Under whose watchful eye?

INGOs have been required to set their record straight

Under whose watchful eye?

The government has recently ordered all International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) to renew their registration within three months. The registration will reportedly be done under strict terms.

The announcement comes at a time when nine INGOs, including Save the Children, have been put under the scanner for allegedly working against the national interest. Though specific charges have not been made public, information about their activities has been attributed to credible intelligence sources.

Against this backdrop, one wonders under which laws the INGOs operate in the country and who are they answerable to. Secondly, what new regulations are being drafted to regulate them and how would they help.

It is interesting to note that till late 2013, the INGOs had to simply sign an open-ended MOU with the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) and start operating in the country.

"No doubt, the INGOs have functioned with full independence and without interference for long but this will be over soon," says an official in the federal finance ministry on the condition of anonymity. He tells TNS that INGOs operate under different arrangements; some work with the help of partner organisations while others have presence on the ground and employ their own staff to execute their projects. They get funding from global donors and direct them to the country.

He says that since 2013, the INGOs working in the country have been asked to get registered under a "Policy for Regulation of Organisations Receiving Foreign Funds." This policy, he says, has been announced as an interim measure to regulate INGOs till the time the pending Foreign Contributions’ Bill is passed. So far, only 19 INGOs have been registered under this policy and their details are mentioned on EAD website," he adds. "It is time to bring the remaining under watch. The new arrangement will focus on periodic reviews and laying of regular reporting procedures," he says.

In fact, it is the pending draft bill which reflects on the policy mentioned above. Ishaq Dar had presented a private member’s bill titled, "Regulation of Foreign Contributions Act 2013" in the Senate on March 4, 2013. He was a member of the opposition in PPP-led federal government at that time. A look at the existing draft shows it is just a slightly modified version of that bill.

The official informs that under the existing policy, which draws inspiration from the Foreign Contributions Bill, the INGOs have to provide documents such as complete/detailed organisation profiles with potential and working staff strength (local and foreign) in Pakistan along with administrative/operational hierarchy, etc, proof of registration/incorporation in the country of origin, memo/article of association or constitution, if any, sources of funding/donations; project wise and donor-wise, letter of recommendation/endorsement by a competent officer of the respective embassy in Islamabad, their scope of work, geographical area where they will operate and so on.

Their staff will have to get a written approval to enter prohibited areas and any violation, therefore, will lead to revocation of permission to operate in the country, he adds.

Read also: Our anti-state NGOs

Ahmad Nadeem, a sociologist trained by LUMS as NGO Specialist, says the government can ensure transparency and accountability in the working of NGOs and INGOs in Pakistan by promoting a culture of proactive disclosure. Even if they comply with government regulations, he says, the information will not be in the public domain.

Nadeem, who is the National Coordinator of Campaign for Equity Transparency, Accountability and Impact in the Development Sector (CETAIDS), says that it shall be mandatory that INGOs share lists of their partners, total financial allocations, including complete details of all the projects in a simple format on their websites.

The details shall also be shared with the district government authorities and the "details of all the received funds, board members along with their contact details, minutes of board meetings, tax returns by the board members and the CEO, audit reports, verified copies of the registration certificates along with the name and contact number of verifying officer shall also be displayed prominently on the websites of the organisations," he adds.

A senior executive of an INGO, who does not want to be identified, believes that all the procedures being worked out have been in force for long and the government is simply trying to formalise them. "When the interior minister states they have been receiving intelligence reports from civil and military agencies, it means the interior ministry is already keeping an eye on them."

On the proposed role of the interior ministry, he believes it will be about grant of NOCs to travel to sensitive geographical locations, inspection of premises and confiscation of movable and immovable properties in cases of violation of rules, arrest and detention of culprits, and so on. "The monetary matters will remain with the EAD as before," he says.

The executive questions the logic of sharing minute details of expenses with the government when their accounts are being audited by certified chartered accountants and says it will simply lead to bureaucratic hurdles. He approves the maximum limit of 20 per cent on the use of foreign funds for administrative purposes, saying this will help check misappropriations of development funds.

Despite revision in laws, rules and regulations, he says, it is quite likely that INGOs will be charged with the crime of working against national interest -- a highly relative term. "The governments do not want to be criticised and may declare INGOs exposing their weaknesses or violations of laws anti-state," he concludes.

H. M. Shahid, a Lahore-based lawyer who deals in NGO registrations, hopes that regularisation of INGOs will help streamline the development sector. He says though the local NGOs have to follow stringent procedures to get registered, the INGOs act according to their free will and facilitate local partners of their own choice. He says local NGOs can be registered under different laws, according to the composition and scope of their work as mentioned below:

- The Societies Registration Act, 1860

- The Voluntary Social Welfare Agencies (Registration and Control) Ordinance, 1961

- The Voluntary Social Welfare Agencies (Registration and Control) Rules, 1962

- The Cooperative Societies Act, 1925

- The Companies Ordinance, 1984 - Section 42

- The Social Welfare Agencies (Registration & Regulation) Act, 1996

- The Trust Act, 1882

- The Charitable Endowment Act, 189

Shahid says if NGOs are made to provide details of their projects and procedures under which they disburse funds to the government. The deserving NGOs will also get a chance to get funds.

Under whose watchful eye?