Pakistan is asking for urgent flood relief. – The Washington Post

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Pakistan continues to grapple with unprecedented floods. By some estimates, 15 percent of the country’s population has been affected and more than 1,200 lives have been lost. Flood-related damage may run as much as $30 billion, and experts warn of food instability and disease outbreaks in the months ahead.
Even in good times, Pakistan’s government would probably not have the resources to mount effective relief and rehabilitation operations, given the scale of the devastation. But Pakistan faces an acute economic crisis reflecting multiple factors, including a sharp rise in energy prices because of the war in Ukraine.
The government has asked the international community for support, and several countries are providing generous assistance. However, there is one important element missing in the relief effort: support from international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). That’s because in 2010, the government instituted a ban on several international NGOs. And despite massive floods, domestic political considerations make it difficult for the government to overturn this ban and allow NGOs to deliver flood relief. Here’s what you need to know.
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In some countries, NGOs are no longer welcome
More than 60 countries now have laws that restrict international NGOs or foreign funding for the operations of local NGOs. These restrictions are a remarkable policy shift — since the end of the Cold War, NGOs and other civil society organizations have worked alongside governments and markets to sustain democracy and promote economic development. Yet some governments are now instituting restrictions on international NGOs, a shift that has accelerated in recent years with the onset of the “democracy recession.”
Why the crackdown? Some governments claim that international NGOs and international funding for local NGOs interfere with domestic politics. This is powerful rhetoric because countries across the world are sensitive to foreign interference in local affairs — and international NGOs tend to be based in Western countries.
Domestic politics further complicate Pakistan’s NGO ban
In Pakistan, the immediate cause for the government’s refusal to allow relief efforts from international NGOs is also part of the high-profile political fight between the government and the opposition, led by former prime minister Imran Khan.
Imran Khan dissolved Pakistan’s parliament. How did that happen?
In April, Khan resigned after a no-confidence vote in parliament — and he claims that the U.S. orchestrated his removal from office. He is organizing mass rallies to demand early elections, and in the process is drumming up anti-Western sentiment.
Khan’s actions make it difficult for the government to welcome relief efforts by international NGOs. The current political dynamics — along with deep-rooted suspicion of the United States among many in Pakistan — make it difficult for the government to accept desperately needed help from many international NGOs.
As governments around the world have cracked down on international NGOs, there have been few domestic protests. Why haven’t international NGOs seen more support from the citizens in countries that the NGOs want to help?
Citizens have complex perceptions about foreign donors
Our research reveals a complex picture of domestic support for foreign funding for NGOs. To understand more generally how Pakistanis felt about foreign-funded NGOs, we commissioned a face-to-face survey with 530 respondents, conducted by Gallup-Pakistan in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, with a population of more than 13 million. Lahore is the capital of Punjab province, which accounts for more than half of Pakistan’s population.
While no city in Pakistan is immune from sectarian conflicts, Lahore, unlike other major cities such as Karachi, Peshawar or Quetta, has witnessed lower levels of sectarian conflict. This meant that we had a better chance of getting truthful responses from survey respondents. Moreover, we were careful not to provoke reactions when asking about madrassas, religious education centers focused on the study of Islam — which many in Pakistan often associate with sectarian (Sunni vs. Shiite) violence.
Using survey experiment techniques, we asked a sample of 530 adults randomly selected from different Lahore neighborhoods whether they were willing to donate to a hypothetical local madrassa providing K-12 education. In different frames of our experiment, we noted that the madrassa does not receive foreign support or noted that it receives support from donors in the United States, Germany or Saudi Arabia.
We find that respondents’ willingness to donate diminishes when the hypothetical madrassa accepts money from donors in Saudi Arabia and the United States. However, we do not find such hesitancy when the money is coming from Germany.
What does this tell us about foreign NGOs, and the U.S. credibility crisis in Pakistan? After the CIA ran a fake vaccination program in their hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, perceptions of U.S. support for any NGO created public suspicion. Indeed, Pakistan banned Save the Children in the aftermath of the revelations about the bin Laden case, though there’s no evidence that the global charity was involved.
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Might Pakistan’s public support NGOs that receive funding from Saudi Arabia, for instance? Saudi Arabia is a fellow Muslim country, one with a history of very high approval ratings in public opinion polls in Pakistan. After all, much of the rhetoric against international NGOs is directed against U.S. NGOs, reflecting the Islam-vs.-the-West narrative. Our survey found that local support diminishes when the madrassa received money from Saudi Arabia.
The bottom line is that in the context of Pakistan, public perceptions about international NGOs or international support for domestic NGOs are nuanced. Government policy does not always clearly reflect public opinion. Rather, party politics may be dictating the policy — and in this case, the government may think it can ill afford to come across as favoring “American” NGOs, an issue that Khan and the opposition could exploit.
For Pakistan’s looming humanitarian crisis, domestic politics may continue to impede international assistance efforts — despite a growing call within Pakistan-based charities to revisit the NGO policies.
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Rafeel Wasif is assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration at Portland State University.
Aseem Prakash is the Walker family professor of arts and sciences and director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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