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NGO reforms – To be, or not to be, that is the question

December 22, 2017

By Faizan Afzal

See the growth and impact Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) has spurt in the developing world and you would be forgiven for thinking the world becomes a more caring place every day. However, NGOs never have it easy. They face sanctions and dismissed if work individually, without the government, and if they try to cuddle-up with government, they are confounded as sell outs.

It’s not a great time to be an NGO in Pakistan. Since the drop scene of Osama Bin Ladin episode, NGOs in Pakistan are facing severe out lash from the government, even the general public has become skeptic about the work they do. In a recent incident, my colleague’s marriage proposal was dropped by his in-laws on grounds that he works for an NGO. People thinks that money coming from other countries in form of development aide is ‘Haram’ and the narrative built by establishment against NGOs is damaging the very spirit of the profession. Governments usually use three common tactics against NGOs. First, trying to destroy their reputation with the public by accusing them of being unpatriotic. Second, taking away government funding and making it harder to receive donations from abroad. Third, harassing them through criminal or tax investigations on fabricated charges.

The political facts regarding working of NGOs has been under-highlighted in true sense. Focus has always been on their supposedly wary activities to undermine their scope of operations, because of the very reason that they are empowering people through social mobilization to make government and public servants answerable and making the public less dependent on them.

In a recent move, federal government has ordered 21 international NGOs to wrap up their operations and leave the country. According to Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, who represents scores of foreign aid groups, says their work directly benefits about 29 million people in Pakistan.Foreign-aid groups contributed some $285 million in funding for development and emergency relief in 2016, and employ over 5,000 local staff. Government has to realize that closing door to the NGOs will do more harm than good. NGOs help democracy work properly. They do this by making it easier for people to get information about how their country is being run, helping the public communicate with politicians, and making sure that governments do not abuse their powers.

One school of thought in international policy making deem NGOs as a third torrent of power after governments and corporations. Indeed, the big international ones with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars are pretty powerful. But are they a countervailing force, striving tirelessly for social justice? Poverty alleviation may sound rhetoric, critics argue, but in practice little that is lasting has been achieved on this front by NGO activism.

The glaring example of which is Bangladesh, which is home of world’s largest NGO, BRAC, effectively operating as a parallel government – they put more money into development activities than the government does. There is criticism, too, of the market model of development they have followed. This has been over-reliant on microcredit, which produces ‘rational profit-seeking individuals’ rather than community efforts – to say nothing of the debt traps many have found themselves in. BRAC is also working in Pakistan and doing a commendable job. Till now USD20.73 million has been disbursed to 52,180 people all over the country. With 2,097 community schools enrolling 64,165 students, with girl’s majority, BRAC Pakistan is one of the largest player in education development in the country.

Government should have to bridge the development gap in order to restrict NGOs. Government’s stance on issue of NGOs registration may not be entirely wrong as they have different way of seeing things in strategic and security calculus, but their way of execution is definitely not right. They need to define what exactly ‘anti-state’ means. NGOs are expected to be non-political, but involving high skewed systems of power and great amount of money, the boundaries often blurred out between political and apolitical.

Faizan Afzal is a freelance journalist and a development professional. Tweet him at @Faizan_Afzal1


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