Role of NGOS in State, Economy & Society

In societies, be they tribal, feudal or of a nation-state, formed and held together by a social contract, which is not really a voluntary one, but a kind of truce among the competing factions, a mix of coercion, compulsion and consent, the roles and functions of its members and organs, that is families, clans, councils, committees, executive arms including armed forces, judiciary and production units, are played according to the rules of that truce agreement called the social contract.

In their struggle for survival, social needs, as well as greed and ego, and pursuit of cultural, economic and political ambitions, people form voluntary associations, families, clans, companies, etc., as well as through force, compulsion and consent organs of state for defence, control, mediation and development of infrastructure and social services, to pursue their interests in that competition. The political system encourages, forbids or concedes, depending on its character, the citizens, right to form such associations beyond family, clan and production unit:

  • Political parties for the formation of state organs
  • Trade associations or unions for economic interests
  • Religious organisations for the profession of faith
  • Nonprofit organisations, excluding the former, also called NGOs.                                             

Among NGOs there are sports clubs and cultural organisations, advocacy groups, welfare and developmental organisations, and among them community/ membership-based organisations and support organisations, providing training, information, mobilising and providing funds, other technical support or advice. All these NGOs can and if allowed do perform vital functions in society, complementary to government, often more economical or better or simply in addition or being the only service provider in their sector.

The subsidiarity principle of politics believes in letting the people, as individuals, families, local communities and production units handle as much in solving their problems, needs and ambitions and perform vital functions of society as possible and burden the state with as little as is absolutely necessary in the pursuit of  human welfare, as this would usually cost more, be less appropriate or effective and   is inevitably handled by the power-brokers  following their own interests. Where NGOs are more cost-effective, they have a right to public funding, linked to accountability. The distribution of tasks between the public and the private sector shifts   between the two, as the historical circumstances or efficiency demand, when both actors inevitably earlier or later submit to their inherent weaknesses or biases.

There is however the other view, voiced increasingly in the press and by some bureaucrats, both in reaction to a growing emphasis on decentralisation, devolution of power, privatisation, growing role of NGOs and community participation, ranging from the belief that “the government effectively manages national affairs through the centralised control of a competent bureaucracy and it is feared that decentralisation will disrupt the central line of control and produce undesired results” even sees the trend as a Western conspiracy to weaken the Muslim or Third-World states, to another point of view that sees it as an important contribution, but questions the NGOs’ potential for operations on a large scale, and conclude; “Therefore, the only viable and cost-effective option for social change is a fully mobilised and committed government system in partnership with credible NGOs/private groups.” What they do not realise is that the state and its functionaries are not neutral patrons. They represent and are linked to powerful interests in society, who occupy their attention and guide their priorities. Famous Peruvian economist de Soto, in his analysis of the dynamism of the informal sector in the economy of underdeveloped countries, has called the functionaries of the state, working hand-in-hand with the local mafias, as the main roadblock to the economic advancement of the poor, who are very apt at helping themselves. At best the organs of state perform the role of mediator, taking a longer term view of the interests its factions represent, as the pursuit of solely short-term gains does often damage their long-term interests. It is in this context, that the state and government take steps to alleviate poverty, to stabilise its power base.

Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees its citizens the freedom of association:

Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality.

Thus, if registration of an NGO is made mandatory, it is not  the  privilege  of the government to do so or not, but a prerogative of citizens to get their NGO registered, unless the government proves, not to be in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of the country, or against public order or morality. It is a facility, not a discretionary power. The same applies to NGO funding or other links to foreign organisations. The onus of proof is on the government, not the NGO.

Considering that a government can utilise its revenue, that is the citizen’s contribution to the making and implementation of public policies, only where it can perform a particular function better, and a single citizen can question theoretically not only the government’s but even the parliament’s wisdom in this regard in court, it is in fact the prerogative of the citizens to run their and their families’ and their communities’ affairs, but which had to be curtailed, as too often the state had and has to intervene and protect spouses, children, fellow citizens, pass a law, maintain that order, establish social welfare institutions and set up infrastructure for the economy and social sector.


Source: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan: Present Scenario and Future Strategy, Mohibul Haq Sahibzada. Republished with permission.
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