NGOs and development in Pakistan

An interesting article on Pakistan has been posted at Global Dashboard (a knowledge hub for issues in international affairs and foreign policy) by Seth Kaplan “Why do some countries have so few NGOs?“, a policy consultant on state instability, governance and development based in New York. The thesis of it is as follows:

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are significant for service delivery to the poor, they hold governments accountable and are a positive impact on development. However, in Pakistan there is a very small number of NGOs, and as thus development Pakistan has suffered. Additionally respectable think tanks, and independent monitoring organizations (IMOs) are also few and far between.

Kaplan goes on to say that this lack of independent organizations extend to politics with political parties structures on kinship ties. However philanthropic contributions are huge (1% of GDP) but “a relatively small share of this money is going to build institutions that contribute to state building and social development. The poor may be gaining adequate relief from destitution—the streets of Pakistan have far fewer beggars than India—in ways that did little to change the situations.”

Firstly, the blame according to Kaplan falls on the Pakistani society dominated by kinship relationship that distrusts externally developed institutions. Secondly, institutions are not run by consensus but by cults of personality.

The arguments are not without merits but Kaplan forgets some of the subtleties of the cases of India and Bangladesh that have a proliferation of NGOs. Most NGOs start off providing a specific serves in a specific policy areas and this hold true for India and Bangladesh as well. In India much of the drive behind NGOs and independent service delivery is entrepreneurship and a good business environment. In Pakistan the economic environment is too complex to such NGO growth. It is not kinship and ethnic ties that doesn’t let NGOs proliferate, its taxation, security, terrorism, inflation, transportation costs, road infrastructures etc., that make wide scale operations too risky or too costly. With many NGOs in Pakistan trying to works as self sustaining non-profit organizations, much of the activity is constrained because of economic reasons rather than the frailty of trust networks.

Kaplans second point on institutions being hijacked by the people who are running them is also flawed because assuming NGOs to be independent ventures, initially NGOs are the effort of a few people but there is no evidence to suggest that these people are corrupt or grossly inefficient. Personal power in government institutions is a different matter and it is too much of a generalization to bunch NGOs with all other institutions and say that these are run on personal agendas.

Kaplan’s broad-brushed analysis then jumps to the weakness of civil society being weak and only advocating specific issues. But is that not how civil society and lobbying groups work?

Accepting that Pakistan has fewer NGOs, can we even say that NGO’s cause development? NGOs are small scale service provides where the state cannot reach, they fill in the gaps in development and give signals to the state and civil society highlighting vulnerabilities. Development has always been the job of the state. The weakness of civil society advocacy and participation is key to this. NGOs do have a role in this, however the case of Pakistan is different from that of Bangladesh and India. We have vast networks of charity based on societal trust (that Kaplan says is weak in Pakistan). Even NGOs like SOS Children’s Villages and CARE in Pakistan operate on these donations. Just because Pakistan does not have an NGO titan like Grameen, does not mean that philanthropy and non-state service delivery are not present. Additionally there is a large growing criticism of microfinance and its actual impact on development due to high interest rates and defaults with loans. The problem with too many NGOs is that the governments starts relying on these NGOs for development, and this is not a sustainable solution for long term economic and social development and it de-links civils society from the state.

Rather than just looking at the number of NGOs in Pakistan as a problem, a better question would be to see how significant NGOs actually are for development in Pakistn and what are the conditions that are inhibiting development as compared to India and Bangladesh? NGOs is probably not the answer.

Pakistan Policy Group 2012. 

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