As Pakistan cracks down on NGOs, civil society questions next steps

Female employees of Save The Children check information from Saqlain, whose house has been completely destroyed during the 2010 floods in Pakistan. Photo by: Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties / CC BY-SA

LAHORE, Pakistan — When Iftikhar Nizami, the former country director of ActionAid in Pakistan, received a government notice to shut down his NGO’s operations in December, he was stunned. In 2005, the South Africa-based organization distributed critical emergency relief during a major earthquake in Kashmir, prompting the government to issue a letter lauding its humanitarian and development assistance. Now the government was striking a different tone altogether. “If there was more communication and discussion beforehand, it would’ve been very helpful,” Nizami said of the decision. “I am sure there are misunderstandings.”

“We are very transparent: We are following international regulations, we do audits from companies, we share all of the information with the government. We follow all the directives,” Nizami stressed.

Nevertheless, ActionAid is one of more than 20 international NGOs that the Pakistani government has expelled from the country in December — giving them until January 25 to wind down their operations. The list of organizations affected — which includes Marie Stopes, World Vision, the Danish Refugee Council, Plan International, and Open Society Foundations — has left the entire civil society sector reeling and questioning the way forward in an uncertain environment. The affected areas of operation are wide reaching, ranging from INGOs that provide services to Afghan refugees in Pakistan to organizations helping Pakistani women access contraception.

“It is unfortunate that the process has taken this direction,” said Nargis Khan, the policy and communications adviser for the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, a network representing 63 NGOs, including 11 of the organizations asked to leave.

“These NGOs are working in the areas where there are no services,” Khan added. Those 11 organizations alone employed 6,000 local Pakistani staff and had allotted approximately $124 million in aid to serve 8.7 million people throughout Pakistan in 2018. “This is funding lost to Pakistan,” Khan pointed out.

Pakistan uses regulations to tighten grip on INGOs

Byzantine and ambiguous legal processes, unclear regulations, and ad hoc security requirements hinder the work of international NGOs in a country where distrust of foreign funded entities runs deep.

The expulsion of foreign NGOs comes at a time when United States aid to Pakistan has been cut, and many segments of Pakistan’s civil society are increasingly under assault. As Pakistan loses key security-related funding from the U.S., it does not appear to be changing its tone toward foreign NGOs providing economic and development assistance.

Civil society remains under threat: In recent months, the country has witnessed everything from the abduction of liberal social media users to the enforced disappearance of activists and university students. For activists, the government’s latest move has intensified fears that the government is broadening the scope of who it sees as a threat. “It adversely affects the entire democratic climate in Pakistan,” said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “It’s clearly part of a larger pattern which reflects a shrinking space for freedom of expression and association,” Ijaz added.

In the last few years, INGOs have come under increased scrutiny. In 2015, new regulations brought all foreign NGOs under the purview of the ministry of interior, which has the power to reject NGO registrations or arbitrarily rescind permissions to work in the country for broad, vague reasons: “NGOs working against Pakistan’s strategic, security, economic, or other interests will have their registration cancelled,” then-Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan warned in 2015.

“Making the ministry of interior the relevant ministry was a formal acknowledgment Pakistan would view the INGO issue through a security lens,” Human Rights Watch’s Ijaz told Devex. In 2011, Save the Children aroused the ire of the Pakistani government when a Central Intelligence Agency-recruited doctor running a fake vaccination program claimed he worked for the international aid group. While the organization denied any involvement, it was subsequently ejected from the country.

“The government’s strategy is very dangerous and tricky,” said Zar Ali Khan Afridi, whose NGO Society for Rights and Development was closed in 2016, following a deadly attack on its Peshawar office. “[The government] first attacked local NGOs, creating issues and restricting work,” he said. “They do not allow our people to work in [the federally-administered tribal areas],” he said. “They have completely banned us. They consider us state enemies, which is shocking. They suspect us. This is not a positive approach.” Afridi said local NGOs suffered intimidation long before the government began to harass international NGOs.

“The present government is a weak government and thinks various NGOs, especially NGOs which are working with the cooperation of foreign partners, are not working in the interest of Pakistan,” said Mehdi Hasan, chairman of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission. “They are afraid to give NGOs the freedom to work.”

Indeed, in the most sensitive areas of operation in Pakistan, INGOs have already been kicked out. This past fall, Médecins Sans Frontières — which spent more than $27 million in Pakistan in 2016 — shuttered its last two medical operations in the federally-administered tribal areas. The failure of the government to grant a No Objection Certificate, a legal document providing permission to run a project, came as a surprise even to MSF staff, who had been operating in the tribal areas for 14 years and received only two weeks notice to clear its medical operations in Bajaur Agency.

In Kurram Agency, where MSF only employed local Pakistani staff, MSF was given even shorter notice to cease operations: A seven-day deadline to wind up medical operations that included free maternal, outpatient, and emergency health care for residents, many of whom lack access to alternative medical facilities and travel long distances to see a qualified medical professional. “We are extremely disappointed by the authorities’ decision to refuse permission for MSF to continue providing urgently-needed medical care,” said Azaad Alessandro Alocco, MSF country representative in Pakistan. 

Although the INGOs are appealing the government’s decision under a 90-day appeals process — which would see them stop operations by January 25 with an appeal deadline as early as late February — there is a lack of clarity about the timeline and reallocation of funds. Most alarmingly, none of the INGOs say they were provided a reason for why their registration was denied. "We’ve asked the ministry of interior as part of a transparent and just appeals process to provide these organizations the reasons for the decision," said Khan, who points out that the 11 closed NGOs had been working with the government since 2013 to improve regulation of the INGO sector. “We were part of the initial consultation to make this a workable policy,” Khan tells Devex, adding that all the INGOs supplied detailed documentation about their finances to the ministry of interior annually, along with tax returns, financial reports, and annual reports for the last three years.

Of particular concern is how INGOs will wrap up projects ahead of the 60-day deadline, especially since the majority of INGOs plan to appeal and hope to proceed with the projects in the coming year. “In essence it means that you have to close all operations and activities even before your appeal is concluded,” Khan said.

While there is a clear hope that INGOs will be able to reverse the government’s decision and regain the right to work, if the government holds firm, the long-term ramifications would be significant. “This will negatively impact communities and civil society, and the future work of international missions. This isn’t about INGOs alone, this is about the wider humanitarian and development community in Pakistan,” Khan said.

For now, ActionAid’s Nizami maintains a sanguine outlook about restoring his organization’s right to operate in the country: “In the appeal, inshallah, we will be able to tell our part of the story.”

Read more from the Devex series, “Civil space in peril.”

About the author

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    Sabrina Toppa

    Sabrina Toppa is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has been published by The Guardian, NBC News, TIME, and The Washington Post, among other outlets.