When the heat is on, and political incompetence rocks the boat, it is time to go into diversion mode. Buy enough time to muddle out of crises. Time once again, to target NGOs; they’ve done it before during a previous stint.

It’s been on the cards almost a year. It was a private member’s bill- Ishaq Dar’s, no less; then in the opposition, now in power. It makes one wonder about the membership of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) that months ago approved a, “policy for Regulation of Organizations Receiving Foreign Contributions.” Because, The Bill is draconian to say the least, with Gestapo-like powers, arbitrary and selectively usable.

In keeping with giving a dog a bad name before hanging it, The Bill misleads and prejudices by insinuation; as if NGOs had a free hand. The Bill seeks government powers (as if it didn’t have them already), to “inspect” accounts or records on any grounds of suspicion. The inspecting officer can barge into any NGO’s premises at any time (very considerately, only during the day). Could they behave likewise with a business or corporation without official order?

Factually, NGOs are more tightly ruled than government departments. They follow requirements of law that they are registered under. It’s another matter if the authorities don’t find them worth pursuing. They are internally audited; then by independent auditors, submitted to government authorities, and finally checked by donors who make sure their money has been properly spent. Tax payments of salaried staff go to taxation departments. It all involves a horrendous amount of paperwork, but it’s the only way.

The Bill demands prior permission from the federal government for accepting foreign contributions; the government could, if it wants, prohibit them. That’s not all. It wants prior agreements between the government and NGOs, full details of proposed projects and exact geographic locations.

It will dictate how much NGOs can use for administrative expenses. However, in the case of blue-eyed NGOs enjoying favour with the government, exceptions can be made “with prior approval of the federal government.” Yet, the government can’t even make tax-evading parliamentarians cough up, while undemocratically forcing citizens to accept their dictates.

NGOs allow for human interaction and contribution, a way of doing socially beneficial and satisfying work while earning a living, which most have to, and for which there are few outlets in the private sector and almost none in government.  A few hundred thousand non-permanent jobs at the most. What Ishaq Dar’s Bill amounts to, is a police state, like America’s Patriot and other acts whereby anyone can be picked up on suspicion and detained indefinitely on the conveniently flexible grounds of ‘national security.’ It thereby makes nonsense of Article 17 of our Constitution of Pakistan, which grants the right to all citizens to form associations or unions. And perhaps that is the key.

Many NGOs do rights-based work, seeking reforms in both the laborious and unsatisfactory justice system, and the constitution which is still not clear-cut after 66 years. In the bargain, they expose government wrongdoings and violations of human rights, for which redress and reform are demanded. ‘Elected’ governments have seldom appreciated that. Most have stubbornly refused to upset the status quo. The Bill would effectively silence dissent.

Although full details demanded by The Bill are already provided on registration, the government wants to duplicate it with an MOU to the same effect. It warns that acceptance of foreign contributions “shall not lead to incitement of an offence and shall not endanger the life or physical safety of any person”. That sounds more like terrorism; it’s common sense that NGOs would not be visibly funded for such through normal channels.

Edhi’s, SIUT, APWA, Behbud, Sindh Club, Lahore Gymkhana, Defence Clubs, the Rotary and Lions Clubs, scores of trust hospitals, schools and shelters, are all NGOs. The government won’t find fault with them. But a large number of orphanages or religious centres that are breeding and training grounds for militants blindly, unquestioningly following orders, are also lumped as NGOs, many unregistered. Yet the government fails to make a clear distinction between various kinds of NGOs.

Mr. Dar maintains India enforced a similar law to monitor foreign funding because of allegations of being used for sabotage. If that is the case, he should focus on obvious and suspect groups using an NGO façade, instead of penalizing all NGOs to paper over government failures.  

In the previous anti-NGO move, the poorest beneficiaries being served by many solid NGOs lost out when donors froze funding on unacceptable terms including routing all moneys through the government. By the time it was restored, the break in continuity caused disruption in organization, jobs, as well as service delivery. The Bill will facilitate extortions at various levels, much like mafia members collect ‘protection’ money.

If the focus is on donors, NGOs depending on local charities would whittle down an estimated 40,000 NGOs to maybe a few thousand or a few hundred. Exempt foreign contributors include the various UN agencies. But what about secretive World Bank and USAID – which many don’t trust - and other foreign institutions that route funds on their behalf? The government doesn’t say. For one, you can’t needle countries that bomb you. And what about Saudi government contributions that are generous towards institutions of professed religiosity? What about groups that don’t pose as anything but get funds anyway? There are more ways than just the regular banking system through which to move money and materials.

Some governments, including non-performing ones, don’t mind NGOs because they take up the state’s slack: a consequence of “structural adjustment” policies of the alternate government for financial affairs  (the IMF), so that primary and general health care, education, water and sanitation, and other social services will remain in a permanent state of allocations slashed to token amounts. This makes room for the private sector, including foreign investors to fill the gap at a price; a core goal of the World Bank/IMF and WTO, and corporate investors.

According to the proposed law, the use of foreign funds shall not affect “the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, the public interest, freedom of fairness of election to any legislature, friendly relations with any foreign state, harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes or communities.”

But that is exactly what the World Bank, IMF, WTO and USAID do, which Mr. Dar’s Bill will deliver.