Insecurity and instability: The political landscape for NGOs in Pakistan in 2013

March 7, 2013
Anna Wansbrough-Jones
Explaining good hygiene practices in Shikarpur district, Pakistan

The elections will be a major interruption for bureaucracy, INGO movement and gaining governmental approval for INGO work” (Head of International Agency, Islamabad, Pakistan).

With the 2013 elections bringing the first democratic handover in the country’s history, the unpredictable ‘excitement’ of politics in Pakistan is likely to continue through the year. Interviews with heads of INGOs, UN agencies and institutional donors in Islamabad identified how the changing political landscape is restricting NGO’s space to operate.

  • Sovereignty rhetoric. A loss of sovereignty (or perception of it) will drive humanitarian action in Pakistan in the coming months. With controversy generated by the CIA’s fake vaccination scheme attempting to identify Osama Bin Laden in 2011, the government’s approach to NGOs will continue to be guarded and driven by paranoia that some agency staff are foreign intelligence agents. As one INGO head noted, “there is a perception of foreign-linked humanitarian action being perceived as a threat to security, sovereignty and culture”. This conversation will linger through 2013 as the Abbottabad Commission will pass to the incoming government.
  • Bureaucratic control. The desire for sovereignty translates into limited support for NGO engagement in policy discussions, and the “handcuffing” of operations by the federal government. Strict bureaucratic procedures delay programme activity and restrict or deny staff entry into, and movement within, the country. If the new government brings procedural changes agencies will “have to go through the motions of understanding new systems, however frustrating that may be”. Some fear that if this is not obeyed by all agencies, tensions with the government and restrictions imposed could further intensify, contracting the opportunities to deliver even more.
  • Overlooking disasters. Regardless of the election outcome, in the “absolute likelihood of an emergency” the government may postpone or overlook recognising a state of emergency and approving international aid (as after the 2011 and 2012 floods). As one INGO head suggests, it is the “government’s conviction that they must look good in the eyes of the world, [but] as a result [are] ignoring the plight of the millions”.
  • Conflict and insecurity. Security concerns and violence are endemic throughout Pakistan. With a sharp spike in attacks on polio workers, political turbulence, rising sectarian attacks and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops leaving Afghanistan, many worry that insecurity will worsen over the year. Humanitarian agencies in Pakistan have to manage the safe provision of aid with severely restricted access, due to bureaucratic constraints and insecurity.
  • Transfer of risk. Many INGOs work with national partners who have better access to restricted areas. Some see this as an opportunity for national civil society to grow, but also question the risk transfer onto partners and how prepared national NGOs are to deliver effectively; they “aren’t mature enough to overcome humanitarian principles and operate like that” argues one institutional donor head, highlighting a further constraint to humanitarian operations.
  • Dwindling funds. The promised volatility, insecurity and bureaucratic constraints of an election year may very possibly lead to a decline in donor’s confidence that agencies will be able to deliver quality work. Diminishing funds are already squeezing aid opportunities.

Is it all so bleak?

This year is especially complex. As one INGO head explains, “it seems a bit like humanitarian actions are against all odds with the government, elections and security“. However opportunities to respond effectively do exist:


  • Deliver. Humanitarian agencies should prioritise developing and capitalising on their acceptance at the community level – “this is our strength and rooting“. INGOs need to provide quality work and support their national counterparts to do the same, whilst remaining security conscious and within the bureaucratic controls.
  • Understand. NGOs need to better understand the political economy, particularly regarding the elections, security and the ISAF forces leaving Afghanistan. Further, there is a strong sense that “we need to avoid a situation where it is us and them with the government and foreigners” and NGOs agree that they “still need to find a way into the labyrinth of who makes decisions [in the government]“..
  • Engage. There is a need for NGO-led discussions with the government that are coordinated, unified, clear and openly acknowledge governmental viewpoints. The head of an INGO spoken to explained, “it’s all about acceptance, we’ll have to regain that through open interaction with the authorities”, this may become easier over the year as “the idea of NGOs being spies may wane, purely due to time“..
  • Influence. According to one agency head, NGOs must “stick to humanitarian principles” and work together to promote them effectively in an environment that is sensitive to humanitarian terminology. Communicating successes, raising awareness of the more chronic issues and pushing harder as a collective voice should be prioritised. Involving the Pakistani diaspora and gaining support from Head Offices, coordination bodies and others outside of the country are key approaches suggested.


As one INGO head summarised, “[there is] so much potential, if only we [I/NGOs] could get a more constructive dialogue with the government, use funds appropriately, [and look] at the bigger picture“. With humanitarian agencies in Pakistan already facing challenges in their work, the forthcoming election season is sure to restrict access, control movement and limit opportunities for growth. A number of policy and practice responses can be put in place to reduce these risks, but need coordination, resources and combined will to succeed.

Anna Wansbrough-Jones is a consultant currently based in Pakistan.


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