The government in China is poised to tighten the screw on foreign-funded NGOs some more notches. What these NGOs were up to should have been obvious even earlier but I guess the Chinese leaders who allowed them to operate in their country were too euphoric about the prospects of a mutually beneficial partnership with the US-led West to be mindful of the harm such organizations could bring. After seeing the foreign-funded NGOs in action, from Hong Kong to Xinjiang, they are obviously wiser, and the proposed Overseas NGO Management Law is designed for a much tighter regulation of international NGOs and foreign-funded local NGOs in the country. A complete ban would have been more appropriate.

Significantly, China is not the only country that is getting wiser about the soldiers of fortune and weapons of destabilization hidden in these Trojan horses painted with flags of civil society. Putin’s Russia has taken bold steps to rein them in. And last week, the government in Kyrgyzstan terminated its aid agreement with the US, saying it would toughen the laws regulating NGOs. The Kyrgyz President has directly blamed the US for fomenting ethnic hatred in his country. So what are we doing about these foreign-funded NGOs in our country, these entities that are being recognized by our allies in the SCO as imperial tools of destabilization? Have we even taken stock of how they impact our social and political space?

Like so many issues of serious national importance, the government appears to be just sitting on this one as well. Despite being briefed by the intelligence agencies about the dangerous games some of the NGOs have been caught playing and in face of consistent prodding by the Supreme Court to provide information regarding the NGOs operating in the country, the government would like to put the issue of their regulation and monitoring in its sluggish pipeline; along with other pressing matters such as Madrassah reforms, activation of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority, and virtually everything promised in the National Action Plan. Surely, there’s more to it than just poor governance.

After banning the activities of NGOs in areas considered sensitive from the security point-of-view, the government seems to have gone to sleep. The new law on NGO is in cold storage. While the function of NGO regulation is transferred from the Economic Affairs Division to the Interior ministry in slow motion, the unregistered and errant NGOs have been given six months to register or re-register. This is little more than an excuse not to take action against unregistered NGOs and those involved in activities outside their stated mandate. We haven’t heard anything concrete from our government officials about devising a mechanism to monitor their funds and activities. Are their hands tied? Or is it their minds?

Given the penetration and influence of NGOs in Pakistan, and in view of the skeletons that are being recovered from their cupboards in various corners of the world, such laxity on part of our government should be a cause of concern. Why is our government so eager to prove its NGO-friendly credentials, and to whom? Is it scared of the censure it will face from powerful Western governments that not only sponsor the NGOs but also provide finances to the government to stay afloat? Is it because the entire spectrum of our political elite, including the ruling party, does not have the capacity to envisage an economy that could do without these loans and grants? Can we win the war being waged against us without severing these bonds of dependence?

In his article for the New Eastern Outlook titled China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power & Subversion, Eric Draitser takes a closer look at the role of NGOs in China: “Amid all the hand-wringing about human rights and democracy, what is conveniently left out of the narrative is the simple fact that foreign NGOs, and domestic ones funded by foreign money, are, to a large extent, agents of foreign interests, and are quite used as soft power weapons for destabilization. And this is no mere conspiracy theory as the documented record of the role of NGOs in recent political unrest in China is voluminous”.

He goes on to describe in some detail the role of National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and other foreign-sponsored NGOs like Human Rights Watch, in directly funding and fomenting unrest in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The leadership of Occupy Central was practically weaned by the NGO network in Hong Kong. And in Xinjiang, the NED sponsors a host of NGOs busy weaving a narrative that blames China for repression of Uighur Muslims. Among other things, he traces the recent baseless propaganda accusing the Chinese government of banning fasting in Ramzan and stopping the Uighurs from praying to the same network of foreign-sponsored NGOs.

Such information should not come to us as a surprise. In recent years, NGOs in Pakistan have been caught doing things they were not supposed to be doing here, collecting DNA samples under the cover of an immunization drive and mapping sensitive areas on the pretext of disaster relief. One just needs to take a look at the list of activities and stances of various NGOs to see how deeply they are tied to the imperial narrative and its propagation. Posing as the civil society, the NGOs manage to influence the socio-political discourse through crafty cultivation of media, academia, bureaucracy and politicians. Nobody stops to ask how could entities sponsored and dictated by foreign sponsors be termed as civil society?

Along with a host of discredited NGOs, the NED is an active player in Pakistan. The NED 2014 Annual Report lists 38 NGOs that it sponsored during the year in Pakistan. These NGOs received from $20,000 to $814, 693 to do all sorts of things all over the country, from ‘developing’ young community leaders in Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan to ‘training’ journalists and activists in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Considering NED’s deceptive role in China, and many other countries, we can’t possibly take its sweet words about promoting democracy on their face value. The question is, can we?

n The writer is a freelance columnist.