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June 25, 2017

The problem with NGOs


June 25, 2017

Everyone is feeling the pinch in the NGO sector. Where will new funds come from and how will they maintain operations and pay staff? The state is partly to blame.

It began a few years ago with its multi-pronged approach which suggested policy reforms that would require NGOs to re-register and also subject themselves to a new regime of surveillance. This approach would demonise NGOs as serving the interests of foreign governments and require no-objection certificates (NoCs) to implement projects and initiate a seemingly random pattern of repression against activists.

For some donors, this was a good enough logistical and political reason to leave stealthily while the bigger unspoken reason may have been geopolitics. We are shifting into a new era where Western geopolitical interest in Pakistan is waning. Economic and military assistance to Pakistan peaked in 2010 and has been gradually dropping. Programmes funding women’s rights, the soft-wing of geopolitics – important as they are, irrespective of the Western saviour – are gradually slowing down. China is the new economic frontier and the West, anticipating a loss of business contracts and commercial interests, is checking out.

How to do we reignite real-life activism? How do we make NGO work sustainable? Are we going to scramble our way through to the few remaining donors citing unique and effective strategies? This is the time we need to cultivate honest debate around NGOs and the main problems we are facing.

We have a leadership deficit. We are constantly in search of enlightened mentors – of which there are few – only to wake up and find that the alleged seniors are not flawless. They hold on to power, demand deference, conceal information, bank on old accomplishments and do not actively make space for younger people to take the reins.

More destructively, they exploit and build their power by defaming or dismissing those who challenge their leadership or offer critique, saying harmful things to younger people (“You don’t have it in you”) and fostering a toxic culture where one views others doing human rights work with fear. Thus, a culture of jealousy pervades within NGOs. People see others doing work within what they consider to be their terrain as a threat to their ownership of (and funding for) that issue – be it gender or labour. This leads to a poverty of analysis in the country. NGOs mimic Western corporate culture, pay self-serving respect to elders and thereby uphold their privilege.

The concept of leadership is steeped in Western liberalism. The practice of Western donors adopting individuals as the darlings of human rights work is usually infused with liberal notions of identity, the individual surmounting circumstance and a form of patronising racism. Those on the outside viewing in may zoom in on certain individuals and then drop them with equal haste.

A market-based approach runs through NGOs, where your value is measured by the funds you collect. The catch-22 is that unless you have funds you cannot sustain quality work. In this confusing mess, one must make room to challenge Western liberalism and how its benevolent adventurism harms us. Losing one’s privilege or podium can be scary. But it is precisely one of the paths to enlightenment.

This leads us to the next issue. Foreign donors drive goals. The convening of NGOs on a certain issue is at the behest of donors rather than pushed from below and unsupervised. We conflate our agendas with those of foreign governments and private donors. We are coerced to see an issue as isolated and its importance measured by the dollars available for it. Gender oppression is as much caused by corporate expansionism and reckless military adventures as by the missing state, societal attitudes and discriminatory laws.

NGOs have de facto neglected areas, which foreign donors may be indifferent or hostile towards. Talking ourselves into affirmations of the efficacy of drone strikes, pretending to be oblivious to how the extractive industry undermines women’s rights, seeing minority issues in fixed categories such as blasphemy law or forced marriage, we unwittingly contract the space for meaningful dialogue. Most people in the NGO sector were once in movements and thus do see things holistically. Yet, they do not see any practical way to link NGO work to the problem of neoliberalism and its progeny-war. They start to speak in riddles.

Religious admonition and nationalism are tools of control in the hands of the local power elites. They serve the interests of global elite while, ironically, shaming people for abandoning faith and doubting institutions. In the face of this deadly drama and the changing tide of geopolitics, we need cohesive and broad alliances – rather than individuals rocking the boat – that challenge donors, question their strategies and place them within the larger political context of people’s rights and the planet’s well-being.

We have ignored local philanthropy far too long. Evidently, there is no dearth of funds at home or in the Diaspora for evangelism. We can debate the spirituality underlying listening to a sermon in an air-conditioned room versus working the field in 50-degree weather. But ultimately, philanthropy can and should be steered by human rights. We need to actively re-shape philanthropy toward economic rights – the unequivocal right to food and an income.

Our real issue is that people do not have jobs or living wages. Sadly, the few who are associated with NGOs go when funding goes. But if the government did its job, there would be no NGOs. NGOs are the ones capacitating the government; and the state, while mismanaging funds, is also looking for foreign donors.

If we can spend money to raze villages so that companies can resurrect them and spend billions to defend ourselves and yet remain defenceless, we can surely invest in government school lunches. What is digestible, however, in the world market of donors and their ilk, is a girl from a slum who overcomes obstacles to become educated.

Amazing as that maybe, ordinary children are not always geniuses with grit and cannot pull themselves out of poverty or defeat childhood malnutrition. Picking up the scraps, the social sector needs to re-invent itself and stop this needless infantilisation by others and this will have to start with open and radical dialogue.


The writer teaches law and works on social and human rights issues.   

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: oil_is_opium

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