The dark side of NGOs

It would be silly to deny that NGOs can be ineffectual and even financially corrupt. It is the job of the Corporate Law authority to scrutinize their accounts and their donors to monitor if their money is being well spent

I remember in the 1990s I was working with a local NGO promoting participatory rural development in central Punjab. I was asked to go to the EME College, to talk to the research staff there and see if we could help do field testing for their solar ovens. I was received by a very polite Colonel, who took me around the laboratories. At the end of the tour we sat down in the Commandant’s office where we were also joined by another Brigadier and a Colonel. As soon as those present, except for the commandant, heard that I was from an NGO they instantly chimed, ‘Oh an NGO?! But they are very corrupt’. I batted away the rudeness, by saying, that NGOs were part of the society and some of them may be corrupt. Obviously, every segment of the society could not uphold the standards of rectitude that the Pakistani state has.

Today, for the state and the political right in Pakistan, NGOs are not just financially corrupt or drivers of moral corruption (read Westernization) in the society, but also, unpatriotic covers for spies and saboteurs. Our previous interior minister with especially virulent right wing views, made the NGOs a particular target of his attentions under the National Action Plan. Looking at the state’s behaviour, one could be forgiven for thinking that terror luminaries like Ehsan-Ullah Ehsan, Fazlullah, and TTP were in fact, community organizers for Aurat Foundation or some such odious Western supported NGO.

It would be useful to distinguish which NGOs we are talking about. Edhi Foundation, Shaukat Khanum Trust, along with many religious trusts and foundations are in fact types of NGOs. Obviously, they are not the ones who are corrupt or enemies of the state. What one is really talking about are the NGOs where young men and women wearing western dresses, espouse such insidious notions as participatory development, environmental quality, education, women, children and minority rights, health etc, in English — the engrezi medium NGOwallahs. The kind that an NGOwallah’s uncle reportedly congratulated him, on getting the job thus: ‘NGO! Congratulations! Women, liquor, even white women, and pay in dollars. You’ve made it my boy!’

It would be silly to deny that NGOs can be ineffectual and even financially corrupt. That is the job for the Corporate Law authority to scrutinize their accounts and their donors to monitor if their money is being well spent. But is it for the state and its intelligence agencies to hound them for the not so uncommon sins? Why aren’t some fan makers of Gujrat or Chinese pipe makers similarly hounded by intelligence agencies for making rotten products? Service delivery through NGOs is a flawed model. The NGO sector does not have the reach or the financial resources to do effective service delivery. All they can do is pilots. But if the state fails in its role, someone has to do it, and it doesn’t look like the corporate sector can or does.

The real strength of the NGO movement is in advocacy; to speak up for constituencies and causes which do not have a voice, but are nevertheless essential for the functioning of a civil society. It is this strength which is also the cause of their biggest peril in Pakistan

Similarly, NGOs which do not have a wide donor base or have not built mechanisms for their financial sustainability, are often beholden to their donors. Foreign or domestic donors will inevitably influence the agendas of such donors. Since the unscrupulous exploitation of Save the Children by the CIA, the state thinks that western NGOs are dens of American spies. But somehow, the corporate offices of multi-national corporations have some anti-spying filters installed in them. Ironically the largest recipient of foreign largess, especially Western money is in fact, our security state. So, it is rather rich that it looks at the loose change thrown the ways of NGOs with such jaundiced eyes. Besides it is the state’s legal mandate to monitor the money sent to any actor in Pakistan. Why doesn’t it?

The real strength of the NGO movement is in advocacy. To speak up for constituencies and causes which do not have a voice, but are nevertheless essential for the functioning of a civil society. It is this strength which is also the cause of their biggest peril in Pakistan. With regard to engrezi medium NGOwallahs there might be a minor element of class resentment. But more to the point is perhaps the security state’s singular, unidimensional of view of what Pakistan and Pakistaniness is. The influence of the political right in framing that narrative is well known, just trace the history of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ and you will have your answer. The NGO movement is rightly feared and loathed by the political right and its votaries in the state. I used to think NGOs were useless. But if there is a testament to their success, then their persecution by a paranoid state is it. They should own it with pride.

The writer is a reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography. He also publishes and teaches on critical geographies of violence and terror

Published in Daily Times, February 6th 2018.