The hasty action against Save the Children has raised some key questions not just about the regularisation of INGOs but also about who gets to make such decisions
On June 11, the authorities sealed the head office of international relief organisation, Save the Children (StC), in Islamabad and ordered the organisation to shut down all its operations in the country, saying it was involved in ‘anti-Pakistan’ activities.
A day later on June 12, addressing a press conference, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali said that some international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) in Pakistan were being backed by the United States, Israel, and India. According to news reports, Nisar said there are several NGOs operating in Pakistan without any specific agenda and some of them were engaged in "anti-Pakistan" activities without giving details of such activities.
The same day, the interior ministry issued another notification, suspending its earlier notification of sealing the offices of the organisation.
On June 16, the government of Pakistan announced it was giving INGOs three months to get themselves registered once again under the new regime of regulations, which an inter-ministerial committee is developing. The government also decided to allow all such INGOs to carry on their operations for the next six months.
Both civil and military authorities are said to have started impeding the activities of INGOs by early 2012 through travel restrictions, rejections or delays in issuing visas to foreign staff and requirements of no-objection-certificates (NOCs) to implement their projects.
The INGOs came under the radar of the government after intelligence reports linked StC to Dr Shakeel Afridi, who the CIA allegedly used to carry out a fake vaccination programme as they searched for al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
In November 2013, the PML-N government announced a new regulatory framework for INGOs. All INGOs were directed to get registered with finance ministry’s Economic Affairs Division (EAD).
Around 150 INGOs have applied for signing MoUs with the Division under a new policy but so far the ministry has signed MoUs with 19 INGOs only. "Others, including StC, have been working on a 4-6 months interim permission since then," says an official of EAD on condition of anonymity.
"The action against Save the Children was taken on the basis of intelligence reports. The security officials have raised certain valid questions over the projects and the areas of focus of the Save the Children and several other international organisations," the official adds.
"The Division proposed banning nine INGOs, including StC. Intelligence agencies regularly share details with us of the INGOs whose staffers enter sensitive areas and carry out projects they are not mandated under the MoU signed with EAD. Officials of some INGOs have taken too much interest in IDPs from North Waziristan and offer them help without seeking NOC," he says.
A staffer of StC says the organisation is in a state of limbo for the last two years. "We cannot plan long-term projects. Our staff is under constant pressure. The official believes the government needs to come up with clear instructions. Our families have started suspecting us. My son asked me the other day what kind of ‘anti-Pakistan’ activities was I involved in?"
Employees at INGOs say the NOCs for projects are signed to enhance coordination and travel, and to ensure safety and security of staff. The role of the government is to coordinate the movements of INGOs and NGOs want to cooperate with the government of Pakistan.
StC started its work in Pakistan in 1979 with approval from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, which led to an MoU. Several INGOs came to respond to the emergency that ensued Afghan Refugees influx in Pakistan in the late 1970s and started operations where the refugees camped in KP (then NWFP) and Balochistan. The organisation operated and expanded in the KP and Balochistan, and, following a cue from the ‘One UN’ drive of the late 1990s, it also decided to come together globally to become one Save the Children International.
A security official involved in the scrutiny process of INGOs tells TNS that StC employs around 1400 people in Pakistan. "An overwhelming majority of their staff belongs to KP. They have also been trying consistently to employ retired army officials or close relatives of serving army officers," he says. "They issue reports to hurt Pakistan on the international forum. We have serious concerns over their project areas in KP and Balochistan."
Saeed Minhas, a spokesperson of the StC, tells TNS the organisation has trained over 5000 doctors in the country in coordination with the government. "Dr Shakeel Afridi attended two such trainings. He was nominated by the health authorities to attend those meetings and both the trainings were held on the facilities provided by the government. He was never employed by the StC," says Minhas.
He says the organisation has been voluntarily providing details of its staff, projects, and audit reports to the authorities concerned since 2014. "We worked in KP and Balochistan in collaboration with the provincial governments. Two months earlier, chief minister Punjab had invited us for a meeting and asked us to start work in health and education sectors in the province."
Minhas informs the organistaion completed projects worth $100 million last year. "We paid $2 million tax to the government of Pakistan and mobilised $35 million for the Pakistani economy last year. The organisation reached out to 4 million children and their families in 2014 and set a target of 6 million for 2015."
He says the organisation has not been served any charge sheet or a show cause notice detailing any suspicions. "The media trial has stigmatised StC and the Pakistanis working in it. There are no expatriates in its more than 1200 staff members and it has already decided to pull out from Balochistan and the KP. The government has not come up with clear allegations, let alone any proof."
Dr Sarwar Bari, an Islamabad-based veteran civil society activist, says the Benazir Bhutto Government in 1993 and then Nawaz Sharif in his last tenure as prime minister also tried to control NGOs through legislation but failed.
"The political elite in Pakistan thinks the civil society has been surpassing its mandate. The civil society has assumed the role of opposition as political parties have become weaker. The society talks about rights, political participation and reforms. They think we have been bringing a bad name to Pakistan while in reality Pakistan is signatory of several agreements on human rights on international forum," he says.
Bari informs that about 100,000 NGOs and associations have been registered in Pakistan. "If some NGOs or INGOs are involved in spying or anti-Pakistan activities do close them down. But this should be done through the court of law. Agencies have no right to close down any organisation. First, you term them agents of India and US and then take a U-turn and let them work in the country for the next six months."
On the next page: "We will continue to demonstrate the positive impact of INGOs" -- PHF
"We will continue to demonstrate the positive impact of INGOs" -- PHF
"The timely issuance of project and travel NOCs in areas where they are required is critical to timely and effective humanitarian assistance, for example support to displaced and returnee populations in KPK and FATA, and projects targeted to meet basic survival and critical livelihood needs," says Heather Macey, Country Coordinator, Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), an umbrella organisation of 50 INGOs working in Pakistan.
She says the application process for getting NOCs remains unclear. However, applications continue to be accepted at different levels and respective stakeholders appear unclear of their roles. "NGOs would like to comply with regulations and seek clarification on the process so as to better understand what the delays and blockages to NOC issuance are. PHF members are concerned that principled action and life-saving interventions to some of Pakistan’s most vulnerable people may be disrupted by the current disabling environment for INGOs."
In 2013, PHF member INGOs collectively raised PKR 34 billion and reached over 19.7 million people in need with support and assistance in Pakistan. Over 12,000 Pakistanis are employed by PHF member INGOs in health, nutrition, education, water and sanitation, shelter, protection, social welfare and food security sectors.
"As PHF, we will continue to demonstrate the positive impact INGOs have to the affected populations. Furthermore, clarity in procedures related to registrations and NOCs will also help in bridging the gap, and strengthening coordination and partnership between INGO and the government," adds Macey.
She says PHF has no official confirmation concerning action against any INGO member. "INGOs with MOU applications in process remain operational in Pakistan, until the point of an initial decision on the application. Facilitation of their lifesaving work -- including visa processing -- is vital to limit the disruption of services to communities in Pakistan."