The federal government has, on June 11, 2015, closed down a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that had strong networking inside and outside of Pakistan. Pakistanís Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, led the onslaught against NGOs working in Pakistan, claiming that some of these organisations were working against Pakistanís national interests. NGOs were also blamed for promoting foreign political and social agendas.

The interior ministerís outburst against NGOs can be traced to the recent controversy involving two convicts on death row being underage when their trial for murder started. Some NGOs actively campaigned for saving them from the death sentence, getting the European Union (EU) involved in the matter. The EU not only opposed Pakistanís decision to resume the implementation of the death sentence, but also took up the cause of at least one of the two aforementioned convicts.

It seems that the federal government will build pressure on all kinds of NGOs that have proliferated over the last 25 years by seeking information on their internal and external funding, their goals and objectives and tasks done so far. The government may consider introducing a tough law to regulate their activities. However, given the governmentís track record of being inconsistent ó strong in rhetoric and weak in action ó it may stop after taking action against some or collecting basic information about them. The NGO world in Pakistan is large and influential and the federal government is likely to find it difficult to successfully take steps against them. It will also face pressure from international financial institutions and Western countries that have been instrumental in strengthening the role of NGOs.

NGOs have always focused on human welfare, education, medical care, the protection of women, free legal assistance, welfare of orphans and protection of rights and interests of the weak segments of society. Some such organisations focus on religious and community affairs. The role of NGOs gained prominence in the post-Cold war era (post-1991), when Western countries began to give special attention to promoting voluntary societal activity for societal development and strengthening of democracy. The United Nations, international financial institutions and several Western countries began to support an active role of societal groups and organisations for socioeconomic development, advancement of civil and political freedoms and rights, strengthening of participatory governance and community development. The underlying assumption was that they needed to go beyond the bureaucratic network of government machinery and directly interact with society in order to encourage non-official, voluntary societal activism to promote what was described as participatory development, societal welfare and civic awareness, especially democratic education.

The Kerry-Lugar-Berman law (2009) provided economic assistance to Pakistan for five years (2010-2015), disbursing around one billion dollars a year. It boosted NGO activity by spending a part of this funding through NGOs and relevant societal groups. The EU and Japan also partnered with societal groups for socioeconomic development. The availability of foreign funds proliferated NGOs in Pakistan allowing them to pursue welfare and educational agendas for the whole country. These NGOs devised their programmes on the basis of the donorsí agendas. This provided jobs and paid tasks to a large number of educated people. Though these groups have to fulfil certain legal requirements to function as NGOs, they enjoyed a lot of freedom to pursue their programmes and the donorsí agendas.

The role of NGOs in human and societal development has been positively significant, opening new avenues for participatory development and encouraging voluntary activities that helped to deal with issues neglected by the government. However, these organisations faced criticism from official and non-official circles because they took on the governmentís political, social, defence and security priorities. The latter activity brought them in conflict with militant groups.

If Pakistanís federal government wants to assert its regulatory role on non-government voluntary groups, it will have to do so in a nondiscriminatory manner. Any partisan use of state power will be counter-productive. The government is not expected to succeed if it only targets NGOs that have become active in the post-Cold War era. There are three major types of NGOs and societal groups working in Pakistan in addition to political parties and their affiliated organisations: NGOs, charity-collection and charity-based groups, and madrassas and religious-sectarian groups. These are overlapping categories. All will have to be treated in the same manner when it comes to application of the existing or new laws. The federal government has made several attempts since September 2001 to reform and regulate the madrassa system in Pakistan. The madrassa organisations opposed active state intervention in their institutions, especially regarding the sources of funding, background information on students, professional qualifications of teachers, and books and reading material. The latest attempt to regulate madrassas was initiated as a follow-up of the National Action Plan. By now this effort has faltered.

If the federal government decides to go after the NGOs alone, this attempt is expected to fail the way the madrassa reforms waned. The government will have to take up NGOs, charity collections groups and organisations and the madrassas system simultaneously. All of them should provide information on sources of funding, personnel, and the work done over the years. Their audit and performance reports should be available to the media. The abolition of NGOs and other societal groups is neither possible nor desirable. However, their funding, activities and processes need to be made more transparent. It is difficult to predict if the government will demonstrate enough political will to enforce such steps in a non-discriminatory manner. Perhaps, it will move to another controversy after a few weeks.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 15th, 2015.