Top right: A girl attends class on the lawn at Government Girls Primary School No 3 in Swabi. Above right: Children attend a school in the slums of Islamabad. Above left: Pakistani kids who collect recycleable goods to support their families, share a book at a makeshift school run by a local NGO in an Islamabad slum. Top Left: A girl at a makeshift classroom in Islamabad Image Credit: Reuters and AP

Three years; 12 districts, some of them the poorest in Pakistan; and 3 million lives touched. That’s what an exotically-named Citizen Engagement for Responsive and Accountable Governance project claims to have done in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan.

The project, funded by the European Union and executed by a local NGO (non-governmental organisation), isn’t the only one operating in some of the most neglected sectors like food, health, education, infrastructure, justice, family planning, labour, mining, environment, water, and rights awareness.

According to government officials nearly 8,000 NGOs (through thousands of programmes) across the country deliver services that the state is unable to provide to the deprived and the most vulnerable among the Pakistanis. A majority of them are local; others draw on international funds.

Lives have to be saved, services have to be delivered, rights have to be promoted, and the most vulnerable have to be protected against the vagaries of life and circumstances. If NGOs can be a partner in this vital endeavour, losing their helping hand and locking horns with them would be senseless and wasteful

- Syed Talat Hussain

But much of this is about to change as dozens of NGOs have filed near-identical petitions in the country’s high courts contesting what they perceive as a draconian new legislation to bring them under official heel and to choke their operations.

Interestingly, the contested legislation, like the petitions against it, has been passed by different provincial assemblies. It has almost-similar content exemplified by the standard name it carries: The Charities Registration Act.

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Civil society leaders smell rat in this rare compatibility of legislative approach by politicians who otherwise are seen locked in an endless and dispiriting display of partisan politics on more urgent national concerns.

They believe the state of Pakistan is gradually snuffing out people-empowering initiatives that at times foster healthy dissent, encourage communities to speak for themselves, get organised and demand their rights.

To-do-list of Financial Action Task Force 

In their defence government officials cite global legal requirements created by the to-do-list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which the country must fulfil to keep off its head the hanging sword of sweeping sanctions and ward off the dreadful prospect of international isolation.

FATF already has had Pakistan on its grey list for two years for non-compliance of several key deliverables. Another uncharitable review can send to the black list.

That’s why in all versions of the Registration Act you get to read about “effective provisions” for charities’registration, administration and regulation, “fund raising and collection and utilisation of charitable funds for charities and other institutions and for any other purposes.”

The world has started to take terrorism financing and money laundering as an international emergency, and this architecture is hard to dodge.

However, global guidelines and mandatory action plans to audit money flows make a clear distinction between legitimate charitable and service delivery work and that which bankrolls terror or is used for money laundering.

FATF shows sensitivity to this distinction in its published material like the International Standards on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism & Proliferation: The FATF Recommendations. The document appreciates among other things the efforts of civil society organisations, “despite the difficulties they face, in providing essential services, often in high-risk areas and conflict zones.”

Pushing the agendas

More to the point, the charities and NGOs that have in the past landed Pakistan in global trouble necessarily use religious platforms to push their agendas.

The contested legislation throws the blanket of strict administrative rules on every single NGO in the country requiring them to open up their accounts, share detailed information about their activities, report all their work besides prohibiting them from moving their territorial presence or changing their areas of operations.

More significantly, an anti-NGO crackdown of sorts is already underway in the country.

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Dozens of International NGOs have had their no objection certificates cancelled forcing them to pack, strap and leave. Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) US, Internews Network, US Pathfinder International, US Central Asia Education Trust, US American Centre for International Labor Solidarity (Solidarity Centre), US World Vision, US Plan International, UK Safeworld, UK Action Aid, Netherland Rutgers, Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Denmark, Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI), Switzerland. The list is long.

In the past, governments have relied heavily on this vast network of NGOs to fill in the gaps in their governance or to overcome restrictions on their reach to the needy.

In national calamities like the devastating floods ten years ago or the murderous 2005 earthquake killing over 80,000 and destroying millions of homes, lives and livelihoods, hundreds of NGOs clustered and became the most effective vehicles of support to communities trapped in life-and-death situations.

Moreover, the present government is unique in its position with regard to NGOs operations because any number of its ministers are either associated with NGOs or run them on their own.

Prime minister, Imran Khan, has built his entire political career around seeking funds for Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital, registered in his late mother’s name who died of the same disease.

Heavy-handed administrative framework

And yet the moves to bring civil society organisations operations in the new ambit of intrusive inspection and heavy-handed administrative framework are unmistakable and decisive.

This breeds concern that this effort goes beyond meeting international requirements and is in essence an expanding base of an authoritarian state that does not take kindly to empowered communities nor wants to be judged on its human rights record.

While such apprehensions are exaggerated, the government and its institutions have not done enough to assuage or deflate them. True, no country soars to glorious heights by piggybacking on foreign funded projects. National salvation is not a time-bound project; it is a long haul the nations have to manage on their own steam.

But in the meanwhile, lives have to be saved, services have to be delivered, rights have to be promoted, and the most vulnerable have to be protected against the vagaries of life and circumstances.

If NGOs can be a partner in this vital endeavour, losing their helping hand and locking horns with them would be senseless and wasteful.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12