WITH the challenges of Covid-19 becoming more obvious, countries must construct a vibrant and responsive social sector response besides boosting the local economy, healthcare system, etc. This requires us to rethink participatory policy, interdependence, service delivery and, most importantly, democratic governance at all levels.
It is commendable that NGOs in Pakistan stepped in to help the needy during the lockdown even before the provincial and federal governments. However, when the PTI government tried to organise a voluntary response, it met with several challenges. The main question is: should, or can, the government marshal large-scale social action, or should it limit itself to its responsibilities, and facilitate the NGOs to engage in this area? After all, NGOs played an effective role in the social response to the earthquake and flood emergencies in 2005 and 2010 respectively.
However, NGOs suffered serious setbacks in their outreach and capacity since the introduction of the so-called INGO policy in October 2015 — ‘so-called’ because it defied its stated purpose of regulating the social sector; rather, it restricted the latter’s resources. Moreover, the policy lacked a proper legal basis and approval of policymaking forums eg the Council of Common Interests, the cabinet and parliament.
The interior ministry introduced this policy disregarding other policy interests, such as a free and diversified economy, foreign relations, infrastructure development and social services. The policy became a tool with which to repress INGOs and NGOs including local trusts, educational institutions, charities, church-based, development and human rights advocacy groups. No wonder the courts restrained the government each time an NGO approached the judiciary in 2017 and 2019 seeking remedy, though only a few NGOs could seek it.
Rules must be relaxed for INGOs and local NGOs.
In effect, all INGOs and NGOs receiving donations from abroad were required to re-register themselves with the interior ministry and the Economic Affairs Division of the finance ministry — a complicated, lengthy, expensive and inhospitable procedure. The process coincided with a smear campaign that cast doubts on the NGOs’ loyalty to the country. NGO workers were harassed by repeated visits from the security apparatus. As a result, thousands of well-intentioned, functioning and delivering NGOs gradually closed operations, increasing unemployment and putting extra burden on the government particularly with regard to education and health.
INGOs were so discouraged that many left after decades of services — the Catholic Relief Services (US) after 55 years, the Heinrich Boll Foundation (Germany) after 25 years and Trocaire (Ireland) after 15 years. In November 2019, the bank accounts of mostly rights-based organisations were closed. Some approached the courts to keep their accounts operational.
This arbitrary INGO policy followed the misadventure of closing the office of Save the Children International in June 2015. The action was extremely self-damaging as this organisation enjoying worldwide credibility had to be allowed to reopen within months. The government also faced embarrassment before the international community for an unjustifiable action.
Ironically, since the imposition of this policy, Pakistan’s public debt increased from Rs18.14 trillion in 2015 to Rs33.4tr in 2020. The debt burden increased by Rs6tr from February 2019 to February 2020. Foreign assistance declined drastically. For instance, the government received grant assistance of $447.7 million in 2013-2014 from bilateral and multilateral donors which fell to $160m in 2018-2019. International aid is often linked to civil liberties and transparency in a free economy.
In a welcome move, the interior ministry has relaxed the rules for select INGOs willing to engage in relief work after the coronavirus emergency for six months. In contrast, Punjab’s Provincial Disaster Management Authority requires that ration distribution by the NGOs be under its control. The two actions are inconsistent with one another.
Considering that the current emergency is likely to persist for some time, the relaxation must be extended to a wide range of INGOs and local NGOs. Moreover NGOs should be facilitated so that they can manage a balance between their accountability and response to the enormous need.
Though not simply for the emergency assistance related to the pandemic but, more importantly, with the understanding that cooperation allows nations to build inclusive societies, Pakistan should open its doors to all well-reputed INGOs/NGOs and align itself with the principles of a free and forward-looking society. The INGO policy should be immediately reviewed to allow all activities permitted by the law and reason.
The writer is executive director of the Centre for Social Justice.
Published in Dawn, April 28th, 2020