International NGOs in Pakistan face an existential crisis after the government rejected the registration application of 27 of them
The fate of several INGOs is in limbo as the Interior Ministry has rejected applications seeking registration under a new system that was introduced in 2013. The country set strict rules and regulations for non-government organisations (NGOs) in general and international non-government organisations (INGOs) in particular after reports that an international organisation was involved in helping the CIA to track Osama bin Laden.
Authorities in Pakistan believe that Dr Shakeel Afridi, was hired by an international organisation that was covertly in contact with US spies tasked to find out the chief of al-Qaeda. The Laden incident infuriated Pakistani authorities and their anger was not only directed at the US government but also at INGOs whom they already treated with suspicion. Their alleged involvement lent credence to their doubts that these INGOs are working on a foreign agenda. This prompted authorities to come down hard on such organisations, asking the INGOs to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Finance and to get NOCs from the Interior Ministry.
Soon after coming into power, the PML-N government took upon itself to regulate INGOs. In November 2013, the government approved a policy for regulation of non-government organisations (NGOs) receiving foreign contributions to ensure transparent utilisation of funds and to streamline their activities. Under this policy all INGOs that previously operated on no objection certificates issues by the governemnt now needed a separate registration. Under the policy, the memoranda with INGOs would be signed for a period of up to five years. They would have to keep their activities and areas of work in plain view, as well as the sources and use of their funds.
The INGOs appreciated this process, hoping it would not create bureaucratic hurdles. They applied for registration under the new system but were flabbergasted when they received rejection letters. When contacted, most of the INGOs refused to speak over the issue, fearing it might have negative impact on their possible talks with the government. However, some INGOs issued statements offering their side of the story on the issue.
In a press statement, Action Aid said, "On December 6, 2017, Action Aid Pakistan Country Programme received a letter from the Ministry of Interior, Government of Pakistan, declining its application for registration under the new INGO Policy Framework". The statement went on to add that no rationale was given for this refusal despite the fact that this organisation had received a Certificate of Commendation from the Government of Pakistan in recognition of their humanitarian services during the devastating earthquake of October 8, 2005. The organisation has been given 60 days to close all operations.
Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), a conglomerate of various INGOs, also issued a statement; "To regulate the work of International Non-Government organisations the Ministry of Interior issued letters of rejection to a number of PHF member INGOs this week. These INGOs are working in Pakistan on a broad range of issues including education, health, food security, livelihood opportunities, provision of water and human rights."
The Interior Ministry went mum soon after the news broke, but after a few days they issued a statement admitting that the applications of several INGOs seeking registration have been rejected. Minister of State Tallal Chaudhry later informed the National Assembly that the applications of 27 INGOs were rejected.
The decision invited the ire of civil society. Reacting over the decision Asad Butt of HRCP said, "The rejection of INGOs’ applications seeking registration indicates that the state is skeptical of everyone and wants to stifle all dissenting voices in the name of security. It is very disappointing to see that on the one hand they are coming down hard on development sector organisations, on the other hand people like Hafiz Saeed are freely roaming about, setting up their network of welfare in remote corners of Sindh and Balochistan."
"It is not only a matter of INGOs, they are also tightening the noose around local NGOs. The HRCP does not get any funding from America or Russia, even then intelligence people come to our offices enquiring into this issue or that. They even try to stop us from holding press conferences. So, it is a way to stifle all dissenting voices and I think it is being done by intelligence agencies and not by the government," Butt added.
Prominent social activist Farzana Bari said, "The state does not want people to speak on human rights violations, particularly in Balochistan. Non-government organisations are vocal on issues like this and their reports are paid attention to internationally. If only local organisations speak on such issues, they will not carry much weight.
Bari added that as far as strict policies towards INGOs working for relief and in the social sector are concerned, I think such policies are being made to hide the incompetence of the government in areas hit by natural calamities or in the regions that are backward and where the government is unable to extend help. Such a trend is very worrying and all sections of society should oppose such moves."
Pakistan is a cash-strapped country. Many analysts believe the developing sector attracts around $400 million a year, which would be jeopardised because of the decision. "I know 11 INGOs working in health, education, bonded labour, child rights, water and hygiene. They have committed $124 million for projects that would benefit 8.7 million people but this decision would affect their projects badly," said an office-bearer of an INGOs’ network on condition of anonymity.
She dispelled the impression that INGOs spend a hefty amount on administrative matters. "Some donors only allow seven per cent administrative cost. Organisations’ financial systems are monitored through regular audits by donor agencies and in cases where administrative costs are higher than allowable costs, the cost becomes ineligible. The administrative cost is used to facilitate the delivery of projects to beneficiaries. Without administrative cost NGOs would not be able to implement the project."
Efforts are underway to convince the government that the decision is unwise. Some foreign missions are actively working to get the government to reverse the decision. "They are likely to meet government officials to express their reservations over the issue," said another member of an INGO.
Though government cited security as one of the reasons for rejecting the applications, a source in the Interior Ministry confirmed security as the main reason. "You know who deals with these issues. The applications were rejected purely on security grounds," an Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Sources in the development sector say INGOs have collectively requested the Interior Ministry to give them time for a meeting but they have not received any response so far.