The state of NGOs/INGOs/civil society during the PML-N (2013–2018) and PTI (2018–) governments

PML-N (2013-2018) and PTI (2018-) governments

The period beginning in 2013 is seen as the worst time in Pakistan’s history for NGO/INGO/civil society spaces. The PML-N government in November 2013 issued a controversial administrative order that calls upon even long-established INGOs to re-register, and the registration requirements are onerous. The INGOs consider the order to be a violation of the existing registration laws (Tehsin 2017). The INGOs are already registered with the Economic Affairs Division of the Ministry of Finance as required by law. Why are they being pressured under the November 2013 order? (Ibid.). INGOs say the process of re-registering is cumbersome and ultimately puts them under the threat of being shut down or having their MoU revoked.

According to Dr Suleri (2017), global civil society organizations including INGOs in Pakistan are not the agenda bearers of the West, as their critics claim; rather, they are very much part of the globally recognized development and humanitarian agenda as agreed by national governments and duly funded and supported by the donor community. So, NGOs/INGOs are part of a developmental and humanitarian process in all countries, including donor countries.

The situation is not better for domestic NGOs. All of them are registered under the prescribed laws as described above, but they have been asked to re-register with the Ministry of Interior and also the Economic Affairs Division, under similar rules and procedures as INGOs, before they may receive foreign funding directly or through INGOs. The fact is that INGOs already declare foreign funds routed through them to NGOs to the Economic Affairs Division. Now, however, NGOs must make a duplicate declaration to the Ministry of Interior. During this process, government officials are reported to have asked totally irrelevant questions, as if the officials are oblivious of the globally acknowledged role of civil society and Pakistan’s own commitments in this regard (Tehsin 2017).

The federal government - specifically, the Interior Ministry and the Economic Affairs Division of the Ministry of Finance - says that the new process is intended to streamline funding to INGOs/NGOs by making accountability transparent during a period of escalating security risks. For their part, leaders of INGOs and NGOs say that they have no issue with accountability and scrutiny, or even with more layers of registration, but when they are asked to address irrelevant questions, they wonder about the government’s real intentions and worry that the government aims to stop or impede the important rights-based work that INGOs/NGOs undertake (Tehsin 2017 and 2020).

Veteran human rights activist Rahman (2017,2020) says the government is pushing civil society to the wall and does not have any clear-cut policy

Clearing misconceptions about Pakistan 67 towards NGOs/civil society. The government considers NGOs/civil society to be inconsistent with their vision of an ‘autocratic democracy’. To counter this vision, Rahman argues, civil society groups must demand a written and clear policy duly endorsed by the Parliament, so that they can protect their rights and raise their voice through their parliamentary representatives. If the process is routed through the Parliament and a piece of a written policy is passed, it will reduce the chances of authorities to use arms-twisting and arbitrary powers to silence civil actors.

If the government is not satisfied with the four existing registration laws, it should make laws that genuinely streamline NGOs/civil society and clearly improve the system, instead of using the existing processes to hide their autocratic style of governance. Since there is too much pressure on civil society, which already has made substantial compromises on its mission and objectives amid fears of being blamed as ‘anti-state’, there is a dire need for civil society to redefine and reassert its pro-people role in Pakistan’s democratic society (Rahman 2017).

Rahman told a meeting of the Pakistan Civil Society Forum (PCSF) in Islamabad in October 2017:

This is unfortunate that ‘armed non-state actors’ [illegal entities] and those taking stand against state are free to work, but NGOs/INGOs [legal entities whose accounts are audited for accountability] are being pushed; and through a deliberate attempt, they are being rendered irrelevant as they are not being allowed to work with communities. To counter, this state of pressure, NGOs have to take part in a political process and take a position on the deteriorating situation of the rights of the people and have to improve the governance of NGOs as well.

Civil society has to face a series of challenges to their work. In addition to new requirements for registration, including submission of countless irrelevant documents and lack of any transparent mechanism to deal with the registration process, NGOs face long delays and a registration staff that acts with impunity. In addition, NGOs/INGOs may not pursue their mandates until they have obtained a separate ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) for each activity; getting an NOC is also a cumbersome process. The government justifies its actions on the basis of‘national security’. Amid theories of fourth- and fifth-generation wars, the authorities in Pakistan claim that NGOs/INGO may damage national security and image of the country if they are allowed to function freely.

Civil society on social media

From outside Pakistan, some analysts think that civil society groups and individuals from Pakistan seem active on social media, where they express their thoughts and even bitterly criticize the government and its agencies. This is only partly true.

The social media space where Pakistanis are seen as vibrant is largely used by individuals and political workers, though some civil society groups also use social media for their rights-based campaigns. There are complaints by the women journalists and politicians that the charged social media activists hailing from social media wings of some of the political parties undertake trolling and unethical practices through fake images and news, thus reducing space for them.

No civil society organization that uses social media from within Pakistan can dare to enjoy ‘unlimited’, ‘unchecked’ and ‘fake information’ based social media, as they are subject to cyber-crimes laws and other laws of the land. The PTI government (2018-) is now introducing new controls over social media and fake news. It is a myth that civil society organizations including rights groups, NGOs/INGOs operating from Pakistan are vibrant on social media and are critical of government policies. Rather, they have to be careful; if they cross as-yet-undefined lines, they might have to face the music in terms of legal action by the authorities. Moreover, they would have to face the wrath of thousands of politically motivated cadres on social media who would brand them ‘anti-state’ or ‘agents of enemies’. Those civil society groups or individuals who use social media freely either operate from outside Pakistan or do so through proxies. Civil society on social media should further be assessed through a new research study.

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