"One group’s national sovereignty is another’s unfreedoms"

June 21, 2015

S. Akbar Zaidi takes a look at the evolution of NGO sector in Pakistan

The News on Sunday (TNS): Do you think there is some problem with the existing regulation and NGOs’ financial matters need to be made more accountable to the government than to overseas donors?

S. Akbar Zaidi (SAZ): Most NGOs (and I am taking some liberty and generalising here) seem to always be on a high moral horse, as if they are devoid of any misdeeds, of corruption, of inefficiency or misgovernance. NGOs are the first to accuse the government of any wrongdoing, often with good reason, but the NGOs themselves are seldom self-reflective or honest enough to acknowledge their own failings and misdemeanours. The self-righteousness of a very large proportion of NGO representatives (some notable exceptions stand out), particularly at the senior level, reeks of hypocrisy. Over-paid and underworked, they are the first to condemn the sloth and corruption everywhere else in society and in ‘the system’, except amongst themselves.

Many NGOs I have seen, some very prominent ones, have blanketly promoted corruption by dishing out exorbitant sums of money to consultants and dubious think tanks. Moreover, their accountability is largely to their donors, seldom to the people for whom they claim they work for. NGOs need to be held as accountable as any other organisation or government department.

TNS: Harshest critics of NGOs like Arundhati Roy think these depoliticise resistance. She says NGOs have come to replace state’s role with very limited funds so that people are given as aid what should be their right. In her view, this coincided with some international agencies demanding slash in government funding, all as part of a neoliberal project. Is that a correct assessment or is there a conspiracy theory at work and NGOs only filled a vacuum?

SAZ: Arundathi Roy is probably correct with regard to some countries which have a tradition of radical politics, but not for Pakistan. A depoliticisation requires a politics in the sense of the Left or revolutionary change. This critique may have been relevant when there was a movement for radical transformation and a reconfiguring of property rights and ownership and material conditions. In Pakistan I don’t see any politics of that sort today. Hence, NGOs, in the context of Pakistan, are not deradicalising, as the general claim seems to suggest, because there hasn’t been any radicalisation since the 1970s.

There are broadly two categories of NGOs, developmentalist ones and those for propagating advocacy and broad conscientisation or "awareness raising", as it is now called in NGO-speak. Developmental NGOs reflect state failure and fill the gap where the state has failed in its charter to provide basic services to its citizens. In many cases, especially in Pakistan, NGOs become partners or touts for the government, doing the government’s bidding. These NGOs are contractors for failed governments.

Advocacy NGOs are the ones which trouble conservatives and government more. They question the nature of rights of citizens and ask whether the state is fulfilling its promise to its citizens. They keep a check on the nature of freedoms at work in society and encourage citizens to ask for such basic rights.

Read also: The national interest bogey

TNS: Critics on the far right (as well as governments) think NGOs encroach on ‘national sovereignty’ and have a confrontational relationship with state organs. Thus NGOs are stigmatised and work under pressure from all sides. Comments.

SAZ: One group’s ‘national sovereignty’ is another’s unfreedoms. If some advocacy groups or individuals talk about justice, freedom or equal rights regardless of gender or religion, the religious right sees them as agents of the satanic West, and these groups work in such a challenging environment where they feel threatened.

On the other hand, numerous dubious, so-called, Islamic groups and NGOs function with complete freedom no matter which favourite and respected brother country funds them. Then there is no question asked about any sort of sovereignty.

One cannot avoid this issue of Islamic NGOs in Pakistan either, and here definitions become blurred. We know that there is an extraordinary flow of funds which comes into Pakistan from the Middle East (probably even more so than from western sources) which has a very clear political, social and cultural agenda. The business of building mosques, often numerous within earshot of each other, and madrassas, often attached to the mosques has been booming since the early 1980s. Many of these, and other religious organisations, also provide extensive social facilities, and provide education by building schools, health care through charity hospitals, and so on. Are these ‘NGOs’ or merely Islamic charity institutions?

Just like western NGOs, these organisations are also not value-free. While Pakistani lifestyle liberals condemn such Islamic organisations, Islamists and conservatives consider the work and outreach of ‘western’ NGOs as part of the global conspiracy to make Pakistan a liberal, secular, democratic and modern state.

TNS: What do you make of the government terming one NGO or the other ‘anti-state’ at one time or the other, especially when there is a sense the state has ignored the real anti-state elements at work?

SAZ: Anti-state for whom? The term ‘anti-state’ is relative. Certainly not for many state institutions who themselves build and support such so-called ‘anti-state’ NGOs. This clearly reveals the highly fractured nature of the state in Pakistan. Sometimes different fragments of what constitutes the state contradict and come into conflict with each other.

Advocacy NGOs are the ones which trouble conservatives and government more. They question the nature of rights of citizens and ask whether the state is fulfilling its promise to its citizens.

I don’t think the state ignores the anti-state elements, but sections of the state have defined their own particular and narrow interests and have supported numerous organisations and institutions to do their dirty work. In your parlance, this would be anti-state activity, and correctly so, but in the eyes of the various fragments of the state, these organisations are being very patriotic doing whatever it is they are told to do. One can come up with a long list of such organisations, ironically some of which are also banned, but are still being supported by state institutions. This way of looking at these organisations also gives the term ‘anti-state’ a different twist.

TNS: Like all other things, there is a tendency to talk about NGOs in generic terms but what has been the positive contribution of NGOs/INGOs in Pakistan and in which specific areas? Where would we be without an HRCP for instance?

SAZ: Yes, exactly. I too have generalised in my comments above and have done this largely for heuristic purposes. Of course one needs to differentiate. As I mention above, there are both developmentalist and advocacy NGOs, both playing a different role. Moreover, there are huge organisations which act like NGOs or follow NGO agenda, but would claim that they are not NGOs. PPAF, NRSP and its many offshoots, have become mega-NGOs, like Grameen and ASHA in Bangladesh, that they might be called parallel states even, not NGOs. AKRSP in Gilgit Baltistan has an excellent and impressive apparatus of facilities and it is doing what the state ought to be doing, so it becomes difficult to call it an NGO.

The problem is that there are not many HRCPs we can think of. We always come up with five or six large organisations which look and feel good and we call this our NGO sector. But, there are hundreds of thousands of small NGOs or Community Based Organisations or self-help groups everywhere in Pakistan. Many are so insignificant that donors haven’t discovered them as yet. Yet, they exist and try to serve their own constituency.

Related article: Balochistan: Where NGOs fear to tread

TNS: Are we in a position to do their overall impact assessment in some manner? If yes, who will do it and what will it look like?

SAZ: I have been asking people in the NGO sector for at least two decades to undertake an honest and thorough appraisal of their sector. There are numerous highly corrupt and fraudulent (ja’ali, is a more demonstrative term) NGOs and other organisations which now claim that they are NGOs, but are small clubs with perks and privileges. The NGO is now a business, a very profitable one, which donors have helped support and build as well. How can one expect the millionaire Mercedes or Land Cruiser driving NGO professionals to alleviate poverty without the millions that donors pay to such individuals and such organisations? We complain about the salaries of private sector bankers or media people, perhaps we should start with an inventory of who gets paid how much to alleviate poverty in Pakistan.

Not just individuals in NGOs or NGOs themselves, but there is a need to evaluate the role and contribution of donors who pour in billions of dollars into Pakistan, themselves. This is their tax payers’ money and they have a right to know how well their money is being spent in Pakistan. There is actually a need to broaden the terms of enquiry and see whether aid works at all or not.

There is a large amount of literature which has actually argued that while some interventions are very beneficial, many are not. Moreover, one needs to evaluate how much of the billions spent through non-state institutions or NGOs has actually helped in eradicating poverty. Is the high cost model of supporting high flying NGOs really helping the poor or is it just making many developmental professionals very, very, rich?

"One group’s national sovereignty is another’s unfreedoms"