While Pakistan’s grassroots NGO networks are, as yet, neither as extensive nor as developed as those in some South Asian countries, notably Bangladesh, it would be a mistake to underrate their potential. The more effective NGOs are incubators for an emerging expert constituency that, in consultation with journalists and other analysts, can help devise yardsticks for progress in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s people do have an impulse to help each other, as was proven by the massive voluntary response to the 2005 earthquake. (The Population Council’s Sathar commented that she was impressed by the “superb” managers she encountered in planning meetings between NGOs and the new government.) To develop capacity for participation in local development, donors should support exchanges with the more robust NGO networks in the region.
According to both Sathar and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute’s Nayyar, the civilian government has consulted with outside experts on Pakistan in launching its development agenda and its budget. The United States should do the same, in a regular way and with reports to the Pakistani public, as it initiates and implements the proposed new aid program. The United States should formally enlist Pakistani NGOs as partners and advisors for U.S. aid and it should invite their advice and criticism also on the wider aid program envisioned by the Friends of Pakistan donor countries.13
Another important factor to consider when outside donors seek to work with Pakistani NGOs is the engagement of many of those groups with Pakistan’s politics. The offices of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in Lahore, and of the Aurat Foundation, in Karachi, were both venues for organizing public actions in response to Musharraf’s suspension of the constitution last year.
Finally, the United States needs to integrate its assistance with the broader movement toward making Pakistan a more pluralistic society. At a meeting to present the Campaign for Quality Education’s report to donors in Washington, D.C., Irfan Muzzaffar responded to a request for a single piece of advice on education in Pakistan by saying, “It is very important to support broader reform forces throughout society, instead of providing and then taking away crutches” — in other words, the United States should not impose rigid, inappropriate templates on Pakistani development and it should support political reform alongside economic and social development. His advice can be taken in virtually any area of concern for the United States in Pakistan, including security.
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13 An August seminar at Hoodbhoy’s Sustainable Development Policy Institute also called for a public consultative process in reviewing aid to Pakistan, see http://www.sdpi.org/SDPI_in_the_press/media%20coverage%202008/media_coverage_august_2008. html#14.