For 25 years, the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBS) worked to promote democracy, environmental sustainability, human rights and personal freedom in Pakistan. However in March 2019, the Berlin-based foundation suspended its operations in the country.
Mavra Bari, public relations and communications manager at HBS in Pakistan, told DW that an “air of mistrust” towards civil society in Pakistan was behind the decision.
“Structural changes introduced in governance processes are limiting the role of civil society,” she said. “For HBS to continue its work in Pakistan, it would require a conducive environment and trust from [government] institutions.”
Currently, NGOs that want to operate in Pakistan must undergo a lengthy and cumbersome registration process to ensure that they will follow the country’s rules.
“The memorandum of understanding (MoU) presented right now by the government of Pakistan to international organizations curtails certain areas of work,” said Bari, adding that the agreement would hinder work in democracy, political engagement and strengthening civil society.
“The MoU includes clauses that would put our staff and project partners at risk,” she said.
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Pakistan’s suspicious authorities
With a burgeoning youth population, Pakistan is in desperate need of investment and employment. Many believe that international NGOs can employ thousands of educated youth while promoting a positive image of the country and attracting foreign investment.
However, these groups often arouse suspicion from state authorities and this increased after US forces killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. The al-Qaeda leader had been tracked down living in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
Pakistan accused the NGO Save the Children, and a Pakistani doctor named Shakeel Afridi, of running a fake vaccination campaign in order to locate bin Laden. The organization denied the charge. However, a campaign of violence was unleashed against polio workers, dozens of whom were killed in attacks by militants.
In 2015, Save the Children, which had been working in Pakistan since 1979, was ordered by the authorities to cease operations in Pakistan, and the NGO’s foreign workers were given 15 days to leave the country.
The registration of at least 15 foreign charities was also cancelled at around the same time, and many more groups were forced to close operations in successive years.
Pakistan’s ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), defended the strict conditions for NGOs working in the country. Ishaq Khakwani, one of PTI’s senior leaders, said it is logical for the government to crack down on foreign charities, especially after the bin Laden raid.
“Several are working against Pakistan,” he said. “We need to make strict laws, and we must know who is coming to our country, what are they doing here, and what their sources of funding are,” he said, adding that these were “logical questions” that shouldn’t receive any objection from NGOs, including HBS.
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A threat to national security?
Other critics of foreign aid groups in Pakistan say that the limitations placed on NGOs are justified and that the groups often overstep their mandates.
“Some NGOs were found to be facilitating anti-state elements. On paper, they were supposed to work in urban areas, but they were found in remote areas of Sindh and other parts of the country,” Amjad Shoaib, a former senior official in Pakistan’s army, told DW.
“There have been cases where certain NGOs were registered to work for refugees but ended up hobnobbing with government officials, inviting them to private parties and seeking sensitive information from them,” he added.
“It was because of this that the government introduced this renewal and registration system. If the HBS is clear [about its intentions], why should it object to the government’s MoU?” he said.
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No space for liberals
In recent years, religious zealots have targeted religious minorities and progressive students and teachers in Pakistan. Two recent cases were the lynching of Mashal Khan in 2017, and the murder of a university professor in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Both were victims of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, which critics say is often misused to settle personal scores. Rights groups say the state is accustomed to turning a blind eye to these crimes and focuses instead on restricting liberal, secular and progressive elements in society.
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Analyst Amir Hussain said NGOs face opposition from the country’s powerful establishment because they challenge cultural norms that state-sponsored groups in tribal areas would prefer stay in place.
“By working on gender equality, pluralism, religious harmony, human rights and women’s empowerment, NGOs dare to challenge these outdated notions,” Hussain told DW.
Asad Iqbal Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said his organization also faces threats and that the opposition to liberal voices would be a long-term problem for Pakistan.
“It is not only the Heinrich Böll Foundation, even local NGOs are being harassed, intimidated and threatened by state agencies,” he said.
“They want to stifle all dissenting voices, but are reluctant to crack down on extremists and fanatical elements. Stifling civil society’s voice could be catastrophic for the country.”