Bureaucratic stranglehold on NGOs threatens existence of Pakistan’s civil society
As Pakistan diligently strives to fulfil the outstanding requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the stronghold on nonprofits in the country further tightens with Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, imposing policies and regulations which are almost impossible to meet and maintain, even if done so. The message is clear: prevent NGOs from operating in the province.
All NGOs working in Punjab are mandated to register with the Punjab Charity Commission (PCC), which is stated as a “registering and regulatory authority for registering charities and regulating collection of charitable funds.” While this is a good way to standardize registration and acquire permission to work in the province, the process is chaotic, confusing and unclear.
On repeated inquiries about the process (after being routed through four different departments), it was discovered that only Punjab based NGOs can directly register on the website and get approval, while non-Punjab based NGOs have to first formally re-register at a provincial level as a nonprofit with the Social Welfare Department, followed by a second-tier registration required with the PCC. This means that the registering bodies of other provinces and the federal territory are no longer recognized in Punjab, even if the Ordinance is exactly the same. An NGO registered under the Society’s Act of 1860 or the 1961 Ordinance in Islamabad or Sindh, is now no longer recognized under the exact same Ordinance in Punjab.
The reasoning and legality of this policy is not only unclear but has become an additional source of revenue with annual and renewal fees imposed as another compulsory requirement. It is a display of true grit and resilience by NGOs when they commit to undergo the excessive duplication of long, tedious, non-transparent processes with checks at every turn.
Even if an NGO takes this bold leap of faith, it must first fulfil a long list of documentation, with intrusive information on all members, such as travel history and personal bank statements, which have to be submitted with multiple attested copies. Once done, the relevant department lacks the staff and resources to manage and process applications in a timely manner. The success of an NGO’s registration is based solely on connections for a process which otherwise takes up to a year. Add to that the second-tier of registration required by PCC, which again takes another year on average. This means an NGO has to wait for about two years before it can become operational in the province, if allowed.
Nonprofits are consistently subjected to ambiguous, circular and long-winded rules and regulations which threaten the very existence of civil society in Pakistan today. Local organizations and grassroots initiatives that target high-priority areas to serve community needs have to jump through layers of bureaucracy.
The confusion and inflexibility of the system does not end there. If an NGO manages to miraculously register on the PCC portal, it cannot make any changes to its status and scope of operations before its next annual renewal. This means that if an NGO wants to operate in more districts in the province, it has to wait till the next renewal date and cannot revise its existing application. The PCC is apparently working to resolve this issue on the website, which will take an additional six months at least, during which time, NGOs are simply unable to work in the province. The latest notification from PCC is that all NGOs working in the province must be registered with them by the end of last month-- else face forceful expulsion.
In light of previous events, the operations of nonprofits should be monitored to ensure that their integrity and finances are not misused. However, the process should be streamlined, transparent and time-efficient. Currently, there are five different laws through which foundations, trusts and non-profits can register in Pakistan. A single unified authority which registers local NGOs regardless of location should be accepted across provinces. Secondly, if the PCC has made registrations mandatory in the province, it should collaborate with all registration bodies of other provinces and federal areas to ensure that non-Punjab based NGOs are incorporated without having to re-register as a first step. The present system is fragmented, time-consuming and operates in silos which cause critical delays in meaningful work with no department being held accountable.
Nonprofits are consistently subjected to ambiguous, circular and long-winded rules and regulations which threaten the very existence of civil society in Pakistan today. Local organizations and grassroots initiatives that target high-priority areas to serve community needs have to jump through layers of bureaucracy. It is vital to note that monitoring the operations of NGOs while providing an enabling environment are not mutually exclusive goals and can successfully be executed in tandem.
Enforcing registration through a national and recognized regulatory body, reducing unnecessary paperwork, removing duplicative procedures and ensuring timely processing with accountability are all achievable and cost-effective policy actions. In this way, all compliant NGOs are facilitated through a transparent and streamlined process, which permits them to safely operate in the province.
– Mehreen Shahid is a development consultant advising the public sector on poverty alleviation, health, education and private sector engagement.