IT seems that the steady squeeze on international non-governmental organisations working in Pakistan is not going to let up under the PTI government. A spokesperson for ActionAid said on Thursday that the interior ministry without citing any reason had ordered the INGO to cease its operations and leave the country within 60 days. She added that 17 other INGOs had been issued similar notices but did not disclose any specifics. While there has been no confirmation from the interior ministry, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari’s tweet indicates that matters may indeed have taken such a turn and that the affected INGOs are among those who had appealed against the expulsion orders issued earlier by the government.

This is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2011 with the capture of Osama bin Laden in which a fake vaccination programme run by a foreign-funded aid organisation played a key role. That episode triggered a paranoia that has only intensified over time, and rendered the work of INGOs increasingly difficult and uncertain. They have had to re-register with the interior ministry, a process entailing cumbersome vetting procedures to ensure total transparency in their operations and funding. This is not objectionable in and of itself, of course, as any development work must conform to the local laws and not be a cover for anything other than the stated objectives. However, the crackdown on INGOs is consistent with a coercive environment in which critical voices are being silenced and the media brought to heel. Foreign-funded is not synonymous with ‘anti-state’, and the government itself must be more transparent about its reasons for expelling any development organisation. Many INGOs and their local partners do invaluable work that enables people to access healthcare, legal aid, education, food security and disaster relief. They provide employment to thousands, and their role in empowering local communities, particularly women, is critical. According to Human Rights Watch, INGOs and their local partners impact the lives of about 20m Pakistanis annually, and they are needed precisely because successive governments have failed the people on so many fronts. However well-meaning, it will take the PTI government several years and huge amounts of money to address this historical dereliction of duty. One might have expected Ms Mazari to recognise that, rather than assume a stridently nationalistic tone that will not compensate for the loss of upliftment services to deprived sections of the populace.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2018

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