The da NGO code — fact or fiction?
Has the government gone legislation crazy? This question comes to mind as the National Assembly is working overtime to push through a plethora of laws, regulations and ordinances at breakneck speed. It all began with the Women’s Protection Bill not so long ago and has now culminated in a ‘code of conduct’ for NGOs. As if NGOs in Pakistan did not have enough to worry about already.
In early February, a news item in newspapers alerted all non-government organisations in Pakistan to a code of conduct that was to be enforced by the end of the month. The proposed code gives sweeping powers to the government to regulate NGOs, yet the government itself has claimed that the code will have no legal basis. After the controversial NGO bill that had a chequered history under at least three successive governments, this is yet another onslaught on NGOs, apparently to curb, as the government believes, ‘external forces’ out to harm the country.
Needless to say the action has the NGO sector up in arms and protests, declaring this as a ‘Hasba bill for NGOs’. For its part, the government has ‘invited’ members of civil society to provide their ‘feedback’ but this is through a website and the deadline for the feedback was given as February 15, after which the code is to go into effect (the date has recently been extended). All this has rightly incensed the NGOs who are fed up of not being consulted on issues and policies that directly affect them. They are also tired of being lumped into the madressah category. Their point, time and again, has been that their activities differ markedly from those of the deeni madaris and that their funding mechanism is clearly and legally defined. Ironically, the code without actually saying so, also hints at controlling the activities of seminaries. Yet, there has been not a single word of discontent from among madressahs or any religious welfare organisations since the controversy began. So who is the ‘victim’ in all this?
The NGO sector would like to think that it is the victim. Granted, the move is a reactionary one on the government’s behalf that defies most legal and political arguments. But is the issue really one of the state trying to be a control freak? One of the key criticisms of the code by the NGO sector is that developing a code of conduct should be the responsibility of the sector itself. The corporate sector in Pakistan for instance, developed a code of corporate governance in 2002, under the auspices of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to improve the corporate governance framework in the country. The code has been incorporated in the listing regulations of the stock exchanges and is applicable to all public listed companies. It is a compilation of ‘best practices’ to provide a framework by which the business and management of listed companies are to be directed and controlled.
If the NGOs claim as they have been doing, that their sector borrows heavily from the corporate side, then why have they not come up with their own code so far? The Pakistan NGO Federation, a coalition of selected NGOs across the country, did in fact develop a code of conduct not in the distant past. However, they claim that the government ignored it and let it lie. Does this infer that their own lobbying practices were not effective enough to push the code through? If that is the case, then the situation is worrisome. For a sector that prides itself on bringing vital grassroots issues to the forefront, fighting to institute their own ways of working should be their biggest and on the face on it, simplest priority. Especially since one of their main benefactors — international donors — continue to harp on the principles of ‘good governance’ as a basis for partnership. More worrisome however, is the fact that the NGOs themselves admit that the sector is still not clearly defined. The voluntary and the NGO sector has now been active in Pakistan for well over two decades, in both service delivery and active lobbying. Several studies have been carried out to ascertain the size, scope and nature of activities. If despite this the NGO sector is unable to define itself, then there is little that can be left to the imagination.
Whether this code then is an effort by the Musharraf government to pave the way for the upcoming elections, or a political scapegoat, is but a small issue. The code itself is vague, repetitive and non-binding, and not to mention a poorly-written document. The issue that seems to be emerging from this controversy evolves more around the perpetual confrontation between the state and the NGO sector. The latter argues that it has created its own space in Pakistan, without any considerable help by the government. The government for its part argues that the NGO sector is a product of foreign interventions in the country and is not vital to the provision of economic and social equilibrium in the country (despite whatever is claimed at Davos and other global development summits). This keeps the two in perpetual confrontation with each other. The NGOs’ code of conduct is simply another manifestation of this inconclusive and circular debate.
Sound corporate governance practices help companies to improve their performance and attract investment while enabling them to realise their corporate objectives, protect shareholder rights, meet legal requirements, and demonstrate to a wider public how they are conducting their business. This doesn’t sound very different to what the NGO sector is striving towards and in fact to what the government also would like to achieve. But both sides need to mature their thinking. The state needs to move away from knee-jerk response actions like developing codes of conduct (and perhaps even sweeping bills of protections and reforms) and instead base its decisions on unearthing facts that somehow refuse to be uncovered. The NGOs on the other hand need to channel their activism into collating themselves as a group of like-minded thinkers, doers and intellectuals, who can at least use the space that they have gained more effectively, before conquering further.
Of course, this is all easier said than done in today’s suicide bomber-ridden Pakistan, where everyone is now a terror suspect — non-government or otherwise.
Source: The News