Pakistan has a strong culture of charitable giving demonstrating that the generosity of ordinary people within emerging economies can help to drive social progress. Policy makers should not undo their good work.
Update: Sadly, the concerns raised in this article have now come to fruition. On October 1st interior minister Nisar Ali Khan ordered all international NGOs to re-register in the next 60 days. I stated that those organisations would then be told within a further 60 days whether they would be granted permission to continue operating in Pakistan. In addition, INGOs are now required to enter into a memorandum of understanding with government authorities valid for three years. INGOs will now be required to report on their activities every six months, restrict administrative costs on projects to 30%, limit their international staff to 10% and obtain approval from local authorities prior to undertaking new projects. See statement from CIVICUS.
A recent Op-Ed in the opinion pages of the New York Times entitled “Generosity Amid Want” by renowned Pakistani author; Bina Shah gave deserved credit to the people of Pakistan for their continuing generosity in the face of widespread poverty. In her article Ms. Shah rightly challenges the notion that Pakistan is a country that solely relies on foreign aid and points to a vibrant and healthy civil society supported by mass engagement in charitable giving.
Pointing out that domestic donors provide as much resources to social welfare as the government and fund the education of 2 million children through their generosity, Bina Shah makes a compelling argument for a change in our black and white “poor country = beneficiary society” perception of the world. Pakistan has huge potential for economic growth and the core message of the Future World Giving project– that if governments act now to empower charities and donors, the future potential of civil society could be great – is as relevant to Pakistan as any country.
In citing Charities Aid Foundation data from the 2013 World Giving Index the article points out that in a country where half the people live at, or below the poverty line, the fact that 38% of people reported giving money to charity in the past month is remarkable. In fact, despite being ranked 105 in terms of Gross National Product per capita Pakistan is 40th in terms of the proportion of people giving money to charity – above wealthy countries like Belgium and Spain.
Pakistan’s not-for-profit sector is large and vibrant. According to a John Hopkins University report Pakistan has more than 45,000 not-for-profit organisations and employs over 300,000 people. Though Pakistan is a deeply religious nation the perception that philanthropic funds are disproportionately used for religious causes is somewhat false. 29% of charitable funds support religious education and a further 5% support the management of religious events meaning that religious causes attract 34% of total donations. This is comparable to the 32% in of funds allocated to religious causes in the USA according to Giving USA.
A factor that has helped civil society to prosper in Pakistan is the relatively enabling legal system. Not-for-profits enjoy tax exemption whilst donors benefit from tax credits. The constitution allows any person to form an association or union and permits free expression and advocacy with only reasonable exceptions in the interest of religion, security and, public order, decency and morality, or incitement to an offence. As a result 18% of charitable resources support civil rights and advocacy activities.
But despite considerable progress, civil society faces both long standing and recent barriers to its continuing development.
For all societies, balancing calls for social progress with the traditional and religious sensitivities of the population is challenging. Campaigners for female education and empowerment have faced threats and violence and whilst legislation is relatively permissive, government has been reluctant in its duty of protection of the rights it affords the marginalised. In addition, anti-blasphemy laws have been interpreted loosely on occasion to repress non-Islamic religious groups.
It is also worrying that though rarely used in practice, it is possible for a criminal case to be brought against individuals for defamation of government. This raises the opportunity for future officials to clamp down on criticism when the government comes under more pressure.
Perhaps the most concerng is the trend for policy makers to propose illiberal policies for regulating the not-for-profit sector. Mirroring a concerning global trend for governments to place disproportionate checks on foreign funding, government has drafted a policy for the ‘regulation of organisations receiving foreign contribution’.
This temporary legislation – to be in place until a more wide ranging Bill is drafted – will compel organisations receiving foreign funds to register with the Economic Affairs Division and enter into a Memorandum of Understanding for a period of up to 5 years. Analysts have speculated that the real life span of such a memorandum will be just one year meaning a burdensome annual re-registration for many organisations. In light of concerns about the use of foreign funds for funding extremist movements it is understandable that the federal government wants to scrutinise the activities of charities and protect the reputation of the sector. However, policy makers should focus on how this can be done without singling out organisations using foreign funds as this creates negative perceptions within and without government.
Like Bina Shah, I applaud the people of Pakistan for their commitment to charitable causes – whether through Zakat collection or private philanthropy – and the government for its progressive policies. I hope that policy makers don’t jeopardise the future growth of charitable giving through overly protective policies.