It’s happening again. The slogans of national interest are rising like smoke signals and a war-hungry people are sharpening their daggers and spikes for the showdown. Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar declared that NGOs working against national interest will be shown the door. This has gone on for too long he says and that the time to act is now if we must protect the country’s honour.
There are a few issues with that brilliant pit of darkness. It plays to the foreign interest conspiracy theory that everyone buys and sells on the open markets of the parliament and drawing rooms. It also greatly assists Islamic militants from speeding up their subversive attacks on the development sector. It is also a great issue that everything progressive could practically be holding a target for the spears and spikes. We can no longer tell friend from foe.
It has happened before as well. Against the free media, against the nexus of India, US and Israel as if they were co-brands and it has happened when the Ahmedis needed to be put in a box and sent off with boulders to the abyss. Only the subject matter changes, the witch-hunt and its hyper-paranoia stays the same. The end results therefore also can only spell disaster. The first victim being rationality, the second being pragmatism and the third being the truth.
According to Pakistan Donor Profile and Mapping in August 2014 by the United Nations, the total capital spend for Pakistan from lead donors since 2011 alone was about USD 31,209 million. On many occasions the development sector has been that engine that has driven enormous progress in essential objectives like education. The Punjab government is helped by DFID as is the KP government’s upcoming Tameer-e-School program. The USAID is soon leading a Let Girls Learn initiative which will change the lives of thousands in underserved regions. Their Energy projects have pumped in millions not just with energy conservation education but also numerous infrastructure projects. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has provided missing health facilities in war-torn FATA, not just helping IDPs though trauma, childbirth, infant inoculations against preventable diseases and mine-blasts but educating and advocating to help their plight.
Very few, if any, actually engage in development objectives that are not sanctioned by the government. In fact, as is now policy for developmental organizations such as USAID, it is mandatory to work with local partners in order to made development aid sustainable and improve local human resource capacity. Their policies as are their monitoring reports are always available for download on their websites. Their media events as well as consultative scoping exercises have participation from local government officials to ensure their buy-in.
The Nisar-led jingoism is not just misplaced, it is grossly misinformed. It is marred by a severe lack of understanding of what is perhaps Pakistan’s lifeline as its economy struggles to get back on its feet. It is even more ironic in the wake of the Axact scandal, which was of a gargantuan scale, completely under the noses of the government machinery and executed by Pakistani passport holders. The damage that that fake degree and God knows what else scandal has posed to the IT industry as a whole and to e-commerce in Pakistan, is far greater than what a few NGO aunties can achieve. Any one will think a hundred times instead of just twice while doing business in Pakistan. These perceptions take years to undo. Perhaps, the government caution is best used when it is equally applied to both foreign and local nationals.
The space for workers of the development sector was already tiny and constricted – there is hardly any ability to openly collect data; publish reports or bring about behavioural change in societies particularly in the area of women’s health and empowerment because of growing extreemism. Now that space has shrunk to the point of a pin. It is asphyxiating for those who want real grassroots turn-around for the people of Pakistan, people who have uniformly performed at the bottom of all human development indicators.
Whichever way the Save The Children scandal crumbles, needs to be determined by evidence and facts, and not by heresy and crisis. Moreover, this isolated case cannot drive to fester an environment of utter hostility for other developing sector organizations who are not at fault.
Pakistan is competing for development resources, and in such an environment, that funding would go where there is some respect for it. There are many theories on development aid and indeed it needs to go a long way in achieving sustainability but the way for that to happen is to work within the sector, collaboratively and consultatively.
Isolation may work for the leadership of our country who create hate speech against aid organizations, because they have their lives worked out. It doesn’t work for the rest of the over-populated, under-resourced and extremely neglected Pakistan. It may be part of their job description to play denial, but it is time we call a spade a space. It is time that we acknowledge the progressive role development sector organizations play in Pakistan and steer them towards more effectiveness.