It’s happening again. The slogans of ‘upholding the national interest’ are rising like smoke signals and a war-hungry people are sharpening their daggers and spears for the showdown. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar declared that NGOs working against the national interest will be shown the door. This has gone on for too long, he says, and that the time to act is now if we are to protect the country’s honour. There are a few issues with this pit of darkness. It plays to the ‘foreign interest’ conspiracy theories that everyone buys and sells on the open market of parliament and our drawing rooms. It also indirectly assists militants in speeding up their subversive attacks on the development sector. We can no longer tell friend from foe. This has happened before as well. Only the subject matter changes, the witch hunt and its hyper-paranoia stay the same. The end results can only spell disaster. The first victim here is rationality, the second is pragmatism and the third is the truth.
According to the Pakistan Donor Profile and Mapping report by the UN in 2014, the total capital spend for Pakistan from lead donors since 2011 alone was about $31,209 million. On many occasions, the development sector has been the engine that has driven enormous progress in essential areas, like education. The Punjab government is helped by the UK’s Department for International Development as is the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government’s upcoming Tameer-e-School programme. The USAID will soon be leading the Let Girls Learn initiative. Its energy projects have pumped millions into energy conservation and infrastructure projects. Medecins Sans Frontieres has provided health facilities in war-torn Fata, helping internally displaced persons though trauma, childbirth, infant inoculations against preventable diseases and mine blasts, as well as creating awareness about their plight.
Very few of these organisations, if any, engage in development objectives that are not sanctioned by the government. In fact, as is now policy for developmental organisations such as the USAID, it is mandatory to work with local partners in order to make development aid sustainable and improve local human resource capacity. Their policies and monitoring reports are available on their websites. Their media events and consultative scoping exercises have participation from local government officials to ensure their buy-in.
The jingoism that has recently been displayed is not just misplaced, it is also grossly misinformed. It is marred by a lack of understanding of what is, perhaps, Pakistan’s lifeline as its economy struggles to get back on its feet. The space for workers of the development sector was already tiny and constricted — they already face difficulties in openly collecting data, publishing reports or bringing about behavioural change in society, particularly in the area of women’s health and empowerment, because of growing extremism. Now that space has shrunk even further. It is asphyxiating for those who want a real grassroots turnaround for the people of Pakistan, who have uniformly performed at the bottom of all human development indicators.
Whichever way this scandal crumbles, it is important that everything is determined through evidence and facts, and not through heresy and conspiracy theories. Moreover, this isolated case should not be used to create an environment of utter hostility for other development sector organisations, which are not at fault.
Pakistan is competing for development resources, and in such an environment, funding would go where there is some respect for it. Isolation may work for the leadership of our country which is comfortable spewing hatred against aid organisations because they have their lives all worked out. It doesn’t work for the rest of the under-resourced and extremely neglected Pakistan. It may be part of our leaders’ job description to stay in denial, but it is time we called a spade a spade. It is time we acknowledged the progressive role the development sector can play in Pakistan and steer it towards more effectiveness.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2015.