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Why is the Pakistani government cracking down on NGOs?

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
February 11, 2021

Prime Minister Imran Khan has tightened the noose around nongovernmental organizations, alleging that they are working against the state. Why is the government so skeptical of civil society groups?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan
Prime Minister Imran Khan alleges that NGOs pursue a 'foreign agenda'Image: AFP/A. Qureshi

Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been under pressure in Pakistan for many years, but never have they faced greater suppression than under the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came to power in 2018.

The government has intensified a crackdown on NGOs under the pretext that they receive foreign funds, promote the "enemy agenda" and are working against the state.

Khan took up the issue of NGOs' foreign funding in a Cabinet meeting last month amid increasing concerns that his government is suppressing freedom of speech in the country.

Immediately after assuming power, Khan ordered 18 foreign NGOs to close their operations and leave the country.

Rights groups and campaigners say the crackdown on civil society organizations and the government's attempts to silence rights activists are part of the authorities' broader plan to silence dissent.

"The way Khan's government banned several international NGOs and took measures to create problems for local NGOs is alarming. We have never experienced this situation before. The government also wants to control the media," Mohammad Tahseen, executive director of the South Asia Partnership Pakistan organization, told DW.

The government denies the suppression claims and argues that it is necessary to monitor NGOs' funding.

"Pakistan has recently upgraded its laws to ensure that the movement of funds follows legal channels and the money is used for the right purposes," Zafar Yab Khan, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, told DW.

"Pakistan greatly values the work done by local and international NGOs and will always facilitate them. At the same time, it will be cognizant of its international obligations that require proper checks and balances for these organizations," he added.

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'Anti-state agenda'

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says that there have long been conspiracy theories in Pakistan that International NGOs are "essentially a front for intelligence operations."

"In a country where foreign intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, have long made a mark, it's an easy narrative to sell. Many in Pakistan believe that Save the Children was involved in the CIA-sponsored fake vaccination campaign that helped track down Osama Bin Laden. Longstanding suspicion about foreign NGOs was heightened after the Bin Laden raid, and it has remained strong today," Kugelman told DW.

Rights activist Tahseen believes it is easier for the government to target NGOs than to work for the welfare of the citizens.

"There is no evidence that NGOs are working against the country. NGOs are actually performing a very important role to enhance human development, fundamental rights and social justice in Pakistan," he underlined.

Political analyst Qamar Cheema says there is a lack of trust between state authorities and civil society groups. "The state fears that these organizations might create national disorder. It hopes to manage the situation," he told DW.

Conservative groups, which have a big influence on the state apparatus, also allege that NGOs promote liberal values that go against the teachings of Islam.

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Lack of accountability

Some legal experts are of the view that a few NGOs misuse registration and foreign funding rules.

"Pakistan's registration rules for international NGOs are very strict. Some international organizations have found ways to bend these rules, while local NGOs continue to receive foreign funding without signing a contract with the government's Economic Affairs Division," Osama Malik, an Islamabad-based lawyer who deals with the NGO registration, told DW.

Activist Tahseen disagrees: "NGOs are subject to multiple layers of scrutiny and clearances at different government levels before they can register and start their operations. It is unfair to accuse them of wrongdoings," he said.

Kugelman believes that NGOs' "poorly regulated funding" has been a matter of concern for Pakistani authorities for quite some time.

"There is a concern about how foreign money enters Pakistan, and how it is used. The irony is that the security establishment has long welcomed foreign assistance for itself. Expelling foreign NGOs just because they're not properly accounting for their funding sounds harsh. But this is a consistent fixation of Islamabad's, whether because it is genuinely concerned about the funding or because it's just a pretext to get these groups out of Pakistan for some other reason," he said.

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Image problem

The clampdown on foreign-funded NGOs has, to a large extent, dissuaded international donors and NGOS from engaging with the South Asian country. Experts say this will have a negative impact on the country's poor, who benefit from international cooperation.

"The crackdown is tarnishing the country's image. Pakistan is losing international aid and support," Tahseen asserted.

Kugelman shares a similar view: "If Islamabad continues to telegraph a message that foreign NGOs won't enjoy a welcoming environment, then that could temper the interest of these groups to enter Pakistan. While some factors may drive NGOs away, other factors – a more stable security situation, especially – should ensure there will still be an interest in engaging in Pakistan," he argued.

Analyst Cheema urges the government to increase international cooperation. "To achieve this, a transparent NGO regime is required in the country. It will reconnect Pakistan to global institutions."

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