PAKISTAN is grappling with three fundamental political challenges: how to strengthen democracy by attaining the supremacy of parliament over executive, particularly the military; how to run the country on the basis of constitutional federalism with equal stakes for all provinces and regions; and, how to build peaceful and mutually beneficial relationships with neighbouring countries.

The three unresolved economic issues remain: warranting consistent economic growth with interests of working classes secured; overturning the severe export-import imbalance; and creating decent living conditions — employment, education, and health — for all.

The three primary social problems we face are: eradicating gender disparity; ensuring protection, dignity and rights of religious minorities; and coping with widespread bigotry and intolerance in society.

The thinking and construct of Pakistani civil society gets materialised within the ambit of the nine challenges cited above. The term ‘civil society’ is not as simple to understand as terms like ‘political party’, ‘business’, ‘government’, ‘media’, etc. There are two somewhat divergent but connected views on the concept. Antonio Gramsci said that a capitalist state has two overlapping spheres: ‘political society’, which uses force, and ‘civil society’, which creates consent to further certain interests and norms.

Civil society organisations have raised their voices in favour of minorities, women, workers, and the protection of community rights. In doing so, they are facing increasingly sharp criticism from both state and society today.

Today, the international financial institutions and most Western academia define ‘civil society’ in managerial terms as the ‘third sector’, distinct from government and business, comprising non-governmental organisations (NGOs), labour unions, professional associations and faith-based groups.

Over the years, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, many civil society organisations struggled to get space for themselves while consenting with the hegemony of the established order of their respective societies.

In Pakistan, there was a rich history of labour unions from pre-Partition days. Until the early 1980s, unions thrived as the industrial sector grew. Later on, factors like elitist legal and judicial environment, systematic de-industrialisation, lack of implementation of labour regulations, and introduction of contractual labour has brought down the figure of unionised labour in Pakistan to the tune of only 2pc. For the 98pc, there is neither any collective bargaining agency nor does that possibility exist in many trades.

Farmers spread all over have a weak organisational capacity. Students are prohibited from unionising. Professional associations of doctors, engineers, accountants or the likes have interests limited to safeguarding their financial health as communities of practice. However, Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) have expanded their mandates to lobby for certain fundamental rights.

Most faith groups formed by the majority faith have either an antagonistic relationship with minority faiths or an ambition to capture political power. There are only a few among them who believe in creating a discourse based on interaction and dialogue. In contrast, most minority faith groups in Pakistan work closely with the NGO sector.

Consequently, it is the community development and human rights organisations, a few think tanks, and charitable foundations or trusts that constitute the bulk of the functioning civil society in Pakistan. Primarily, these are NGO.

In a broader sense they are now termed civil society organisations (CSOs), dealing with either the provision of basic services, or focussing on clusters of villages or neighbourhoods, or training and, in some cases, providing credit line to communities, or furthering the cause of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights through research, policy advocacy and campaigning, or prioritising social development and progressive legislation at the policy level.

In terms of their effectiveness in Pakistani society, CSOs have left a lot to be desired. As far as political issues are concerned, the number of organisations working on democratisation of political space is small. The promotion of peace with neighbours has come to a halt because the security policy of the state discourages such initiatives.

In terms of economic wellbeing of the people, CSOs could only provide sustenance to communities they work with, rather than eliminating poverty as a whole. Their coverage is by no means large, leave alone being universal. The unchecked population growth has hindered sustainable development, and a fragile economy imposes its own limitations. Charitable service providers are respected widely, but their outreach in limited.

When it comes to social issues, no doubt CSOs have successfully highlighted the concerns surrounding women and minority rights and problems faced by other excluded groups. But even after CSOs having influenced major policies and legislation in some areas, the larger society has become more radicalised than ever.

Due to perpetual negative propaganda of state organs, coupled with critique of both the religious right and the political left, the credibility of CSOs among the masses has been harmed. Ironically, they are also branded ‘foreign-funded’ in a country whose government and state apparatus itself relies heavily on foreign funding, loans and aid. Such is life!

The writer is a poet and author. He is currently the Secretary-General of the HRCP.

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