Our gung-ho NGO supporters are not happy that their wild days are over. They’d like to kick up a fuss about the government drive to regulate their unbridled activities across the length and breadth of Pakistan. Echoing those who fund them from abroad, they are now crying foul; distracting us this time with talk about authoritarian states and how the drive is a step in that direction. Behind the cover of lofty principles, they’d like to return to their games without rules. Regardless of their wish list though, the NGO micro-universe will never have the kind of free-for-all space it was allowed in Pakistan all these years.

As luck would have it, synergy among state institutions to hold the international NGOs and their local partners to account is palpable. Though the security intelligence apparatus has had its reservations about the working of certain NGOs for some time, its work is underpinned now by a better understanding of geo-politics and is therefore better directed. Its monitoring has become more focused, especially since the commencement of Zarb-e-Azb, and this has produced positive results. It was intelligence reports of widespread illegal activities of NGOs that finally made the clueless government take the present initiative. A recent order of the Supreme Court should now further push the Nawaz administration to polish up its act on regulating the NGO sector.

Earlier this week, in a case involving an unregistered NGO, the Supreme Court ordered the federal and provincial governments to present detailed reports on the registration, funding and supervision of NGOs. The federal and provincial governments had failed to provide information on the regulatory mechanism for NGOs to the court at the last hearing- most probably because they didn’t have it themselves. Going by the free reign enjoyed by our NGO-wallahs till recently, the governments had obviously been happily sleeping over the matter. The executive authority might have been forced to sit up and take notice by one institution of the state and spurred on by another, but the important development, at the end of the day, is that it doesn’t have the option of going back to sleep.

Despite the Nawaz government’s lack of clarity on regulating the foreign-funded NGOs, the ball has started to roll in any case. The Prime Minister will have to get over his soft spot for centers of imperial power supporting the cause of unregulated NGOs. He knows how to do that kind of thing. Not long ago, he got a lesson on dealing with his soft spot for the House of Saud when he had to say good bye to his policy of an open-ended dialogue with the terrorists. And, more recently, he hopefully got over that one completely when he couldn’t offer any troops to the royal highnesses as fodder for their unrelenting war of aggression against Yemen.

The point is: The Nawaz government might be short on vision and enthusiasm when it comes to taming the NGOs, but it is beginning to act. It recently placed a ban on the routine practice of issuing business visas to the international staff of NGOs. A day earlier, the Interior Minister announced that NGOs will not be allowed to operate in areas that are sensitive from the point of view of security. The law on foreign contributions is being tightened and a comprehensive regulatory framework is being prepared. There is talk about NGO-registration and action has been taken against NGOs involved in illegal activities. The list of such NGOs is long and growing.

As it turns out, foreign-funded NGOs were found operating in places where they had no business and doing thingsoutside their stated scope. According to the Interior Minister’s admission, up to 40 percent of them are not even registered. That doesn’t stop them from opening up their offices, hiring staff and starting their jargon-laden projects with funds we know nothing about. Those registered do not provide proper information about their foreign and local staff, taxes, accounts or activities to the government. Let’s talk about national security and imperialism later. The foreign-funded NGOs have much to account for even before we start that crucial debate.

In the face of this jungle of NGO-lawlessness, the government could actually do better. After raining brimstone and fire on NGOs, the Interior Minister says there would be no crackdown on unregistered NGOs for the six months they’ve been given to register. This is contrary to the ban on their activities for the interim period recommended by the Special Committee constituted for the very purpose. In another sign of softness, the Interior Minister announced that 13 offices of the notorious Save The Children would be allowed to operate in Pakistan as if they had no connection with the 60 illegal offices of the organisation closed down by his ministry.

This lackadaisical approach must not be allowed to botch up the shifting of NGO-regulation to the Ministry of Interior from the Economic Division and the process must be undertaken swiftly and efficiently. The Foreign Contributions Act 2015, being finalised by the government as we speak, must address the multiple issues surrounding the NGOs strictly rather than lightly. A little bit of vision on part of the government could actually streamline things to Pakistan’s advantage much quicker. We must learn from countries in our immediate neighbourhood; China, Iran, India and Russia. It would be foolish to ignore the role of foreign-funded NGOs as imperial proxies that amplify the imperial narrative and serve imperial interests.

I tell my NGO-wallah friends they don’t have a case. After vociferously demanding the registration of madrassas and a detailed scrutiny of their funding and syllabi, how can they argue against applying the same yardstick to their fancy-sounding outlets? The weakness of the government drive to regulate madrassas is no reason not to regulate the NGOs. In fact, both of these sectors must be regulated with a seriousness of purpose and with urgency. Everyone associated with NGOs is not a Trojan horse of the empire, of course. But most of them are riding one, even if they choose not to notice it.