Who will save the children?

Are the Pakistani government's concerns about international NGOs the usual tempest in a teapot, or do they reflect a deeper trend?

Who will save the children?
The headlines have rushed in over the past few days, headlines that, if I believed them, I could only explain as another manifestation of a suicidal national mindset among the political class of Pakistan. But while these headlines give me something to write about in a week when nothing else strikes my fancy, they neither strike me as scary or as any kind of game changer. The headlines convey the sudden drama of a well-known and highly regarded International NGO being thrown out of Pakistan, and an apparent new found government desire to bring the many International NGOs in Pakistan to heel. Now if I thought that these organizations which are the most common vehicle for delivering others’ money and expertise to the humanitarian and development tasks that confront and challenge (and for the most part overwhelm) the national, provincial and local governments of Pakistan, I would be worried. I think it safe to say that I would conclude that Pakistan’s future would be in even more doubt than it is at present. But as soon as I write a paragraph about the decision to throw out the Save The Children NGO, the news comes that the decision has been rescinded. And one wonders how a committee to examine International NGOs could avoid examining the religious charities as well as the madrassas. It all sounds a little overambitious to me.

One might think that there would be some merit in knowing more about the many international NGOs that operate in Pakistan to ensure that these organizations’ operations are doing generally what they are supposed to do, that is alleviate the poverty, enhance education, and generally support the government’s general objective of providing social services to the Pakistani people. After all, it is clear from some Pakistanis’ recently-demonstrated world class capabilities in scamming, that some oversight would be useful to avoid repeats of such embarrassing tales as the Axact phony degree scandal, and (going back a few years) the equally world class BCCI bank scam. If for no other reason than those memories, Pakistani governments should want to know what is going on, in general, in the society they (sort of) govern.
They work around the world with no scandal, and to my knowledge have created no proven scandal in Pakistan

But really….Save The Children; Mercy Corps; National Democratic Institute; International Republican Institute; Oxfam; World Vision? These International NGOs which, according to the newspapers are on the government’s target list, work around the world with no scandal, and to my knowledge have created no proven scandal in Pakistan in the many years they have been operating there. I say “proven” because the media’s allusions to the expulsion of Save The Children were because of allegations that it was an official in that organization that recruited Dr Afridi for the infamous CIA fake vaccination program in Abbottabad. But Save The Children stoutly denies this. Has that official or the organization actually been tried in a court of law for this infraction? I suppose, among other conundrums the government would face in bringing this matter to court would be that it would have to produce Dr Afridi.

Well that is one issue, but I think the more telling point is that Save the Children has evidently been operating in Pakistan for 35 years without arousing any suspicion that it was “working against Pakistan,” words the Interior Minister used to describe its transgression, so without the foggiest idea of what that might mean, it seems fair to ask that it be given a fair chance to answer whatever charges against it that there are, and if the news stories are correct, none has so far been given. In fact, the Commission that was recently set up to investigate the activities of some of the International NGOs appears just to have only started its investigation when Save The Children was ordered to shut down its operations and leave the country. Now, of course, it is all moot—unless of course the decision to rescind is rescinded.


Among the 20 International NGOs alleged to be targets of this investigation are some of the best known and most highly regarded International NGOs who have provided aid and comfort and/or training and expertise to the people Pakistan and much of the rest of the world for many years. No reason was given for any of these organizations to be investigated except for the very vague admonition by the Interior Minister that “some NGOs should be investigated for performing outside their domains,” and that the government wants to compel [these NGOs] to work under their charter.” The Minister was also quoted as saying that “no NGO working against the country’s interest would be allowed to continue its work in Pakistan.”

Well I was under the impression that the political, economic, and social uplift of Pakistani society, its populace, and the country is central to the interests of Pakistan. The International NGOs are at the core of this effort – they have assisted successive Pakistani governments over many years in fostering programs ranging from those that feed and support the poor generally such as Catholic relief Services and Oxfam, to those which provide emergency relief to regions stricken by natural disasters like Merci Corps or World Vision, to those which target vulnerable groups such as Save the Children, to those who offer technical assistance to foster democracy such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. To accuse them of working against Pakistan’s National interest is absurd.

Is this the usual tempest in a teapot, or does it reflect a deeper trend? According to analysts I respect, the immediate cause of the uproar is anger on some government ministers’ part that a couple of the International NGOs became too intimately involved in the campaign led by the EU against the execution of two convicts who were underage when convicted. If so, a specific warning instead of a broad brush attack might seem to be in order. In general, however, NGOs have eschewed distinctly political matters and devoted their efforts to improving human welfare, and most work through promoting the interests and the rights of the weaker segments of society. Most International and bilateral donors work closely with NGOs in their support of the foreign assistance programs.

Once again the fire bell clangs in the night bringing with it frightening visions of a dysfunctional future. Once again we awaken and hope it was a bad dream.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.