A poll conducted in seven Muslim countries (in 2004) revealed that 78% of respondents believed that “the 9/11 attacks were not carried out by Arabs.” The respondents were of the view that 9/11 was a work of U.S or Israeli governments. When Osama bin Laden was killed by a US Navy SEAL team, 66% Pakistani respondents in a poll called it “drama.” The catastrophic floods that ravaged Pakistan in 2010 were attributed to the Central Intelligency Agency (CIA) testing HAARP technology. Polio drops have been rumored to induce infertility ever since the 1990s. Malala was not fired upon by the Taliban, according to a theory favored by Pakistan’s cyber-warriors. Lately, a yoga centre in Islamabad and Hamid Mir have been targets of conspiracy theories (and attacks).

A conspiracy theory, as defined by Cass R. Sustein of the University of Chicago, “is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people who have also managed to conceal their role.” Professor Edward Glaeser explained in his essay, “The Political Economy of Hatred” that mechanisms which account for conspiracy theories overlap with those that account for false and dangerous beliefs of all sorts, including those that fuel anger and hatred. Conspiracy theories attribute extraordinary (and extraterrestrial!) powers to certain agents-to plan, to control others, to maintain secrets and so forth. Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks, including risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges for policy and law.

The Art of Living Foundation is a volunteer-based, humanitarian and educational non-governmental organizations (NGO) founded in 1981 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In 2012, a branch of the foundation was inaugurated in Islamabad, built by Shahnaz Minallah. The centre offered yoga and meditation classes. In February 2014, a previously “sane” news anchor Arshad Sharif alleged on his show that the centre was “compromising national security”, “was funded by foreign agencies” and “challenging our values and lifestyle”. He had written against the “nefarious agenda” of NGOs in Pakistan back in July 2012 on his blog. In March 2014, The Art of Living Centre in Islamabad was burnt down by unknown assailants.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have faced negative publicity for the last few decades in Pakistan. Conspiracy Theories about NGOs, such as the one propagated by Arshad Sharif are not unique. One of the reasons for this negative perception is the fact that most NGOs are funded by International Donor Agencies (thereby fulfilling the conspiracy criteria of “foreign funding”) and there is little to no public accountability in the NGO sector. The number of active NGOs in the country is, at the very least, anywhere between 100,000 to 150,000, investigations by the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP), a certification organisation for NGOs and charity institutions, reveal. By this count, there is at least one NGO for every 2,000 people. Some of the NGOs in this group function as properly structured organizations while most are based around the whims and wishes of well-connected members of the elite. After every major disaster (earthquake, floods etc) new organizations mushroom out of nowhere and fizzle out after their work is done. This list includes local NGOs and International NGOs (INGOs).

Dr. Masood Bano, in her study “Contested Claims: Public Perceptions and the Decisions To Join NGOs in Pakistan,” talked to different people about Non Governmental Organizations. A female NGO worker told her that “the NGO phenomenon is part of the United States’ planning to gain control over the entire world”. The maulvis she talked to, viewed NGOs as a continuation of Christian missionary work. They blamed NGOs for promoting western values for monetary gain. In rural areas, NGOs are the big concern of the clergy’s Friday sermons and in those communities the term NGO has become synonymous with a woman who has lost complete respect for her own value system. Interestingly, the most negative perception about NGOs as noted by Dr. Bano, came from people who were working in the NGO sector themselves.

Major policy initiatives and agendas for NGOs are entirely dependent on donors. At times, the framework of “change” dictated by donors in European Countries or the U.S is “transplanted” in rural areas, without requisite modifications. In the “development sector”, the donor is always right. Dr. Bano’s survey showed that “all of the NGOs, including the bigger ones, had adapted their activities to their donors’ preferences. In the 1980s, donor’s funding preferences in Pakistan revolved around women’s rights; in the early 1990s they revolved around microcredit; beginning in the mid-1990s donors focussed on community empowerment and mobilization; and during the 2000s their focus was on governance and mobilization.”

Billions of dollars have been pumped by International donors in Pakistan, with little success. Annual Reports and internal accountability memos written every year at NGOs, use fancy terms like “capacity building”, “deliverables”, “Empowerment”, “Rights assertion” to hide their ultimate failures.

In a state that has effectively given up on service delivery to people who need it the most, NGOs have tried to fill the gap. In turn, even state institutions now seek help from the organizations when required. As a result, there is little to no regulation of activities undertaken by the organizations.

According to Dr. Rubina Saigol, “The idea that NGOs constitute a middle space between the public sector on the one hand and the private sector on the other, is problematic. It was thought that they would be free of the profiteering and corporate methods of the private sector and the corruption of the public one. But in reality, NGOs have both features, a tendency to go after corporate salaries and perks as well as the tendency towards less transparency and accountability than is desirable. A state that delivers and is effective is the only answer. NGOs can never and should never replace a democratic, responsive and accountable state and political system”.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

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