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Recent Developments in Pakistan and the Potential Impact on NGOs

By: Joe Gleason, AHT

Recently announced cuts in US aid to Islamabad, and the surrounding heated rhetoric, are likely to accelerate the rollercoaster ride that is often US-Pakistan relations. While terrorism, civil unrest and political violence often grab headlines, interference from the Pakistani government is an ongoing risk for many organizations operating in the country – especially NGOs.  And, those risks are likely to increase with NGOs – an easy target as relations between Washington and Islamabad deteriorate.

Well before these latest issues, NGOs faced challenges – most recently in December when the Pakistani government ordered 27 international NGOs to depart the country, citing non-compliance with registration requirements. While many of these organizations are likely to appeal their expulsion, the Ministry of Interior’s actions reflect ongoing tension between the government and aid organizations –tensions that are bound to increase in the current environment.

Managing the risks associated with host country interference can be tricky. Governments create and interpret the laws and regulations with which NGOs must comply and, they have virtually unlimited enforcement capabilities. But, that doesn’t mean these risks can’t be mitigated. Some considerations include:

  • Maintain heightened awareness of events, including escalated rhetoric, demonstrations or incidents involving US or other international organizations.
  • Refresh knowledge of current legal presence – status of registration, visas/work permits, etc. Being as compliant as possible doesn’t eliminate risk of pressure but, it reduces being the proverbial low hanging fruit.
  • Review emergency reporting procedures and contacts and, update as necessary.
  • Reinforce incident reporting procedures to ensure a wide range of events or changes in the environment are communicated to country and HQ management. Hiccups in even innocuous administrative systems (banking, visas, etc.) may indicate additional scrutiny by authorities and are worth reporting.
  • Back up electronic files on a regular basis (cloud or electronic media outside the country) and ensure copies of important documents (leases, contracts, etc.) are held electronically or in hard copy outside the country, too. Having access to this information in the event of a business interruption (sudden closure of office or departure from the country, etc.) is critical.
  • Provide staff with clear guidance for dealing with government or security force enquiries at events, program sites, offices, residences, etc. – balancing organizational transparency with appropriate disclosure of information. All staff should be prepared to provide basic, factual, organizational information and refer detailed questions or information requests to the country management team. Any interaction should be reported to the country management and onward to HQ.
  • Understand what local and global resources may be available to support risk mitigation and incident response. Local legal guidance is often essential to navigate challenges. US Embassies and USAID may have limited ability to assist in Pakistan given current tensions, but other embassies or donors may be able to help. Globally, understand how crisis management consultants, such as those embedded in kidnap, ransom, extortion insurance programs or security assistance firms (third party or embedded in insurance), can assist in the event personnel are detained or internationals need to depart at short notice.

As with any risks, these measures won’t prevent something from happening, but they can help organizations identify issues early and respond with coordinated plans. And, this guidance isn’t unique to Pakistan. Host governments have ratcheted up the pressure on NGOs around the globe – with Turkey and Cambodia as stark examples in the past year of this trend. So, even if an organization doesn’t operate in Pakistan, it’s worth understanding the risk and how to manage it as these challenges crop up around the globe.