Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dilemma of NGOs and Civil Society in Pakistan

In the world of today, NGOs are playing an increasingly important role and they seem to be everywhere. They claim to be able to do almost anything from eradicating poverty to fighting disasters and from protecting environment to safeguarding human rights. International and local NGOs have taken the centre stage in the global efforts for achievement of millennium development goals and are now considered a very important component of ‘civil society’, which is an increasingly popular concept among policy makers. In fact ‘civil society’ is now considered the third most important player along with state and market sectors.

However in Pakistan, many factors have not let most of the NGOs and other civil society organizations live up to the potential despite their ever increasing numbers These factors have not let NGOs play their role as effectively as their counterparts are playing throughout the developing and developed world and especially in our neighboring countries like India, Bangladesh and even Nepal. But it does not in any way imply that all our NGOs and civil society organizations are lagging behind. Indeed we do have some very good service delivery and advocacy NGOs whose work has not only been recognized nationally but has also won international accolades and who are presented as models of best practices. These include both advocacy NGOs fighting for human rights and gender issues and service delivery NGOs working closely with vulnerable and marginalized communities. But a vast majority of organizations in the sector do not even have a clear vision of what they are there for and often have objectives which are not focused and are not driven by the actual demands and requirements of the communities. Moreover many of these NGOs are facing severe shortages of resources and funding to continue their operations and to keep on providing services to their target communities.

There is no dearth of critics who claim that almost all NGOs and other civil society organizations in Pakistan are mere pawns in an international game and are not representatives of the communities for which they claim to be working. They say that NGO sector has become a kind of racquet and those involved are only wasting precious resources on activities which are not contributing in achievement of development targets. Although there may be some truth in these accusations but this criticism of NGOs and CSOs is not wholly justified and does not reflect complete picture. In fact there are many factors which have not allowed NGOs and CSOs to operate as effectively as they could have in Pakistan.

To analyze the factors behind this lack of effectiveness and to discuss the hurdles which are being faced by our NGOs in particular and the whole civil society in general, we will have to look at the genesis of NGOs in Pakistan and analyze the way they have progressed over the years. It is the evolution process through which NGOs have gone through in Pakistan, which lies at the heart of the ideological dilemma which our organizations face today and which results in their relative inefficiency in making a visible difference.

In Pakistan spotlight started to fall on NGOs and Civil Society organizations during the last decade of the 20th century, as a result of changing international trends of funding and development concepts, but NGOs and other civil society organizations are by no means a new phenomenon in Pakistani scenario. The history of NGOs goes back to very early days after independence. Many voluntary organizations were established at the time of independence to provide humanitarian aid to refugees coming into the newborn state and to help victims of communal riots. Organizations like APWA, Boy Scouts Association and Girl Guides Association were established in 1947 and 1948 and have been active since then. Some organizations like Anjuman Himayyat-e-Islam were established even before partition and have been active since early 20th century. Most of NGOs, which were established immediately after independence mainly concentrated on rehabilitation and on providing basic services such as health and education. Though in principle the governments of 1950s and 60s recognized role of NGOs in development and community uplift, yet the relationship between the state and civil society sector can at be described as vague during that period. The governments tried to regularize the sector by promulgating different acts and laws. However it was the policy of nationalization adopted by Bhutto government in 1970s which delivered a severe blow to the NGO sector as trusts, foundations and community organizations were nationalized by the government without taking into consideration the fact that by doing so the actual spirit of volunteerism and activism would perish.

Ironically, tremendous growth in the number of NGOs was observed during the martial law regime of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, as the government propagated its philosophy of social work and encouraged establishment of NGOs and CBOs to be involved in social development projects. However, the underlying motives were not so sacred it was done in order to weaken the political forces and reduce their influence in the masses. Special funds were set aside for development through local bodies and a large number of NGOs were established by those who saw the opportunity. The trend continued in late 80s and 90s as subsequent governments initiated different social development program which emphasized community participation and involvement of NGOs and CBOs in the implementation.

However the real boom in the sector was witnessed during the 90s, when whole development paradigm changed internationally. This had much to do with the perception among international development agencies that governments all over the world and especially in the developing countries had failed to perform in the fight against poverty. Two decades of ‘government to government’ interaction, aid and support had yielded very poor results because of the lack of capacity of governments and had in fact led to greater corruption and growing levels of bureaucracy while making little impact on poverty. So the policy makers in the international monetary institutions and agencies concerned with official aid discovered NGOs and started investing in them with a set of rules within an agenda of improved aid effectiveness. This resulted in mushroom growth of NGOs over the world and similarly in Pakistan. Even the government boarded the band wagon and established organizations like NCHD, which on later came to be known as GONGOs (Government Organized NGOs)

Some experts might argue that this is a very simplistic explanation for growth in the number of NGOs across the world. Many other reasons such as end of cold war removing polarization around two superpowers, emergence of global media providing a platform NGOs to express themselves and spread of democratic norms can be quoted as reasons behind the rise of NGOs into prominence. But it is not difficult to see that none of the above mentioned three or four factors had anything to do with rise of NGO sector in particular and of civil society sector in Pakistan. Here the numbers NGOs grew not as result of any awakening of social consciousness and or community empowerment but as a result of greater funding opportunities being made available nationally and internationally and because of the desire of the local and international funding agencies to operate through the NGOs. Once again, I must add here that this does not apply to all NGOs as there are many NGOs and NGO networks which have been operating for a very long time and doing very well without support from sate or international agencies. They enjoy great support and confidence of the communities and people of Pakistan and their work is extraordinary. Edhi Foundation, Shoukat Kahnum Trust, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Agha Khan Foundation, and Nai Zindgi Trust are just a few of them. It is not even possible to mention the names of all those, whose work is commendable and worth appreciating.

The first and foremost issue of our NGOs is that most of them are still operating under the welfare paradigm. They work under the ethical notion of giving and serving the humanity. But it has been proved that however noble the notion may be, it does not change the ground realties at all. The situation of those who are being served does not change. They remain poor, uneducated, vulnerable and marginalized. Rather, support provided to them by welfare oriented organizations increases their dependence and dis-empowers them further. As they say in development world, “it is better to teach one to catch a fish, instead of giving him or her one fish daily”, but it takes more effort and often means changing social order, which perhaps we don’t wan to do at this moment. You may observe that some of the very popular organizations in Pakistan are doing just the same kind of work.

As said earlier, many of our NGOs were not established as a result of awakening of the social consciousness or to take up real issues of the communities. These were established to utilize the greater funding opportunities being made available locally and internationally. Their objectives were not developed as result of community participation and consultations, but were developed in such a way to make them more attractive and aligned to the donor agendas. So we can say that their objectives are not community driven but donor driven. But donor priorities change frequently and funding opportunities vary accordingly. In order to remain relevant to the priorities such organizations change their focus of work and often take up causes which have got nothing to do with their target communities. These organizations are ideologically confused and often invite the wrath of critics both from within and from outside. But we have to admit that even these organizations have done a lot of good not only terms of services provided to target communities but also in terms of bringing international resources to the country, which otherwise might not have come at all and in terms of generating job and business opportunities in an otherwise stagnant economy.

Our NGOs and civil society organizations are often blamed for being donor driven and for promoting foreign agendas but we forget that these NGOs get very little support from local philanthropy. A study done many years ago claimed that every year around 70 billion rupees are given in charity in Pakistan. But most of this amount goes to individuals, mosques and religious institutions like madrasahs. Some organizations, which are very welfare and service delivery oriented, also get a share form this pie. But all the advocacy organizations and those organizations who work with vulnerable and marginalized communities like female sex workers or injecting drug users or on issues like human rights or HIV and AIDS do not get any share at all from this local philanthropy. Naturally they become dependent on support form international donor agencies and have to follow their priorities, which some time renders them irrelevant to local scene and makes them alien in their own land.

Though the successive governments in policy recognize the role and importance of NGOs, yet refuse to accept them as equal partners. NGOs and civil society organizations are seen as mere implementers, who are called to perform the duties once the plans, programs and projects have been developed and finalized. No NGO can implement a project satisfactorily which has been developed at some high level without the consultation and participation of the communities for whom it is meant. When such projects fail to achieve the objectives, the blame falls on the implementing NGOs and their lack of capacity. But no NGO can afford to implement such projects as, refusal would mean being left behind high and dry.

NGO and civil society organizations in Pakistan usually have to operate in an environment which is becoming increasingly hostile to them. When even opening a girls primary school is considered an encroachment in the cultural traditions, the NGOs often take the easy route and prefer to work on projects which do not challenge the even the most decadent of cultural norms. It is often emphasized the NGOs and civil society organizations should adopt culturally sensitive approaches, but we tend to forget that it is sometimes the culture and traditions which need to be challenged in order to bring positive changes in the society. Failure in doing so has made our Pakistani society go backward instead of forwards in the recent years.

These are only few of the factors which have stopped NGOs from achieving their true potential. How these challenges can be addressed is another long discussion which needs to be taken up separately. But we must remember that NGOs and civil society organizations are no more insignificant actors lurking at the outskirts of the development stage. They are at the centre stage and have to play the lead role in the development of the country. In order to be able to do so, they need to look within and without and not only identify the challenges which have hindered their growth but also develop indigenous strategies and responses to overcome these challenges. Imported ideas and philosophies will not work for them; rather will make them more foreign to the communities in which they are working and make them even more confused then they are now.

The Magic of Development World

Aftab Ahmed Awan

Welcome to the world of five star hotels, huge conference halls, flashy progress reports, high tech presentations, stiff neck professionals and globe trotting consultants. No, I am not talking about the world of multinational corporations and business empires. I am talking about the national, international and multilateral development organizations busy in eradicating poverty, fighting HIV and gender injustice, advocating for better environment and protecting human rights across the globe.
Perhaps you don’t know it yet but the solutions and answers of all your ills have already been discovered and are hidden in the lap tops and flash drives of the development organizations and consultants. They have the ability and capacity to make all your problems disappear within no time if you could provide them enough funding and resources. Though some times resources disappear much faster than the problems yet it is not something very serious to create too much fuss about. You might object that if you had resources and funding available you could easily do the job yourself but you are badly and sadly mistaken. Only development professionals can tell you what’s really wrong with you and what kind strategic frame work you ought to develop if you want to adopt a holistic approach for the solution of that problem. If you have no resource available, even then there is no problem. Institutions like World Bank are always there to give soft loans which can be utilized to hire the services of the development organizations and consultants. Your grand children and their children can then worry about the repayment of the loans and other petty issues like these.
The issue with backward countries like Pakistan is that most of the time we don’t really know what our actual problems are. We spend our time, resources and energies on addressing poverty, illiteracy, lack of basic amenities, human rights etc, which are in fact mere offshoots of the real problems.. When international organizations come to our rescue and hire the consultants to dig out the actual concerns of our country, they spend months in hard core research, meet the stake holders, analyze the on ground situation, perform a SWOT analysis and then inform us that our real problems are in fact poverty, illiteracy, lack of basic amenities and human rights. If you object that what is the use of hiring a consultant if he tells us the same things which we already knew, it means you have never had the opportunity working with a consultant and especially with a consultant from a development organization. Consultants usually don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. They build on what is already there and if there is good enough structure already existing then just white wash does the job. Why waste time on things which are already known and are available on the net. If the material in their reports seems unusually familiar to you, you only have to blame Microsoft for that. Why has the company provided the facility of cut and paste in their software?
Once the consultants have identified the real issues creating hurdles in the proper development, we can start the work on solving them. But there is also a strong probability that all your problems have already been solved but you are not aware of your good fortune. To overcome this lack of knowledge, you only need to look into the annual reports of some development organizations working in your area. The figures and graphs will clearly illustrate the fact to you that your area has undergone a huge transformation and is now only one or two more multi million dollars projects away from utopia. These reports will also reflect the huge change which has occurred in the behaviors of the people as the result of the project being implemented by the concerned organization. The reports will have ample examples of the positive changes in the behaviors of the people by documenting the fact that as a result of behavioral change communication of the project, now women are not being buried alive on demanding their rights. Rather, they are first decently shot and then thrown into a pit. You might wonder why all this progress and prosperity is not visible to a common man. But let me tell you that you are being unfair. If you have never challenged the claims of your chief ministers and prime ministers about the progress made by the country in their golden era, what wrong these organizations have done against you to invite your wrath and inquiry. I admit that you might face some problems in getting inside the office and laying your hands on the reports. The offices need to be heavily protected to safe the staff from those who consider education of girls and vaccination of children as the greatest vices of 21st century. Most of the time staff has to operate from inside the office to bring the miraculous changes. So there is no question of commoners getting inside the office if staff can’t go out. Also the reports are not meant for lay men and women like you. Only donors and funding agencies can appreciate the real beauty and worth of these reports and decipher the facts and figures presented by experts in them. That is why they (I mean the reports not consultants) are kept away from common people to avoid misunderstandings and misconceptions.
There are some cynics who raise useless objections that too much money is being wasted on conferences and seminars which are often held in five stars hotels. They do so without realizing the fact the conducive and supportive environment is pre-requisite for giving maximum out put and generating great ideas. Where else can one get a better environment then these hotels and resorts? Also when one has spent so much time stuck inside the office in Islamabad while fighting poverty and gender injustice in Dera Ghazi Khan, one deserves bit of respite, doesn’t he? Moreover, these conferences and workshops provide a good opportunity of meeting colleagues involved in the same type of crusade in some other organizations and for sharing ideas with them. If the workshop is international, so much the better. The international exposure will bring the wealth of knowledge which no amount of field work can get. There is no need to raise hue and cry over the wastage of resources. The capacity built through these workshops can be utilized in the next projects. After all neither has problems disappeared nor have the donor agencies said that they wil not funding projects in future. So worry about a few thousand dollars.
To sum up my advice to you, if are young aspiring professional, is to forget the corporate world. The development world promises much much more and is more fun too. You can always claim to be serving the humanity and contributing in the cause of development.