On Thursday, the government of Pakistan issued an Office Memorandum notifying that the international NGO, Save the Children, has been directed to “wind up its offices/operations in Pakistan”, and also that its expatriates must leave the country “within 15 days”. The Interior Minister, while confirming this direction, made scathing observations against other (undisclosed) international NGOs in Pakistan, alleging that several such organizations are working against the “interest, culture and values” of Pakistan. In particular, the Interior Minister observed that, per reports from intelligence agencies, several NGOs in Pakistan, being funded by foreign donors and countries (especially the United States, Israel and India) are working against the interests of Pakistan, and destabilizing the precarious peace in the country.

The ongoing concerns regarding Save the Children date back several years to the fateful events of capturing and killing of Osama Bin Laden, by the U.S. Navy Seals, in a covert operation in May of 2011. As reportedly alleged by the intelligence agencies of Pakistan, Save the Children worked with one Dr. Shakeel Afridi to secretly assist CIA’s efforts to locate Osama Bin Laden, through the collection of DNA samples, under the pretext of administering (fake) Hepatitis B medication. Dr. Afridi was arrested, and upon (reportedly) confessing to his collusion with the CIA, and sentenced to 33 years in prison, despite protests by U.S authorities.

These events, culminating in the shutting down of Save the Children activities in Pakistan, present deep and disturbing questions about the manner in which we register and regulate the NGO sector in Pakistan, and in particular, monitor the ongoing activities and funding within this sector. To this end, it is pertinent to review the laws under which domestic and international NGOs are registered in Pakistan. Are their activities monitored on a periodic basis? Are the funding requirements and resources meticulously checked? Have we developed dispassionate means of oversight in regards to the frequent and fuzzy contact between domestic NGOs and their international donors? Are the international donors funding goals that are in conformity with the peace, progress and prosperity of Pakistan? What role does the government have in instituting due process requirements for the oversight and monitoring of the NGO sector? Is there a need for a central regulator? Can we really deny that international NGOs can be used as convenient tools for pushing foreign agendas within Pakistan?

Even away from the West, are countries like Saudi Arabia not funding religious NGOs in Pakistan, which propagate a conservative and militant brand of seminaries? Is there an unnoticed battle for social dominion being waged across Pakistan, by foreign interests, through the funding of respective NGOs? And if so, should transparent processes not be developed to bring the activities of the NGO sector within the ambit of judicial review?

From the legal perspective, an NGO can be registered in Pakistan primarily under five different legislative instruments: Societies Registration Act, 1860; Trust Act, 1882; Companies Ordinance, 1984; Cooperative Societies Act, 1925; Voluntary Social Welfare Agencies (Registration and Control) Ordinance, 1961. And each of these laws provides varying degrees of scrutiny and oversight requirements. Perhaps, at least from the funding perspective, the strictest of these is the Companies Ordinance, 1984, which attracts all the ancillary procedures of periodically informing the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) about the sources and uses of the funds collected. But given the archaic nature of most of these laws, none of them entail stringent monitoring of modern day NGO activities.

To make up for these legislative deficiencies, the government of Pakistan frequently requires international NGOs to sign MoUs with respective Ministries, detailing precisely where within the country do such NGOs propose to work, what their funding sources are, and how these would be utilized. This makeshift process, however, is not nearly nuanced enough to cater to the increasingly vast activities of a sector that brings billions of dollars of funding to Pakistan each year.

While there seems to be a compelling justification for a higher legal threshold of oversight of the NGO sector in Pakistan, the same must be done without interfering with, or diminishing, the exceptional work being done by hundreds of NGOs, domestic and international, within the country. At the moment, it seems, that a lack of legally ordained oversight process, provides governmental agencies with a blanket license to interfere with and shut down any NGO, for undisclosed reasons, without recourse to the due process of law. In the absence of dispassionate monitoring standards, it would be easy for governmental agencies to target and shut down any NGO that is working against government policies (but in the interest of the people). And such an NGO, under the current legislative regime, will have no real basis to refute its victimization, before our courts of law. Consequently, the very ‘freedom’, which the NGOs have in working with minimalist governmental interference, can be used to implicate the good work being done by them. And in the process, the country, and the cause, for which the NGOs are working, stands to be defeated.

Despite the hue and cry being raised by leftist, foreign/funded NGOs, as well as right-wing conservative (militant?) non-profit outfits, there is every justification for the government to monitor, review, and demand accountability from the NGO sector. Such accountability, however, cannot be extracted from an unwilling sector, in an arbitrary manner, without recourse to the principles of natural justice and establish doctrines of our jurisprudence.

In humbly accepting the fact that Pakistan’s journey to rehabilitation will, in large parts, require the invaluable help of the non-profit organizations, domestic as well as international, we must engage in a deliberate and purposeful discussion about the contours within which the NGO sector of Pakistan operates. The existing legal regime is both inadequate and outdated. It is time for the government to reach out to the NGO sector, solicit their reviews, address their concerns, and resultantly, formulate a fresh legal regime for the registration, monitoring, and regulation of this indispensable NGO paradigm.