THERE are two seemingly unrelated issues which have been the subject of public debate time and again that need to be viewed from a holistic perspective.

One is the common complaint that volunteerism is dead in Pakistan. People no longer want to give time to those in distress who stand to gain from the attention and care of the better-endowed.

The other issue being debated in academia is that universities are not focusing on the humanities. Their stress is on science and technology and business administration. How are the two interconnected? With most students no longer pursuing the liberal arts and philosophy, and commercialism and the rat race the order of the day, how can one expect them to recognise the worth of altruism?

Lacking familiarity with the pangs of hunger and the pain of sickness, the privileged few take for granted the misery of impoverishment. This seems strange because a whole chunk of society — very visible indeed — is steeped in poverty and the better-off don’t seem to even notice.

Can volunteerism thrive in this environment of apathy? Isn’t there a kind of contradiction in an education system that teaches students on the one hand to enhance their money-making skills and, on the other, exhorts them to put in voluntary work in the name of service to humanity? Is volunteerism possible without the infrastructure and the environment for it?

Only institutions, which are willing to welcome volunteers, not resent their presence on their premises and appreciate their services, can help inculcate the spirit of service in society.

In this context, the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation’s (SIUT) Student Volunteer Programme (SVP) is something worth looking into. Last week it concluded its 21st training course, in which 128 youngsters from various Karachi schools participated.

Structured as a community-based activity, the SVP is basically designed to bridge the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in Pakistani society.

In 30 hours of medical lectures, practical nursing and first aid, assigned work in the wards, training in emergency response and interacting with patients, the participants learn how the “deprived three-quarters” live, to quote Kaneez Rehmani, a social worker who helped launch this programme in 2006. She finds the involvement, commitment and enthusiasm of the students remarkable.

True, not everyone who attended will be converted to volunteerism or will want to make it a permanent part of his/her life. But Amna Shah, a student volunteer who has completed 100 hours of service, believes a majority of those who come (1,831 so far) find their outlook on life and work changed after they take the course.

This is of course just the beginning because only 40 have returned to put in 100 hours of service to qualify as ‘captains’. The paper chase attracts many initially — the certificate that is awarded can be a stepping stone to admission in prestigious universities abroad. But there is something more that keeps some glued to this place.

Amna Shah feels she now has a better understanding of people, especially the under-privileged. She is motivated to work for them and has emerged a new person — confident, articulate, selfless and extroverted.

Kaneez Rehmani conceptualised the programme when she found that voluntary work at various institutions had left her daughters feeling disgruntled and uninspired. They received barely any supervision or guidance at the places they visited for voluntary service. Moreover, Rehmani says that she felt that children could not imbibe ethical values if they did not experience them in their surroundings.

From that point of view, SIUT is just the place to give young students a lesson in love for humanity and make them aware of the ugly side of life in Pakistan. The institute has translated into reality the basic philosophy of director Dr Adibul Hasan Rizvi that healthcare is every citizen’s birthright.

Hence anyone can walk into SIUT for treatment free of charge and with no questions asked. Unsurprisingly, the poor flock here in large numbers and the manifestations of poverty are there in abundance. But one is also witness to generous doses of compassion.

With humanism and ethics the hallmark of SIUT’s practice of medicine, it has proved to be ideal for a voluntary programme that seeks to transform the participant’s perspective on life. The underlying objective of the SVP is not to train doctors-to-be, as most institutions offering internship programmes seek to do. The SVP’s mission is to instil empathy in the young volunteers and make them caring individuals.

That is what volunteerism should be all about. Martha Nussbaum, a professor of ethics, writes in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities: “Nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”

Here is SIUT, an institution practising science and medicine, attempting to teach the essence of humanities to teenagers living in a world of affluence. Nussbaum, a strong champion of the liberal arts, says education should make students think more critically about what’s being fed to them and this capability should be good for their relationship with other people. The cultivating of relationships with other humans is at the heart of her concept of human welfare.

Now that our universities no longer teach our youth the philosophy of social justice or inculcate in them an altruistic mindset, it is inevitable that volunteerism has lost its charm. Not having come face to face with the conditions of poverty in which the majority in Pakistan lives, this generation is losing touch with reality.

SIUT’s students’ programme is a practical embodiment of what a liberal arts education should be. One can hope that the participants who receive training here find themselves equipped for life.


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