The NGO World


Bookmark and Share

Neither here nor there
An appraisal of the NGOs sector in Pakistan

                                By Arif Azad

The last two decades have seen an exponential growth in the number and influence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) all over the world. As a result, the NGO sector has become a major economic and social global force today. A cursory look at the figures confirms this. In the mid-1990s, NGOs accounted for more than $1.2 trillion in expenditure, employing more than 31 million people. Translated into NGO/people ratio, there are between four to 20 NGOs per 1,000 people in Western Europe and the United States, while the figure for the Middle East and North Africa is     0.017 and 1.3 NGOs per 1000 people, respectively.

This shows how widespread and influential the NGO sector has become. From the 1980s onwards, the growth of NGO has been proceeding apace, showing no signs of slowing down. Like the rest of the world, Pakistan has not remained immune from this worldwide trend. According to a United Nations study, published last year, there are about 45,000 registered NGOs in Pakistan. These NGO are active in various areas, ranging from health and education to human rights. Since NGOs have come to assume such an important position in development discourse, it is high time that we appraise the sector more rationally.

NGO are commonly understood to be voluntary, not-for-profit organisations, independent of government and business, though distinction between the two is being increasingly blurred in recent years. Since the mushroom growth of NGO during the 1980s, when they were heralded as ‘magic bullets’ seeking to overturn the failed model of ‘top-down development’ in favour of ‘bottom-up development’, they have basked, uncritically, in the afterglow of heady rise and steadily growing influence. In recent years, however, the situation has changed, thanks to reflections on the role of NGOs from an array of in-house and outside critics.

Internationally, the auto-critique of the NGO sector has come from stalwarts of NGO movement like Michael Edward and Alan Fowler, who have publicly reflected upon the issues of accountability, cooption and identity. Other critics from the left have also voiced public concern about the NGO sector as an extension of imperialism. One such recent Marxist-coloured critique came forth from Julie Hearn, an academic at Lancaster  University  . She situates the rise of African NGOs in the Comprador theory, developed in the 1920s by Marxist scholars to theorise the unfolding nature of imperialism. The Comprador theory postulates that Southern bourgeoisie is dependent upon Northern bourgeoisie for its exalted position. In this context, Northern bourgeoisie acts as a comprador or agent, working for the interests of international capitalism against the interests of indigenous popular classes.

Though very little structured academic analysis of the NGO sector has been done in Pakistan, criticism has sourced from both right and left. The right sees the NGO sector as a creation of the West and a vehicle for spreading Western values. The religious right and conservative elements fully share this analysis of NGOs. In fact, their suspicion that NGOs are attacking traditional norms and promoting liberal values has only been confirmed in recent years, because of the intervention and robust advocacy of NGOs in cases involving women who want to marry according to their choice. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government acted out of this perception when it launched frontal assault on NGOs working in the NWFP during its period in power.

Besides value-laden criticism, the NGO sector is viewed as donor-dependent, elitist and unaccountable. From the left, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, a Marxist academic and development activist, has criticised the NGO sector for depoliticising political discourse in Pakistan. He argues that while radical politics in the 1960s and 1970s was an entirely voluntary, selfless and passionate affair, NGOs have only served to blunt the radical edge of politics, by including a radical and alternative political agenda in their project-driven and paid-up activism. While there may be some merit in this argument, the decline of political parties in Pakistan has to share a large part of the blame too.

In discussing the NGO phenomenon in Pakistan  , however, it is important to note its different evolutionary trajectory. While in Western Europe and Latin America, NGOs rose against either communist or military rule to demand democratic rights; in Pakistan, they traversed an opposite trajectory. Most NGOs in the country surfaced during the dictatorial regimes of Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. This expansion, argues Dr Mussadik Malik, a community activist, took place because NGOs bridged the communication gap between the people and the state during non-democratic governments (during democratic setups, political parties serve this purpose).

As democratic representation through elections is an erratic process, participatory representation through NGOs has been a much sought after policy option during dictatorial regimes. This pits NGOs against political parties. The peculiar history of the evolution of NGOs in Pakistan has resulted in difficult relations between them and the state. Dr Adil Najam, professor of Public Policy at Boston University, United States, has charted the topology of this complex relationship along cooperation, cooptation, and complementarity and confrontation continuum. When the government and NGOs share similar goals and strategies, there is increased cooperation. In a situation where goals are similar but strategies are different, the relationship of complementarity kicks in. Similarly, where goals differ but strategies are similar, there is cooptation. Confrontation results when both goals and strategies of the government and NGOs differ.

Since the NGO sector is here to stay by virtue of being an important service delivery provider at a time when the state writ is gradually weakening, there is a greater need for rethinking the relationship between the government and NGOs in pragmatic terms. Political governments, instead of seeing NGOs as adversaries, can work with them to enhance the quality of democratic life and to deepen democracy. As NGOs provide citizens’ perspective, they should be involved in policymaking to improve its quality and enhance its ownership. There is now increasing evidence that NGOs act as a mobilising magnet for those people who go on to make significant contribution to public discourse in later life.

In this way, NGOs are serving an important purpose by educating people in citizenship and producing future leadership. Therefore, the government should take active steps to encourage the participation of NGOs in advocacy and lobbying; the expertise of NGOs in research and advocacy can enhance the quality of deliberations inside government. This should also lead to a permanent forum where government and NGOs can interact in a more meaningful way.

As for NGOs, they need to be transparent and accountable, as well as financially autonomous. This would lead to NGOs becoming more independent of both the government and donors. Currently, most NGOs are dependent on either donor handouts or government grants. The example of Bangladesh is instructive in this regard, where NGOs have achieved financial autonomy to pursue a pro-change agenda independent of both the government and donors.

(The writer is an Islamabad-based policy analyst.