Recently Save the Children found itself caught in the middle of the damaged aid narrative between the West and Pakistan. On June 11th the finance ministry issued a direct order for the organization “to leave Pakistan within 15 days” and the interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan declared, “we do not want to impose a ban on any N.G.O, but they will have to respect the code of conduct.” The U.S. State Department responded with accusations that the Pakistani government was effectively “blocking aid”, and Western allies threatened to cut millions of dollars in official development assistance. Save the Children has been registered in Pakistan since 1997, and authorities have received few complaints against it. The organization reached 4 million children and their families through various initiatives in 2014. It protected 83,019 children from harm, helped 42,420 families receive food, and provided 1,263,101 children with a healthy start in life. The international NGO community at large in Pakistan raised over 34 billion rupees for programs supporting 20 million people.
While Minister Khan ultimately reversed the ban, he maintained the need for increased oversight of nonprofit organizations.Many speculated that the June 11th closure was due to Save the Children’s involvement in alleged “anti-state activities.” Save the Children has been under fire since 2011 for suspected ties to Dr. Shakil Afridi, the doctor who implemented a CIA-funded vaccination drive to find Osama bin Laden. These allegations are underlined by the organization’s involvement with Western governments; public records confirm that 30% of Save the Children’s overall revenue comes directly from U.S. government grants and contracts.
The result is a prevailing assumption that NGOs achieve their objectives within Western political, security, and geostrategic goals. Some argue that NGO dependence on government funding enforces the relationship with the donor and undermines the needs of the recipient. In a country where the United States is already viewed in an unfavorable light, these suspicions reinforce a deeply held belief that western aid groups are working against Pakistani norms. Usman Qazi, an Islamabad based activist explains, “My interaction with a cross section of Pakistani society tells me that the NGOs are immensely unpopular and are resented quite widely. They are viewed as supply driven, corrupt, self-serving and unaccountable.”
The bin Laden raid may have heightened suspicions, but Pakistan has a long history of distrusting foreign NGOs. Pakistan’s military has directly and indirectly managed the country’s affairs for decades, and its mistrust of both civil society and American motives has informed the narrative about Western NGOs. This is not the first time a rights organization has been accused of working for Pakistan’s enemies; the government has subjected international NGOs to constant harassment, threats of closure, visa delays, and refusals for staff for years. NGOs are also governed by complex regulations and are required to register with various ministries and under different acts. In the last year, authorities deregistered 3,000 aid groups and refused to extend foreign visas. A new bill, the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act 2015, is currently under consideration in Pakistan’s parliament and the Prime Minister ordered all international aid organizations to renew their registration within three months.
By contrast, Islamist groups and national aid organizations have escaped much of this scrutiny. Perhaps the most substantial example of this pattern is the official tolerance of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s charity affiliate Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Despite the United Nation Security Council’s recognition that Jamaat-ud-Dawa acts as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the charity continues to provide health care and relief support. Experts predict that the Pakistani intelligence service’s close ties to militant groups will prohibit action from being taken against them.
As long as NGOs working in Pakistan accept foreign funds and are perceived as implementers of Western policy they will find themselves in the middle of a broken relationship. The inevitability of future clashes between the Pakistani government and development agencies should invoke a paradigm shift to limit collateral damage felt by vulnerable populations receiving much needed assistance. As Ambassador Husain Haqqani articulated, the United States must stop asking, “What can we do for Pakistan?” and instead think, “How can we understand Pakistan?” International development organizations have the opportunity to champion this movement through the improvement of feedback systems with local communities. Establishing accountability and taking responsibility for a comprehensive strategy may be a good first step in proving long-term interest in the population.