ON Tuesday some members of the Public Accounts Committee argued that Pakistan needs to step up auditing of NGOs receiving foreign funding, in particular the large sums flowing through in the form of Kerry-Lugar assistance. This is tricky business. There is some logic to their concerns: if aid is coming in from a foreign government, there is a need to know that it is being spent in a way that is beneficial, that doesn’t break Pakis-tani laws or compromise Pakistani security, and that reflects positively on Pakistan’s relationship with the foreign government. But the idea of increased scrutiny of NGOs is a slippery slope, and can easily fall prey to agendas that have little to do with misspending and everything to do with paranoia and political concerns.
Quite often NGOs become the focus of negative attention in Pakistan; two recent examples include accusations by the right during Gen Musharraf’s tenure that NGOs were promoting un-Islamic values, and the harassment of foreign-funded organisations after the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the wake of questions surrounding the role of Dr Shakil Afridi in tracking down the Al Qaeda chief, workers of some foreign-funded NGOs have come under heightened surveillance, had their movement restricted, required increased approvals for travel within the country and been denied visas for entry into Pakistan. It is clear that the increased scrutiny and constraints are driven not by concerns about corruption or mismanagement but instead by mistrust of American intentions and broader foreign-policy agendas, thus ignoring the role that NGOs play in a country like Pakistan.
In the absence of social safety nets provided by the government, it falls to NGOs to provide many of the services that a government should be providing. Put simply, the country and its citizens cannot do without them. So while some monitoring is necessary, it needs to be carried out in a way that doesn’t affect their ability to function effectively. Foreign governments, including the US, already work with Pakistani officials to define priority sectors that need funding. Beyond that, it would make sense for the government to know which NGOs are receiving funding, how much, and what for. But to repeat audits that USAID and other donor groups are already carrying out would only create additional work and costs for both the government and NGOs, lead to more government interference than is necessary, and become a reason to scrutinise NGOs for all the wrong reasons. There is a need to proceed cautiously with any plan to do so.