They may be dealing with some of the world’s most vulnerable communities but non-governmental organisatons (NGOs) operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, particularly international aid agencies, are facing mounting pressure.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s tough counter-terrorism measures have seen more than 150 people convicted on terrorism charges sentenced to death in the last few months alone.
But another side effect of his National Action Plan has been the increasingly hostile environment for international NGOs operating in the country.
On 11 June, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) shut down the Save the Children office in tIslamabad, ordering all foreign staff to leave the country within 15 days.
Although no specific reasons were given, they were accused of “working against the country”.
In the past, Pakistani security forces have accused Save the Children of working with Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician who was involved in the fake vaccination programme used by the CIA to locate Osama Bin Laden.
Save the Children has always denied it had any links with Dr Afridi or the CIA, however, the Interior Minster, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said that no NGO working against Pakistan’s national interest will be allowed to stay in the country.
"Those NGOs using foreign support and funding to implement a foreign agenda in Pakistan should be scared; we will not allow them to work,” he said in a press conference.
His office will now be in charge of the registration, monitoring and security clearance of NGOs in Pakistan, all of which will have to renew their work permits and contracts by the end of 2015.
But civil society groups across Pakistan are uniting to resist the “vilification” of local and international NGOs.
The Pakistan Civil Society Forum (PCSF) has taken particular exception to claims by Ali Khan that NGOs are linked to anti-state activities funded by India, Israel and the United States.
“Such statements amount to hate speech as they may incite violence against NGOs and can put at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of NGO workers active in the various parts of Pakistan,” said a PCSF spokesperson in a statement.
Zohra Yousuf, chairperson of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) told Equal Times that recent anti-NGO moves were designed to force foreign donors to route funds through its own channels, rather than through NGOs.
In a country where social protection is virtually non-existent, where more than 60 per cent of the population live on less than US$2 per day and where natural disasters and climate change-related emergencies are becoming increasingly frequent, NGOs attempt to fill the gaping void in social services left by the government.
Yousuf says the crackdown is also driven by the government’s desire to curb criticism.
“NGOs are increasingly taking up issues of rights violations - whether it’s the high rate of executions or disappearances in Baluchistan and elsewhere. The steps taken and proposed by the government are efforts to silence them”.
Same issue, different dimensions
Next door in Afghanistan, foreign aid agencies, and local welfare associations that rely on the assistance of foreign countries, have come under increasing attack from militants.
On 3 June, the Czech aid organisation People in Need (PIN) suspended all activity in Afghanistan after gunmen killed nine of PIN employees in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
“This incident is the biggest tragedy in PIN’s history,” the charity said in a statement.
“In the context of continuing armed conflict in Afghanistan, targeted attacks on aid organisations were rare. In recent years however, the security situation has deteriorated and aid workers are targeted directly more frequently, making Afghanistan one of the most dangerous countries to work in,” it added.
According to ACBAR, the umbrella organization for NGOs operating in Afghanistan, 26 aid workers have been killed since January 2015, with an additional 17 wounded and 40 abducted.
Alexey Yusupov, Country Director for the German organization Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) told Equal Times that the so-called ’armed opposition’ (a termed used to describe Taliban and other militant groups) were increasing attacks on ’soft targets’ following the decline in international military presence in the country.
The worsening security situation has also created a funding crisis for local NGOs as the monitoring of projects has become increasingly difficult.
But for Yusupov, there is some good can that come out of what is a very difficult situation.
“The gap between ambitions and reality could be filled with programs and actions more suitable to the needs of the Afghan society,” he said.
“We hope to see more progress on peace talks and reconciliation followed by a regional commitment of Afghanistan’s neighbours to capitalise on the potential of this country, not to play it against each other,” he concluded.