the world populations were found in “narrowed” (14%), “obstructed” (37%), and “repressed” (17%) civic environment. No wonder India and Pakistan were categorised as “obstructed”. By 2019, both countries had descended to the “repressed” category.
According to CIVICUS, the author of the above report, “obstructed” means “citizens can organise and assemble peacefully but are vulnerable to frequent use of excessive force by law enforcement agencies including illegal surveillance and bureaucratic harassment etc.” While, as “repressed”, CSOs could “face threats of de-registration and closure by the authorities” and could lead to “imprisonment, injury and death”. However, anecdotal information shows some variation across regions. Restrictions and surveillance appear relatively less in federal/provincial capitals and big cities while in the interior NGOs are largely facing suffocating environment. Yet, overall environment for NGOs has been restrictive since early1990s and had become repressive by 2015, which continues in 2020. Therefore, the current wave of coercion appears to have nothing to do with FATF. Justice Karim’s remarks and findings of CIVICUS reports resonate the same pain.
States must be challenged for encroaching civil space and if need arises peaceful defiance will be perhaps the only option. Because (i) oppression of civil society is against the innate nature of life. It will lead to uprising; (ii) further, it ultimately erodes legitimacy of the state; (iii) stifling of civil society is a clear violation of Pakistan’s Constitution, international conventions and UNO agreements; (iv) NGOs are already registered under laws, and are, therefore, not only accountable to the state, but also possess legitimacy; and localisation is a major pillar of the SDG regime and the country can’t achieve this without creating enabling environments for NGOs as state officials and policymakers lack the required capacities and will. Pakistan’s performance on her prioritised SDGs has already been pathetic. Therefore, improving the well-being of our people with NGO participation is the only way forward.
Also, NGOs especially those dependent on foreign funding, appear to lack public support and respect. Discussions with MPs, traders, labour unions, NGOs, journalists, academia and politicians show that except NGOs almost every group expressed some form of suspicion about NGOs’ work. Most perceived NGOs as agents of Western powers and pushers of Western values. Thus, they lack public trust. Therefore, while resisting state-sponsored encroachment of civil space, willing NGOs must evolve and build social legitimacy and support base.
For this, NGOs could build strong connections in areas of their field operation and at national level by volunteering time and expertise. Some belonged to very powerful businessmen like sugar mills owners and large landowners. Then we have powerful associations formed by professional groups like lawyers, doctors, etc. As these groups are well-entrenched, they should be made accountable by empowering associations which have been formed by working classes like daily-wagers, sweepers, barbers, drivers, nurses, teachers, factory workers, and above all women, etc. NGOs have neglected them for a long time. Time has come to join their causes. We must not forget these associations are membership-based, they pay a fee regularly and hold their elections with regular intervals. So, they could become backbone of our democratic governance.
Second, willing NGOs should identify public interest issues, prioritise three or five with the consultation of the marginalised associations and communities and mobilise the general public through them. These issues could be environment, provision of quality social services and exploitation by powerful employers and officials. This will help achieve implementation of Article 3; 37 and 38 of our Constitution. NGO workers could volunteer one day of each week for the purpose. But they must not involve any foreign funding in this undertaking. This will ultimately help build a grand social movement.
Third, identify and reach out to the intelligentsia that is willing to volunteer their time and knowledge to prepare a social charter for meaningful reforms pro bono.
Finally, since no foreign or local funding will be involved in this, participating NGOs would not require permission from EAD or NOC from district administration. This is a legal, constitutional and democratic path to earn public trust, reclaim our civic space and build a real social movement.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2020.