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Opinion

June 22, 2015

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Saving the NGOs

There are many reputable international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) established or funded by official and semi-official agencies of different countries or by private donors, which are doing useful work all over the world in the promotion of laudable political, economic, social and humanitarian goals.
At the same time, it is true that many INGOs carrying innocuous-sounding labels have been set up, mainly by western countries, to serve their foreign policy interests or promote their ethical and cultural values. Some of these values, like democracy and human rights are universal, while others like gay rights are considered anathema by many countries, or others that fall in the grey zone – like the abolition of the death penalty.
It is also no secret that some INGOs harbour foreign agents working against the interests of the host country with or without the knowledge or complicity of the parent organisation itself. INGOs provide an excellent cover for clandestine activity by hostile foreign agencies such as intelligence-gathering and subversion in the country in which they operate. Perhaps the most notorious recent example is that of the CIA setting up a fake vaccination programme of the Save the Children Fund to plant Shakil Afridi in order to trace the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and to eliminate him. Afridi was certainly not the only CIA agent in Pakistan using an NGO cover for clandestine activities. Nor, to be fair, is the US the only country that uses NGOs for these nefarious purposes.
Given such a varied and mixed record, it is hardly surprising that NGOs are often viewed with suspicion by many host countries. Most governments therefore seek to regulate and monitor their activities with the aim of curbing those activities which are considered inimical to the national interest. The US itself led the way by passing the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara) in 1938. It requires all those individuals or legal persons which receive money

from a foreign entity to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’. Fara was passed by the US Congress in response to the activities of German propaganda agents in the US before the Second World War. This law was used in 2012 to convict Ghulam Nabi Fai, executive director of the Washington-based Kashmiri American Council (KAC), to two years’ imprisonment.
Many other countries have also adopted legislation similar to Fara. Somewhat incongruously, the US is now their main critic.
In Pakistan, which plays host to a vast number of international NGOs, some with a dubious reputation, there is as yet no law to regulate their activities in a transparent or predictable manner. The Economic Affairs Division, which has been entrusted with the job of regulating and monitoring the activities of the international NGOs, has certainly not shown itself to be equal to the task. In the absence of clear-cut rules, its oversight of NGOs has been patchy, haphazard, opaque and arbitrary. Besides, there is insufficient coordination with other concerned ministries such as interior and foreign affairs. Often the EAD is unable to withstand pressure from NGOs which have the backing of countries belonging to the ‘donor’ community.
This catastrophic state of affairs, as well as the Nawaz government’s evident inability to stand up to pressure from powerful countries behind the INGOs came into sharp focus in the government’s disastrous handling of the Save the Children case. The sequence of events tells a shocking story of a grossly incompetent government that is incapable of taking decisions rationally and of defending the national interest in the face of external pressure.
It started with a letter issued by the Economic Affairs Division on June 11 stating that the government had asked Save the Children International to close its offices and operations in Pakistan and ordered its expatriate staff to leave the country within 15 days. Though the orders were issued by the EAD, their real author was the interior minister. As if to remove all doubts, he himself told the press a day later that the closure of the Save the Children office was part of a wider crackdown against NGOs engaged in anti-national activities and that the government could not allow “anti-state NGOs to operate under the umbrella of the good ones.”
The government’s decision to ban Save the Children prompted a sharp reaction from Washington through a press statement of the State Department urging the government of Pakistan to “standardise and streamline a transparent process that will allow INGOs, including Save the Children, to work legally in Pakistan”. The US concern is believed to have been expressed in even sharper terms through diplomatic channels. The Brits also threw in their weight behind Save the Children.
Largely because of US pressure, the government has since effectively rescinded its decision to ban Save the Children, while trying to save its face as best as it could. First, the order on Save the Children was suspended. Then, a meeting chaired by the prime minister on June 16 decided that all INGOs presently working in Pakistan will continue to function for a period of six months.
In typical Nawaz fashion, who always shies away from taking hard decisions, the drafting of future legislation on NGOs was entrusted to a committee. According to a government press release, an inter-ministerial committee headed by the prime minister’s special assistant on foreign affairs, which has been debating the matter inconclusively for some time, will recommend guidelines of draft legislation for “streamlining the work of the INGOs in Pakistan” and for a “monitoring and oversight mechanism to ensure compliance with the law”.
Legislation to ensure transparency in the activities of INGOs has in fact been mooted for a couple of years but has yet to materialise. In November 2013, the Economic Coordination Committee of the Cabinet approved a policy framework for this purpose. A Foreign Contributions Bill has also been drafted by the Government but it has still not been presented for approval by parliament. This is largely because several INGOs, with the backing of the sponsoring western governments, have expressed reservations over the proposed new monitoring mechanism which they consider to be unduly stringent.
In a meeting with the finance minister last April, the US ambassador spoke about the NGOs’ concerns and fears at alleged high-handedness of government agencies during the process for their registration and urged that the views of INGOs and the donor agencies should be taken into account by the government in preparing the new law. Instead of telling the ambassador that making Pakistani laws was not their business, Dar reportedly said apologetically that the finance ministry was in contact with donor agencies and INGOs and was seeking their views. He assured the ambassador that all efforts would be made to craft a “balanced” piece of legislation – in other words one that takes the concerns of the INGOs on board.
Given this attitude and the timid manner in which the government caved in to external pressure in the Save the Children case, it appears unlikely that the law being drafted by the government would provide for effective monitoring of the INGOs. The outcome will be watched not only by the INGOs themselves and the western governments which sponsor them but also by a good number of Pakistani NGOs that receive funding from foreign agencies, often routed through INGOs.
Quite naturally, the foreign funding provided to Pakistani NGOs comes with strings attached. One sign is that the agenda pursued by Pakistani NGOs receiving money from foreign sources ties in neatly with that of their benefactors. It is usually a safe bet to say that a Pakistani NGO is receiving foreign money to carry out its activities if it is talking a lot about religious extremism in Pakistan, about madressahs as a breeding ground of terrorism, about the supposed necessity of opening trade with India, or against capital punishment but remains silent on the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination, on Indian-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan, and on India’s military threats to Pakistan.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

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