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Civil society under attack

Vague phrases warning NGOs not to work against ‘the country’s interests’, ‘the state friends of Pakistan’, or ‘Pakistan’s culture and religion’ mark the new laws and policies in place

Civil society under attack

The recent government crackdown on International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs), when 18 of them were asked to wind up their operations in the country in October, is widely known. However, the effects — direct and indirect — of this on the NGO sector as a whole as well as other pressures that have been plaguing the local NGOs recently, have received significantly less attention.

Amongst the biggest challenges is not only lack of resources to implement projects and the resulting unemployment of project staff, but also the climate of suspicion it has engendered towards the entire sector.

Speaking to TNS, Bushra Khaliq, Executive Director of Women In Struggle for Empowerment (WISE), an NGO based in Lahore, explains how the closure of INGOs affects all their local affiliates and the grassroots communities they serve. Not only was the international-level solidarity-seeking of these communities affected, but the initiatives the local NGOs had undertaken in partnership with these INGOs also suffered, and in most cases ceased, as a result of this closure.

The implications for local affiliates go beyond just a loss of financial resources; they also extend to a loss of technical support and knowledge-sharing as well as the expansion of the trust deficit regarding the NGO sector.

Ahmed Khan of the Awam Dost Foundation (ADF) in Bhakkar, South Punjab, told TNS that their organisation has been facing pressure because they are an affiliate of ActionAid in Pakistan since 2006 in the areas of education, health, women empowerment and governance. He says, “their latest initiative on women’s economic empowerment has suffered immensely without the support of ActionAid funds, leaving them unable to provide livestock that was due to be delivered this quarter.

‘’People in these communities can’t navigate government offices. They are the ones who will suffer the most.”

Around ten people have lost their jobs because of the project’s closing and this despite ActionAid switching its policy from a mixture of advocacy and service-delivery activities to focusing exclusively on the latter. Up until a year ago they used to work on issues such as child marriage, but have now switched purely to service-delivery.

Khalid Mahmood, Director of Labour Education Foundation (LEF), similarly describes how their NGO had to terminate a project called ‘Strengthening the Movement of Brick Kiln Workers’  that was happening in partnership with another NGO that was issued an expulsion notice — Ireland-based, Trocaire. The project was operating in Lahore, Sheikhupura and Nankana Sahib for two years, and although around seven people lost their jobs as a result, Mehmood emphasises the fact that “thousands of brick kiln workers they worked with are the real victims”.

The majority of local NGOs’ problems occur in the waiting period between the submission of their application and the signing of the MoU which can take up to two years, although the law states that it should not take more than four months.

Another phenomenon currently worrying the local NGOs is the increasing ‘implementation’ of the ambiguous 2013 ‘Policy for Regulation of Organisations Receiving Foreign Contributions’, as well as complex and arbitrary No Objection Certificate (NOC) requirements. This policy mandates the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) to regulate organisations receiving foreign funding, and these organisations must register with the Division to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) containing information about their work and its geographical ambit.

Although the policy came into force in 2013, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s Civic Freedom Monitor observes that the policy was “sparsely implemented’’ up until 2016.

Speaking to TNS, Tahir Mehdi, an expert on the sector, observes that the recent law has been implemented on top of multiple laws and rules already in existence, including the Societies Registration Act 1860, Trusts Act 1882, Voluntary Social Welfare Agencies (Registration and Control) Ordinance 1961, and Clause 42 of the Companies Act 1984.

NGOs first have to apply to the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP) — an NGO itself — to be evaluated for Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) Certification from the Central Board of Revenue, which is a prerequisite for registration with the EAD. Both Mohammad Tahseen of South Asia Partnership and Mahmood of LEF question the legitimacy of the PCP evaluation, which Mahmood says is not a legal requirement but just an informal “policy’’.

Mahmood highlights how many NGOs do not have the funds to apply for PCP certification. Tahseen tells TNS that in the past his organisation would go to the Income Tax Commissioner to obtain their NOC certificate, but last year they were sent a letter from the Ministry of Interior asking them to apply for certification through the PCP.

Once this is done, local organisations wishing to receive foreign funding must apply to the EAD by submitting 14 hard copies of all documents, which are sent to the Ministry of Interior, the provincial and/or local governments and other ‘relevant stakeholders’. According to Tahseen and others, these other stakeholders include MI, ISI, IB and the Special Branch.

Registering with the EAD is not a one-time exercise, but must be done each time an NGO wishes to accept foreign funds for a project.

The majority of local NGOs’ problems occur in the waiting period between the submission of their application and the signing of the MoU which can take up to two years, although the law states that it should not take more than four months.

This creates major problems for many NGOs who are left unable to implement their often time-sensitive projects since most foreign donations come with an expiration date and, in the case of emergency relief projects, immediate action is required. In other cases, donors are put off by these bureaucratic delays. Thus, due to registration delays, funds often either never arrive or are returned to donors. Projects as well as many NGOs have consequently shut down.

The LEF, already registered under the Societies Act and having applied for EAD registration, was informed by its bank two months ago that it had received orders from the State Bank of Pakistan to close their accounts because they did not possess an MoU from the EAD. Some of their foreign funding was returned and the rest was blocked. Mahmood expresses his astonishment at this action, stating that LEF had fulfilled all the necessary requirements for opening a bank account, and that this action has not been taken on the basis of any proper regulation, and is simply a “pressurising’’ tactic. He has not heard of similar instances of NGOs’ bank accounts being shut in Punjab, he says, “but has heard of an instance in KP”.

Tahseen tells TNS that SAP-PK has applied to the EAD for a project named, ‘Peace and Livelihood for the Rural Poor’ in October 2016 and has followed up the application many times since, but has yet to receive a final answer. Tahseen says that while organisations of SAP-PK’s size can still manage with their funding being blocked, smaller organisations do not have the same luxury.

Even if an organisation is successful in obtaining an MoU from the EAD, it still has to apply for an NOC from district authorities for all its activities. The requirement and ease of obtaining an NOC depends on the region and it is notoriously difficult to obtain in regions, such as FATA, South Punjab, and some areas of KP and Balochistan.

Mukhtar Ahmad Ali, previously Information Commissioner of Punjab and ex-Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, explains “the criteria for obtaining an NOC is not transparent or articulated in a publicised policy, as officials do not come bearing written notices when they disrupt public events, but according to ‘’local knowledge’’, the criteria is security related.”

While organisations in Lahore can work without NOCs, in districts such as South Punjab, district authorities do not let NGOs work without obtaining the details of each person involved in the organisation or activity. Thus, activities and events are often delayed by months. Khaliq says that even though Multan is also a hub for NGO activity like Lahore, it is nonetheless another area where obtaining NOCs and visas for foreigners is difficult because of ‘’sensitive activities and units’’. As a result, many organisations have shifted their offices from these areas.

Taimur Kamal, Coordinator of the KP branch of Pakistan Civil Society Network, claims that while NGOs in KP do not face that many pressures, those in FATA find it near impossible to obtain NOCs and often get redirected to the FATA Disaster Management Authority because of the ‘’war on terror problem’’ and because they are scrutinised by ‘’institutions other than provincial ones’’.

 

Tahir Mehdi is of the view that the conditions imposed on Pakistan by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — an international money-laundering and terrorism-financing watchdog — in late June 2018 when it placed Pakistan on its grey list, are being used as a cover for curbing the sector as a whole. Once INGOs are removed from the scene, local NGOs will follow.

Vague phrases warning organisations not to work against ‘the country’s interests’, ‘the state friends of Pakistan’, or ‘Pakistan’s culture and religion’ mark laws and policies. An anonymous source recounts a letter their organisation received from the EAD earlier this year in regard to their application for a project, which asked them to exclude phrases, such as “peace-building,’’ “marginalised groups,’’ “conflict resolution/prevention’’ and “domestic violence’’ from the application. The organisation complied by using more ‘neutral’ words, such as ‘’women’s welfare’’ instead of “domestic violence’’ and is still waiting for the project, which they applied for in 2016, to be approved.

Visits from local intelligence officials to organisations’ offices, events, and at times members’ homes appear to be a regular occurrence. Sometimes, events are disrupted and organisers questioned to enforce the requirement in some districts to obtain an NOC for all activities and events, but at other times, official visits appear arbitrary.

Speaking to TNS, Leela Kalpana, a Larkana-based board member of SAP-PK recalls how, around two months ago she received calls from a private number asking her questions about SAP-PK’s office in Larkana (they don’t have one there) and alleging they had an office in Sachal Colony. She says the caller asked her about SAP-PK’s activities and asked her to come to her personal office to provide more details, but she refused, asking them instead to come to her office if they wanted to speak to her. “They didn’t question me more because I was rude,’’ she adds.

Kalpana, who also runs her own NGO, Para Sata, further reveals that a few days ago she received calls from a private number asking about her organisation’s activities for the first time in eight years since it was formed. She explains to TNS, as she did to the anonymous caller, “that her organisation has been largely inactive, having held only a handful of Diwali events as well as one or two events for religious harmony and ration distribution funded by its senior members rather than foreign donors.”

Similarly, an anonymous member of a local NGO claims that office visits from local intelligence officials have become increasingly regular— fortnightly — since the previous government’s tenure. Describing a recent visit to emphasise the fact that these officials are often ill-informed and given incomplete information from their bosses in Islamabad, the source narrates how they inquired after one of the NGO’s international partners, claiming it had been banned. The INGO being referred to here was the Netherlands-based Oxfam Novib, one of the INGOs that has recently been banned by the government, which the officials did not know to distinguish from UK-based Oxfam GB, the NGO’s actual partner, which was not, in fact, banned.

Also read: EAD to MoI

Mehdi agrees that most of these agents have limited understanding of the sector and the likely extent of their ‘knowledge’ is that the NGOs they’re visiting are foreign agents.

There also appears to be an extraneous and unending amount of paperwork piled on NGOs by intelligence agencies who demand sensitive personal information about NGOs’ employees, including their religion and caste.

‘’We don’t accept their pressure,’’ says Tahseen. While this may indeed be true for people such as himself and Khaliq, who held their ground in the face of intimidation, and went to court when their organisations’ activities were being hindered by district authorities last year, the same may not be true for those working in smaller organisations in areas such as KP, with a limited number of contacts.

Safa Dar

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