In a rare precedent, ambassadors of influential countries have jointly sent an official communication to the government of Pakistan about halting their assistance to Pakistan.
United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, Norway and European Union (EU) have taken the decision over the lingering registration issue of International Non Governmental Organisations (INGOs) operating in Pakistan. They have politely conveyed to Islamabad that they were going to halt their humanitarian and development aid.
This whole controversy came into the limelight during the tenure of former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who had shifted the dealings of INGOs from the domain of the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) to Ministry of Interior. He had seen it from the security lens, while ignoring the realities and requirements of the developmental sector of the country.
Since the inception of the EAD, the INGOs and donors were being handling by this division, which had the expertise to deal with the matter in consultation with the Foreign Office and security agencies. The unfortunate episode of Dr Shakil Afridi helping US track down Osama Ben Laden from Abbottabad gave out wrong signals and perceptions about the INGO sector. However, instead of putting the whole INGO sector under the axe, individuals involved in any undesired activities should be identified and the security establishment should have powers to cancel their visas and stay in Pakistan on the basis of solid evidence. There also should be a complaint redressal mechanism for resolving genuine complaints and issues.
Of course the security of the country is the most important aspect, which cannot be ignored and compromised, but over sensitivity and tackling the issue with only one eye would not resolve our problems. Instead of banning INGOs, the security establishment should identify those individuals who are using INGOs as a cover while working in guise as spies to undertake other operations. Banning the whole sector in such cases is not the solution.
Due to the development sector requirements, Pakistan’s budget revolves around 3Ds including debt servicing, defence and development. There are other major expenditure heads including running of the government and subsidies.
After enactment of the last Finance Commission Award (NFC) during the tenure of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) led regime, the Federal Divisible Pool (FDP) comprising of collected taxes was distributed among the centre and provinces, out of which the share of provinces stood at around 62 percent after inclusion of subventions and other grants.
With shrinking federal share in tax revenues, the federal government has to meet the increasing debt servicing and defence requirements. Islamabad has been left with no other option but to seek loan and grants for meeting all other expenses. These other expenses include the development and running of the government, as well as the subsidies needed to run the loss-making public sector entities like the power sector, Pakistan International Airlines, Steel Mills and others.
In the prevailing scenario related to budgetary constraints, choices are now limited. The formulation of a balanced strategy was necessary to deal with any individuals involved in undesirable activities. Such individuals should not be spared from punishment, but slapping a ban on the entire INGO sector would not solve our problems.
The letters from the ambassadors of Australia, Canada, EU, Japan, Norway and United States should be taken seriously. In their joint letter to the federal minister for interior, they have conveyed their deep concerns over the matter of delay in the registration process of the INGOs. They’ve called it a worrying development, especially in reference to the issuance of letters to a number of INGOs, informing them that their registrations have not been approved by the ministry.
They ambassadors have argued that while they remain fully supportive of a clear and transparent registration process for the INGOs, the letters issued by the ministry do not state the reasons for rejecting the registration requests. The time given to the INGOs to cease their operations is 60 days and the timeframe for appeal is 90 days, meaning that the INGOs may have to close operations before their appeals are concluded, they argued in the letter.
“Therefore, we specifically request that INGOs that have had their registration rejected be given a specific justification based on transparent guidelines, and further guidance on the appeals process. In addition, INGOs should be allowed to continue operations while the appeals process is ongoing and, if their appeal is unsuccessful, be given adequate time for a responsible exit.”
The letter also reminds of the importance of the various development goals. “The work of INGOs is vital to the achievement of the goals defined in Pakistan's Vision 2025, the Sustainable Development Goals, Family Planning Summit commitments, Open Government Partnership commitments and the implementation of Pakistan's international commitments. INGOs remain important partners for both the government of Pakistan and donors,” they added.
In 2017 alone, the INGO sector as a whole reached 34 million people with humanitarian relief and development assistance.
“Further, the shrinking of operating space for civil society will make it increasingly difficult for development partners to continue to make the argument for supporting humanitarian and development assistance in Pakistan,” the ambassadors’ state in the joint letter, and finally conveyed to Islamabad in their concluding remarks that it might also act as a disincentive to foreign investors considering investing in Pakistan.
The Pakistani side argued that all ministries concerned, including the Ministry of Interior, Economic Affairs Division, Foreign Affairs and security agencies should jointly work out a mechanism for INGOs to avoid giving out the wrong signal at a time when external difficulties were rising in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s latest tweet against Pakistan.
First of all, the handling of INGOs should be reverted back to the Economic Affairs Division as the Ministry of Interior was not fully equipped to handle the situation after arising out of the lingering controversy many times after a pause of a few months.
The government has convened an important meeting next week, where it will to sit down with donors to resolve this issue once and for all. Without devising a transparent mechanism for INGOs, Pakistan will have to face criticism at different international forums for halting operations of these organisations using their skills and resources to bridge the gap where the government had failed to deliver in the last 70 years since independence.
It can only be done by striking a balance between security and development needs of the country. Many other countries have done it successfully and it is doable in Pakistan as well. There is need to convince the security establishment that it’s easier for them to monitor and track down the activities of a few INGOs for identifying unscrupulous elements. Enemies working against the interest of Pakistan would not sit idle after the banning of INGOs. They would definitely come up in other guises which could become more difficult to track.
“Without a balanced approach, our difficulties on the diplomatic front will increase manifold and the country cannot afford further isolation at this stage,” one federal secretary commented and concluded that efforts were under way to resolve this controversy as early as possible.
The writer is a staff member