The Vibrancy of Civil Society in Pakistan

Posted by Peter Braun • Sunday, May 2. 2010 • Category: In Depth
The information and news about Pakistan these days show us a dark picture of the country and there doesn’t seem to be too much reason to believe in the improvement of the country’s uncertain future. Our stereotypes about Pakistan, media images and public opinion often lead to false conclusions. To many observers politics in Pakistan seem more and more infiltrated by radical beliefs, religious fundamentalism, corruption, the military or authoritarian leadership.

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A look towards other actors in Pakistan’s political environment will give a more balanced perspective about aspects often ignored in the debate about Pakistan’s current socio-political situation. Apart from sectarian violence, social turmoil, and political instability a vibrant and diverse civil society finds its space to advocate for social justice, the rule of law, communal harmony, human rights, gender equality and other causes attributed to Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). In Pakistan, the variety of institutions, organisations, and individuals located between the family, the state, and the market, in which people associate voluntarily (membership is based on free choice) and non-voluntarily (membership is determined by birth, religion, community) to advance common or particular interests of political, social, cultural, and religious nature is impressive. These associations range from labour unions, social movements, environmental organisations, the media, women associations, political associations, human rights groups, professional societies, business and trade associations, to social welfare councils, community-based coalitions, sects, clans, and tribes that often have well established relationships with political parties, state institutions, and the military.

Associational forms of collective action have a vibrant history of citizen action in the public sphere in Pakistan and have always advocated their cause under difficult circumstances of restricted institutional space, political harassment and often non-democratic governments. Some or even many of these CSOs may not be guided by internal democratic procedures and are not constituted through elections and other participatory means as the Western definition of the term dictates but they perform important functions to pressure the government for the implementation of public demand. The socio-cultural dimension of different value systems in Pakistan influencing the nature of civil society, on one side is largely shaped by traditional structures of dependency and solidarity (feudal systems in Sindh and Punjab, clan and tribal systems in NWFP), socio-political hierarchies (Muttahida Quami Movement in Sindh, Pakistan Muslim League in Punjab, and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal in NWFP), client relations in a system of patronage, religious ethics (myths and taboos), hierarchies of social groups (communities associated with certain occupations), and family and kinship relations that function as social security for informal activities (status of women, arranged marriages, and dispute settlement). These value systems cannot be ignored by the political elite in Pakistan but perform an important function to influence the political decision making process of governments and give space to implementation of public demand.

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These groups regularly compete with other types of CSOs such as unions, media associations, advocacy groups, NGOs etc. engaged in the sectors of health, labour, development, politics, human rights, education, and other fields of activities. Many of the CSOs represent a secular-democratic agenda competing against powerful opponents, hostile towards comprehensive ideologies of gender equality, religious and political tolerance. They have to act in a political context in which citizens live within structures of institutional domination that often do not allow participation in decisions that will determine their actions and therefore have to struggle with very difficult conditions of limited legal support. Rather than promoting ecumenism, the state and different social actors perpetuate particularism and deny a proper place for pluralism in politics and social affairs. The persistence of many Pakistani governments to institutionalise tradition is accompanied by numerous challenges of reform outside and within Islam that give rise to different ideologies under which civil society actors operate. Those groups are often only recognised as a partner in public policies of social and economic development (infiltrated slowly by concerns of sustainable growth, gender issues, social justice, and education), but are regularly faced with state sanctions to perform important functions in terms of political advocacy that would strengthen important democratic features of the rule of law, elective democracy, and a free market economy.

While there are six different laws under which CSOs have to be registered, it is even more remarkable that presently there are 10 000 to 12 000 active and registered NGOs in Pakistan and 60 000 CSOs if unregistered groups are counted. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is an important ally to support the agendas of CSOs and to fulfill the role as a counterbalance against the state. Numerous journalists, newspapers, and media activists regularly cover social evils, matters of injustice, human rights abuses, and issues of exploitation. Everywhere in the country self help groups are formed, micro finance, health and education programmes get implemented, and organisations working for gender equality conduct awareness campaigns. Their contribution to enhance democratic reform and organise resistance against the ruling elites who on a historical analysis do not intend to substantially support civil society (implieing decentralisation of power, strengthening of civil political institutions, independence of judiciary, egalitarian power sharing, safeguarding of human rights and the rule of law, evolution of critical opinion, civil administration and mechanisms against state control) is almost unnoticed by the international community.

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In the West it is often assumed that civil society cannot be compatible with authoritarian regimes in the absence of criteria of pluralism. However the example of Pakistan shows us that it is not always necessary for civil society to put the main emphasis on a liberal and pluralistic notion of the concept but that there can be a broad associational environment that might develop its own distinct features alien to Western images still struggling between tradition and modernity. To understand political developments beyond the horrific scenarios and recent demonising conclusions about almost everything and everyone coming from Pakistan we should acknowledge the broad associational environment that developed its own distinct features with its own value systems mostly different to Western criterias of the concept. Civil society in Pakistan defines, influences, and constrains state policies while at the same time serving as an organisational structure of collective action at the intermediate levels of social life, in analogy to the Western notion.
Pakistan is suffering from a number of institutional deficiencies. The judiciary and other state institutions need bolstering in order to protect them from political influence, to give them the power to fight corruption, constrain abuses of power, and provide legal security to organise collective action. Achieving this requires the exisiting demand from below and increased support of political elites in close cooperation with CSOs. To expect a transition from authoritarian to democratic rule in Pakistan, activated by civil society associations, that would lead to the peaceful and harmonic haven some Western models of the discussed concept often suggest would support the ethnocentric suggestion that the creation of a righteous social order is only conceivable by the adaptation of Western institutional units qualified as civil society. A very progressive and active civil society has never lost its steam in Pakistan and it fulfills important functions to educate people about political and civil liberties, build critical mass opinion and awareness to monitor government performance.

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In each culture, civil society is a reflection of the traditions, conventions, and codes of behaviour outside the legal hierarchal structure of the state. The values of each society are based on the socio-cultural, historical and religious background of a specific country or region. The importance attributed to traditional values by the society in Pakistan provides a strong foundation for the kind of norms promoted by a large number of CSOs and the citizenry in general. Acknowledging the influence of formal and informal CSOs on domestic politics and not dismissing their agendas due to different modes of organisation, internal structures, and mass mobilisation is urgently required to develop a more differentiated perspective about democratic life in Pakistan.
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