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The third sector

Opinion

June 2, 2020

The onset of the unprecedented and unforeseen coronavirus pandemic has brought into question many of the ideas, assumptions and biases we hold dear.

It has reminded us to reflect on what we can do away with, what is absolutely essential, and what we must change in the post-Corona world order. One such notion requiring introspection is the role of social development organizations or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) operating in Pakistan and their relation to the state.

NGOs, whether local or international, have commonly been viewed with a sceptical lens both by the public and the state. According to Gallup, one in two (51 percent) Pakistanis claim to not trust NGOs. Moreover, the state sees these organizations as competitors of its functions, grassroots influence and funds. It views the NGOs’ extended role as a threat to its own functional space, thereby creating operational barriers at the local, provincial government level.

The crackdown on NGOs over the last couple of years in the form of a bill engendering bureaucratic hurdles such as signing MOUs with the Economic Affairs Division, re-registrations with the Ministry of Social Welfare, ad-hoc approach to statutory affairs and granting power to the government to de-register, suspend or dissolve an NGO was basically the state’s attempt to assert dominance over NGOs.

Part of this stems from the state's mistrust in NGOs, specifically the international ones, when they take up advocacy roles for social and political rights. This activism is perceived as ‘western’, and misaligned with the state’s interests as it seems to have foreign influences. The mistrust is exacerbated by the threat posed by INGOs to national interests and national security, an allegation some would say is not entirely untrue in some cases. The expulsion of several INGOs in the past couple of years therefore has been in the name of pursuing anti-state agendas under the guise of their inability to meet regulatory requirements.

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has however reiterated the critical role NGOs and INGOs play in handling crises, providing relief efforts and mobilizing their networks to ensure that the most vulnerable are minimally affected. Different NGOs and INGOs have risen to the challenge of containing the coronavirus, along with providing a social safety net to the individuals and communities affected by the lockdown.

Whether it be the case of providing face masks, personal protection suits or temperature sensing devices to the general public, raising awareness about the coronavirus through distinct mediums or converting an educational space to a treatment facility equipped with medical and protective equipment, NGOs are contributing to the prevention of the coronavirus spread in the country. Moreover, numerous local and international NGOs extended their relief efforts during the lockdown to reach out to vulnerable populations with food rations and cash transfers to provide them with a temporary relief against loss of income.

NGOs working on specific development issues such as women empowerment, livelihoods, disabilities, minorities are ensuring that the most unsafe populace in the country is protected from this humanitarian crisis. Others are utilizing their grassroots, operational networks in remote, rural areas to raise awareness, as well as mobilizing their beneficiaries to be agents of change in their communities.

Realizing the necessity and substance of the task being executed by these organizations, the government has recently exempted local NGOs from signing MoUs with the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) to utilize foreign economic assistance for a period of six months. This temporary exemption has been accompanied by a relaxation in the red-tape processes for swift and smooth execution of relief activities. Likewise, NGOs have extended support to, and are now working in tandem with, the government in outreach to remote and difficult areas, accessing communities, identifying people in need, sharing data and raising awareness.

The coronavirus crisis has reasserted the space, or significance, for NGOs/social development organizations, as the Third Sector. The third sector historically is a notion derived from an understanding that there are two other sectors in political economy – the state and the market. A state that retracts itself from providing essential social services such as education, health and livelihoods and a private sector that is focused on profit maximization leave room for a third sector.

The crisis has reinstated the realization that the third sector does not necessarily have to be in competition with the state in crisis relief, development programmes or social services in more normal, post-coronavirus times as well. It can operate in collaboration with the state, continuing efforts to work on different development issues through institutional partnerships with the state under a more conducive regulatory and operational framework. The state cannot, and must not, view all social development organizations with a suspicious lens, as the community outreach of these organizations are invaluable for provision of social services.

The state should work closely with the third sector to ensure that social services are not to be provided only in crises, but can be expanded to vulnerable communities throughout the post-coronavirus times as well, whenever that might be.

The writer is head of monitoring and evaluation at Kaarvan CraftsFoundation in Lahore.