Saturday, July 16, 2011

Well done Pakistanis! -- Asif Noorani

On my three official visits to Chennai, I had nothing much to do in the evenings except catching up with my reading and watching the idiot box in the river facing rooms that I was ensconced in at the Madras Club, until I made some good friends. My one big grouse was that Indian TV channels believed that only bad news about Pakistan was worth covering. But soon after I returned to Pakistan and started watching our own news channels more intently, I found, much to my horror, that our own TV journalists were doing the same not just when covering India but also their own country.

Sadly, there is hardly a TV news channel which gives coverage to the excellent work that some charities are doing in Pakistan. No other country in the Third World has so many non-profit organisations that help the downtrodden in so diverse fields and on such large scales.

Everyone, at least in Pakistan, knows about the great job the Edhi Foundation is doing in different spheres – from running cancer hospices and ambulance services (Edhi Foundation has the largest fleet in the world, as the Guinness Book of Records mentions) to providing shelter to battered women and education to poor children. Mr Edhi, who deserves nothing less than a Nobel Prize for Peace, is everywhere despite his old age. Wherever there is a calamity, he rushes to the site to provide help. If an unwanted child is left in one of his centres, he (and his wife, Bilqees) is there to take the infant under his protective wing.

The Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in Lahore is doing a remarkable job too. Most of its patients are poor and unable to pay for the long drawn and expensive treatment provided by the hospital. The model is being replicated in Peshawar.

A state of the art health institution, the SIUT (Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation) and the Indus Hospital are both providing excellent services in the health sector. What is more they don’t charge anything. That goes for the LRBT (Layton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust) as well. I remember an affluent lady who could have got ophthalmic treatment in any country in the West but she opted to have her surgery done at the LRBT, which is cleaner than most private hospitals in Karachi and where treatment can be described as state-of-the-art. Cured and satisfied, she gave a hefty donation to the institution and continues to pay from out of her zakat to the institution every Ramazan.

LRBT has 16 hospitals all over Pakistan, two of which – one in Karachi and the other in Lahore – are the best equipped ophthalmic institutions in the country. There are also 41 community centres where ophthalmic technicians examine patients and decide whether they can be treated as outpatients or are in need of surgery. As many as one-third of all OPD patients with problems of vision in the country are treated in one of the LRBT institutions and one-fourth of ophthalmic surgeries are done in the 16 eye hospitals run by the not-for-profit organisation.

There is no institution that I have watched more closely than The Citizens Foundation. Fifteen years ago, five or six friends from affluent families, who met every weekend, grumbled about the flaws in our country. Finally, one of them said “OK, enough is enough. Either we make a positive contribution to alleviate the miseries of the unprivileged people in Pakistan or we just shut up.” There was a pause and then everyone was convinced that they ought to join hands and work in one field. The one they chose was education, for the lack of it was the main cause of many ills that the country suffered from. They agreed on a target of setting up five schools for children of economically underprivileged parents in the first year.

The goal was achieved and the bar was raised. Today they have as many as 731 schools in Pakistan and Azad Kashmir (also Northern Areas). The fee structure is incredibly low because Pakistanis in and out of the country have been donating generously to TCF. Non-Pakistanis are also impressed with the institution and try to help it in many ways. The well known Indian novelist and columnist Shobhaa De donated more than Rs 50,000 that she had earned through her weekly columns for Dawn, when I wrote to her about the great job TCF has been doing for so many years.

Partnering TCF is the Honehar Foundation which provides vocational training to young men in Karachi. But that’s not the only place that they want to professionally help our youth. Construction on four such projects in smaller towns is on at a rapid pace. My friend, Nighat Mir, who is a member of the foundation’s steering committee, informs me that very soon work will commence on an institute meant exclusively for young women in Karachi.

Moreover, I recently learnt about the Aman Foundation and the excellent work that it is doing. It provides nutritious food to students at lunch time at 10 schools in Khuda ki basti. Patients admitted to the Indus Hospital also get free food which is cooked in the clean and spacious kitchen run by the Aman Foundation staff. The non-profit trust has plans to work in other social sectors too. Going by their past record one can be reasonably sure that they would excel in other fields as well.

Also, in an age when microfinance institutions are under fire, the Akhuwat Foundation has set up a model which should be shown to the loan sharks in the organised and unorganised sectors. They give interest free income enhancement loans to people who are already running very small scale businesses. Since they don’t charge interest their overheads are very low. In Karachi, as many as 1,400 families in the Landhi and Korangi areas have benefited from the scheme. Akhuwat doesn’t have an office. The committee members meet once a week in a school or a community centre, when heads of the families seeking financial help are interviewed. There are only three employees of Akhuwat in Karachi. Their job is to keep a tab on the borrowers and in rare cases help them professionally.

The Karachi chapter is only three years old but in Lahore Akhuwat is much more entrenched. It has been doing a fine job for 11 years. Compared to Rs 1,3m that the Karachi chapter has lent so far the Lahore office has Rs 1 billion in circulation.

All these organisations have their websites which provide much information about their working but there are many more which work quietly and on smaller scales. For instance, when I pass by CafĂ© Clifton, near Karachi’s Seaview Township, at 6 am, I find a large number of rag pickers, labourers, sanitary workers, not to speak of women and children, sitting in two separate lines. Each of them gets a paratha and a hot cup of tea. I tried to find out the name of the man who finances the breakfast without fail every day but I was told that he prefers to remain anonymous. All I could gather was that the philanthropist is a Pakistani who has a large business in the UAE.

Many people buy nihari and naan for the poor who sit outside nihari joints. Karachi is dotted with what are more than mere soup kitchens. Edhi Foundation and Alamgir Trust are the ones who run these centres, where curry and naan are served twice a day. In Ramazan the beneficiaries swell manifold.

I was told by Umar Ghafoor, Chief Operating Officer, LRBT, that of the donations that the charity gets, 55 per cent comes from Pakistan and 45 per cent from the diaspora. Similar viewpoints were expressed by people at the helm of other non-profits as well.

I am afraid many people will go for my jugular because I have left quite a few organisations which are providing laudatory services to our people, particularly the ones outside Karachi. But I would only be too happy if my readers would write a paragraph about the philanthropists I have missed out.