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Space for NGOs in Pakistan

Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 15:54

NGOs in Pakistan  are consistently being propagating the agenda of rights, be it labor rights, social security rights, protection rights through trade unions, alliances and networks around various sectors e.g. mineworkers, fisher folk, domestic workers, farmers etc. The competing realities of real time finances have gradually diluted the voice of NGOs but, nevertheless, it has continued to have a watch dog status through persistent activism and campaigning which is an area that can be strengthened further to consolidate the desired change in the lives of millions. Nowadays, it is often said that the space for NGOs/INGOs operating in Pakistan has reduced which has implications on their ability to work on short/long term issues, as well as responding to the humanitarian crises.

Democratic Space:

The process of Islamization that started in the Zia era had legitimized the role of religion in the political affairs of the state thus affecting the social fabric of the whole society. While tracing back the history of NGOs in Pakistan, Women Action Forum (technically not an NGO) comes to mind. The radical debate and opposition raised by WAF in 70s against the powerful military dictator is not to be seen now days, rather the stance/demands seem much more diluted now. Multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic social construct was forced to converge on religious identity hence reducing the democratic and open space available for any healthy discourse. In recent years this threat has become very visible and has been felt and observed by almost all civil society organizations but the organizations voicing against human rights abuses vis-à-vis women and minorities have been under the direct threat. The assassination of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab and Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities and an attack on Malala are just few examples. The number of organizations working on critical issues such as laws of evidence and inheritance , Qisas and Diyat (Q&A)  and Blasphemy Law, which unfairly victimize  the already most vulnerable and most marginalized groups in society, have been remarkably reduced not because these issues have been addressed but due to absence of safe and open space. In a country infested with patriarchal mindset,  this reduced space contributes in furthering the marginalization of women, children, and minorities through inter-religious/ sectarian, tribal violence and violence against women at community level, mirroring deep rooted and culturally embedded ‘structural violence’. Often, these violations occur along various identity lines, while the actual root cause remain the same, which is access to and control over resources, opportunities and ultimately power.

Fragile Security Situation

Security concerns and violence are widespread throughout Pakistan. More recently, we have seen the sharp increase in killings of polio workers across the country, teachers and health workers and more recently famous rights activist Parveen Naz was killed  in Karachi. Evolving security threats, in particular kidnappings-for-ransom have further hampered activities and staff movements, compelling some international organizations to recall staff and to scale down or  in some cases close their operations. In the most prominent case, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), after the beheading of a kidnapped expatriate worker in Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, closed offices in Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi (ICRC Report). The killing of NGO staff/offices involved in reproductive rights of women, education and empowerment have been easy target of indiscriminate killings, threats and bomb blasts. While acknowledging that working for human rights, especially in challenging situations and circumstances, involves a high likelihood of political and security risk, NGOs/INGOs are showing their resilience through enabling the staffs with necessary skills, knowledge and capacity. Most of the organizations are not taking security management as a restrictive necessity rather ensuring continuity even under difficult conditions.

Reliance on National Partners:

The unpredictable political and security situation along with operational considerations increases the reliance of INGOs on national NGOs as partners for development. INGOs work with partners, coalitions and alliances helping them in advancing the struggles of excluded people through generating more sustainable support at local level which adds value by bringing in local perspectives and help in addressing many operational issues. The credibility and reputation of INGOs (donors in this case) rely on the operations and management of national partners. With deteriorating security situation and restrictions by the government, monitoring and evaluating the work done by local partners becomes extremely challenging. Many credible and well reputed international organizations lose their goodwill and reputation because of the weak management systems set in place by the local partners which potentially risks the credibility of organization.

Trust Deficit:

The vision and mission statements of various NGOs/INGOs show their commitment to bring about a lasting change on the lives of people with whom they work. But in reality, the promises have not been fulfilled for millions. The absence of “real impact” at a societal level of NGOs work has reduced the trust of public on their operations. The public trust on Madrassa’s, SOS Villages and Eedhi (local charity) is far better placed than most of the INGOs/NGOs operating in Pakistan which gives them a far better playing field as compared to their other counterparts. These organizations have better public image, support, funds and sustainability. The public perception of NGOs as “working on western agenda” with very less impact to be demonstrated on the ground has been further strengthened by the absence of accountability mechanism within the NGO management systems. Public legitimacy and support is extremely important to carve out a more open space for the operations of organizations, primarily working for the rights of people.