Civil society and citizen’s participation in civic causes has a long tradition in South Asia. Pakistan’s freedom movement was advanced by hundreds of citizen groups organized in various professional forums (lawyers, students, women groups) and cultural and literary bodies who worked in their own domain alongside the political cadre of the Muslim League. The welfare and civic role of these non-political bodies is well documented in Pakistan’s freedom movement literature, the most prominent being Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Muslim Educational Conference which established Ali Garh Muslim University in 1885 (then college) which played a key role in the formation of the Pakistan Muslim League in 1906 and then in the Pakistan movement itself.
Reflecting on this long tradition, civil society in Pakistan today is comprised of a wide range of organizations, associations, individuals, and movements. The role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the country has increased over the past three decades, and more recently, natural calamities have further expanded the funding and presence of CSOs. Already in 2002, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimated that there were some 45,000 active CSOs employing 250,000 people and this number is likely to be much higher today. These CSOs help poor Pakistanis to get food, provide medication and ambulance services to those in need, support citizens to enjoy their constitutional rights, provide education, clean water and sanitation facilities to the underprivileged, support orphans and provide shelter to the homeless and needy. All sectors of society support and work for CSOs, be they religious, conservative, liberal, from cities or from the countryside.
However, due to some recent incidents, NGO sector’s public perception has been tarnished and a large part of conservative sections of society and influential segments of Urdu press do not really understand the sector in its true sense. Some of these concerns are valid too and are related to the lack of engagement of the NGOs with mainstream political parties, non-transparency in the way they raise and spend funds and lack of explanation on how they make decisions about their strategic choices to work in a particular geography or technical area. Then there are additional concerns on terrorism financing raised by international regulatory bodies like Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which have resulted in Pakistan’s government putting in place a rigorous framework to regulate the sector. This has somewhat restricted the work of many charity organizations, CSOs and NGOs. These are early days and the policies are still unclear for both members of the civil society as well as Government officials whose job is to implement rules uniformly.
In order to manage the trust deficit between the Government and the civil society and enable effective working of the sector, four points should be considered:
(One)The idea of an organized civil society working for the betterment of the people is rooted in South Asian and Islamic traditions, and Pakistani history.
(Two) Civil society organizations in Pakistan have worked with the state in many sectors to tackle development challenges in health, education, disaster relief, and governance. They engage with citizens as well as with the government, foreign donors and development agencies.
(Three) Most of the civil society recognizes the need for effective mechanisms for registration, regulation, oversight, and documentation. Parliament’s various committees should have an effective oversight over the working of national and international NGOs. That would need clear procedures and transparent and uniform mechanisms in place so that right and updated information is made available to authorities, parliament as well as concerned NGOs on a regular basis and without delays. The current procedure is complicated and lacks a constant dialogue as well as redressal forums for NGOs. The procedures should be streamlined in consultation with CSOs to ensure that development work continues without obstacles, and with simpler regulation mechanisms.
(Four) One suitable approach for CSO registration and regulation can be through the inclusion of relevant CSOs such as the Pakistan Center for Philanthropy in the process of managing CSO operations in the country through procedures such as certifications. This can be done with the collaboration of a government department, which in turn should be a one-window operation that can simplify the requirements of registration and documentation. Such models are used in other countries.
This publication has been developed by DRI with the support of Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP)