Vulnerable NGO Sector

THERE is a point at which legitimate national security concerns tip over into paranoia, xenophobia and insularity. The Pakistani state, including the civilian government, appears to be dangerously close to that point.

Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan’s ongoing war on INGOs and local NGOs with external funding and links increasingly appears to be about some misguided sense of nationalism as opposed to anything to do with genuine security. Thousands — thousands — of foreigners have over the years come to Pakistan in the guise of NGO workers to undermine the national interest and harm the country’s security, the interior minister told the Senate on Thursday.

That is preposterous. The interior minister’s aggressive rhetoric has deliberately and very provocatively equated virtually anyone in the NGO sector, though especially those linked to the West, with a threat to this country.

The NGO community may well be wondering if Chaudhry Nisar’s rhetoric has crossed the line into incitement — after all, NGOs often operate in insecure areas at great personal threat to their employees from all manner of violent elements in society. Should the interior minister not feel a sense of responsibility towards the many good, decent, hardworking and honourable men and women who have dedicated their professional lives to improving the lot of Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens?

The problem though goes far beyond the interior minister and his crusade. A narrow, security-centric worldview was once upon a time something that mostly existed in the security establishment. Over the years, however, politicians have increasingly begun to mimic their military counterparts in terms of viewing the Western world with suspicion. The public at large too appears to have increasingly conspiratorial views about an international plot, devised by the West of course, to undermine the security and stability of Pakistan. Anyone who hails from a Western country is viewed as a potential enemy out to destabilise the state.

Contrast that with the regional experience — whether in South Asia or the Gulf. Foreigners are welcomed, indeed eagerly recruited, for their productivity and skill sets. Those countries have security concerns of their own, but they aren’t allowed to overwhelm all other considerations.

Why is Pakistan so bent on being the exception? The political leadership could have tried to shape public opinion in a responsible way. Instead, it appears to be content with pandering to fear and paranoia — and maligning a sector that fills many of the gaps left by the state.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2015


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