Government restrictions on foreign funding alarms Pakistani CSOs: A CIVICUS interview with Qamar Naseem

Qamar Naseem of the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network (PCSN) speaks to CIVICUS about growing restrictions imposed on civil society organisations and the Pakistani government’s attempts to curb access to funding from international sources. Qamar is the recipient of the prestigious ‘No Peace without Justice’ Human Rights Award in 2014 and his work mostly focuses on advocating for women’s rights in Pakistan. He is also the co-chair of End Violence against Women and Girl Alliance (EVAW/KP and FATA).

1. Tell us about the controversial draft Foreign Contribution Act, 2014. How will its enactment affect civil society organizations in Pakistan?
In February 2014, The Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) issued the draft Foreign Contributions Act, 2014 (FCA) under the chairmanship of the Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Mr. Zahid Hamid.  If enacted, the FCA will require CSOs to obtain prior government permission to utilize foreign funding. The proposed law will also require CSOs to use foreign funding only for the purposes or in locations permitted by the government.
Even though FCA is pending parliamentary review, in the interim the “Policy for Regulation of Organizations Receiving Foreign Contributions” approved by the ECC in November 2013 regulates and severely restricts the ability to seek, receive and utilize foreign funding.

Also, in April 2014 the government suspended memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with foreign-funded NGOs and INGOs convened by the UN.  In May 2014, the government made it mandatory for foreign-funded NGOs and INGOs to declare their sources of funding and provide justification for their work.

The Pakistani government’s attempt to restrict access to foreign funding stems from its intolerance of independent human rights advocacy and expressions of dissent.  The bill attempts to control civil society organizations through coercive measures and would stifle rights-based groups and negatively affect essential services provided to the needy.  If enacted, the FCA will further restrict the limited freedoms enjoyed by Pakistani civil society.

2. How are CSOs in Pakistan reacting to this encroachment on their rights? 
Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network (PCSN), Tribal NGOs Consortium (TNC), Pakistan NGO Forum (PNF), Civil Society Forum (PCSF), Insani Haqooq Ittehad (IHI), Pakistan Development Alliance (PDA) and several others networks and organizations in Pakistan are advocating for the repeal of the draconian draft law and the interim policy. Their current advocacy efforts attempt to highlight that the draft legislation and the policy violates Pakistan’s international human rights obligations.
After organizing nationwide consultations, Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network (PCSN) and Tribal NGOs Consortium (TNC) developed a position paper and are in a process of negotiating the outcome with decision makers. We strongly believe that there is an urgent need to put more pressure on Pakistani decision makers to persuade them not to support the bill in Parliament.

3. What are other main challenges for civil society organizations in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, CSOs working on contentious issues such as rampant government corruption, religious fundamentalism and recognition of women’s fundamental rights are systematically targeted by state authorities. CSOs and human rights defenders are routinely harassed through government orchestrated smear campaigns. Over the past year, the government has also imposed new provisions which further restrict CSO operations, especially with regard to access to funding.  As was the case with previous governments, the Nawaz Sharif government has failed to establish a conducive environment for CSOs in the country. Sadly, CSOs in Pakistan operate in an environment where there is absolutely zero tolerance for any form of public dissent.

It must also be noted that the Nawaz Sharif government has failed to take the necessary measures to combat constant political instability and the undermining of rule of law and judicial independence. This has deepened political polarization among different segments of society. Pakistani CSOs are engaged in a struggle for greater democratic freedoms and pluralism while calling for well-functioning public consultation mechanisms and a political culture of understanding and dialogue.

4. How can regional international CSOs support civil society in Pakistan?
International civil society organizations should put pressure on the Pakistani government through effective advocacy at the UN Human Rights Council. International and Pakistani CSOs should work in solidarity to highlight that the ability to seek, receive and utilize funding is an inherent part of freedom of association. If the proposed legislation is approved and implemented in its current form, it will restrict the space for dissenting voices and criminalize demands for justice.