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Time to review NGO policy

January 25, 2018

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LESS than a fortnight before the expiry of the deadline for them to leave Pakistan, 21 international NGOs were told that they could continue working till the disposal of their appeals. The decision was widely welcomed not only as a respite for the INGOs but also as an opportunity for the government to review a policy that is backed neither by law nor mature appreciation of the national interest.

Earlier, the 21 INGOs had been curtly told that their application for registration had not been approved by the INGO committee. The first reaction to the order was that it was arbitrary and without legal authority as the INGO committee could not be invested with any authority under a law that was yet to be made. Further, the agreement with these organisations could not be terminated without a legally valid reason and without giving them an opportunity for defence.

But this is more of a political-economic matter than a purely legal one, though the aggrieved parties retain the right to redress under the law. Besides, the interior minister did well to mention some of the government’s concerns during the meeting with a delegation of foreign envoys.

The envoys are believed to have highlighted the important role played by the development INGOs and the lack of transparency in the appeals process. The interior minister is said to have appreciated the contribution made by development-sector INGOs in the implementation of national social policies. More importantly, he referred to the security context and the need to have control over foreign financial flows. Besides, some INGOs had not provided the information required and a few of them had raised security concerns. While the interior minister deserves to be lauded for his candour and a bit of openness, he would do well to seriously examine the indefensible policy he has been saddled with. Punishing all or most INGOs for unverified charges against some of them smacks of action under the FCR provision about collective responsibility.

The government must rethink its policy of strangulating civil society organisations.

The fact to be borne in mind by the authorities is that all foreign governments back their nationals and their non-official societies against any attacks that appear unfair to them. That Islamabad risks losing considerable resources that are brought in not only by INGOs but also by their governments is pretty clear. A fair deal for the INGOs is essential — not for securing money; it is demanded by the logic of retaining the goodwill of as many members of the comity of nations as possible. Those who raise isolationist slogans in today’s world do not know what harm they are doing. This is, of course, subject to the condition that anyone abusing Pakistan’s hospitality deliberately and with criminal intent will have to pay for his actions.

The time gained by the government to rethink its policy should enable it to also review what is an ill-concealed plan to strangulate indigenous civil society organisations. No unbiased mind will fail to conclude that by trying to exterminate CSOs, various governments are inflicting far greater harm on the state than on the victims of their high-handedness.

Almost all CSOs worth the name are registered under enabling laws, and attempts to convert these laws into punitive mechanisms, to the detriment of the organisations registered under them, is not only a gross violation of the principle of natural justice, it is also contrary to the national interest. Nobody can deny the services rendered by the CSOs in the fields of education, music, theatre and youth’s awakening.

While the government’s preference for development and charitable CSOs is understandable, its aversion to rights-based CSOs is hard to justify. Even when these CSOs criticise the government they provide it with a second opinion that it cannot receive otherwise. For any authority that is not known for intra-establishment consultation, the importance of civil society’s input cannot be exaggerated. In many areas of national interest, such as the deepening of democracy, promotion of fair elections, increase in women’s political participation, recognition of the democratic rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, attempts to end bonded labour, child labour and women workers’ (especially home-based workers’) exploitation, the CSOs have played a path-finding role.

The two common official complaints against rights-based CSOs are that they receive foreign funding and that they provide information to foreign critics regarding Islamabad’s performance. Neither grievance has any basis in the facts. The authorities should not be unaware of the UN resolution that slated interference in CSOs’ foreign funding as a denial of their basic rights. As regards the other complaint, the outside world does not need any non-government source to find out what is happening in Pakistan; through their own sources they are better informed about us than the CSOs and perhaps the government itself. In any case, in this age of transparency no country can and should keep its skeletons in its cupboard.

That over the past few years several states have been trying to reduce the space for civil society is known. These states are known for their aversion to democracy and the rule of law. No responsible Pakistani should want his country to join these secrecy-loving, brittle states. An African country drafted a law to create a security/government committee, including intelligence services and representatives of the interior ministry, to approve foreign funding for NGOs, to give INGOs a licence to work and to oversee the work of NGOs. The move was immediately denounced by the president of the International Federation of Human Rights in these words: “Hindering the legitimate activities of civil society groups is contrary to international human rights standards, in particular freedoms of expression and association.”

Civil society is not blind to the government’s concerns and it will not defend any group that is not democratically organised or does not have an accountability mechanism or is actually involved in any wrongdoing. The best way for the government and civil society is to sit down together and lay down the parameters of civil society’s functioning, based on its fundamental right to defend the citizens’ interests against encroachment from any side.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2018