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Troubled times for charities

August 26, 2012

Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in Lahore, Pakistan — YouTube video grab
Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in Lahore, Pakistan — YouTube video grab

AFFLUENT individuals support several hundred charities but their aggregate share in the total donations seems to be stagnant despite best institutional efforts to increase it. However, the quantum of the nationwide annual giving is expected to cross Rs200 billion in 2012.

While people become more generous in Ramazan, they prefer to help needy families directly with their Zakat (an obligation of sharing wealth in Islam) and other donations instead of routing the charity through NGOs or other bodies promoting social causes. This was different a decade back.

Many big charities like Edhi Foundation, Shaukat Khanum Hospital, Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplant were initiated, grew and thrived on the strength of a ‘giving’ culture.

The trend, however, changed somewhat in recent years. In violence prone, insecure society, divided along all conceivable lines, charity is sometimes used to strengthen traditional ties. People now tend to pick and choose among the needy on the basis of caste, colour and creed.

Maulana Sattar Edhi, father of philanthropy in Pakistan, who runs one of the world’s biggest and the country’s most recognised charity ‘The Edhi Foundation’, attributed the trend to the divisive politics of opportunists in garb of political leaders and pseudo champions of religion.

“ The Edhi Foundation received 25-30 per cent less donations during the last Ramazan. The conditions have driven people to donate on the basis of ethnicity, sect and beradari”, Maulana lamented while talking to Dawn over telephone.

He, however, expressed faith in goodness. “If there is a need I will come out on street for collection. People have never disappointed me, I always get as much as I need to support our massive operations and their expansion”, he said.

The competition among philanthropic institutions has increased as they have multiplied in numbers to fill in the gap between the growing social needs of the population and declining capacity and inclination of the government to provide social services at affordable rates. Private citizens are a way ahead of 60,000 private companies in taking care of the underprivileged, a big chunk of whom continue to subsist below poverty line deprived of essential needs.

The public social security net (Benazir Income Support Programme, Zakat, Ushr) is limited and insufficient.

The estimated figure of voluntary giving across the country is based on cumulative total of individual and corporate contributions.

A study of the Centre for Philanthropy Pakistan conduced last year estimated corporate giving at Rs3.3 billion that now accounts for under two per cent of the total Rs200 billion annual donations.

The figure of Rs200 billion is based on extrapolation of Rs70 billion worth of philanthropy quoted in 1998 study by the same centre commissioned by the Agha Khan Foundation.

A member of the Centre for Philanthropy told Dawn over telephone from Islamabad that the next general survey to assess the worth of philanthropy would be launched as soon as logistics were arranged. He said the exercise involved a series of surveys all over the country and would take at least a year to complete.

In 2009, 11 years after the initial study, a media report quoted figure of Rs150 billion worth of annual donations, suggesting the accumulated national private savings at whooping six trillion rupees.

The report assumed that fortune citizens donate at least two and a half per cent of their savings for sharing, and caring of the poor as their faith dictates.

The organisations with political links were able to collect less than before as they probably decided to lie low during the current season of giving. The decision, it is believed, was inspired by the fear of public backlash and the projected political cost of an aggressive fund-raising campaign in an election year. In Karachi, in particular, such sentiments were simmering amongst the trading community against donation drive by political activists.

The Awami National Party publicly announced its policy not to collect any donations in Ramazan.

Al Khidmat, the welfare wing of Jamat-i-Islami and Khidmat-i-Khalq, the public service arm of Mutehida Quomi Movement, suffered fall in donations.

Even otherwise the donation collecting campaigns were less noisy and not as visible this year as they used to be. There were billboards, banners and advertisement of appeals by some professional charities but the momentum of activity seemed to have been lost.

“In a democratic setup, welfare drive weakens as politics attracts social activists who often join a political party of their choice.

It deprives welfare bodies of their most talented manpower”, commented an analyst.

“It is not an accident that NGOs boomed under dictatorships in Pakistan”, he made his point.

Many NGOs providing food, shelter, health, education and other welfare services realising the potential of fund-raising in Ramazan started strategising with professional marketing expertise to conduct their campaigns with sophistication. The practice peaked in mid-2000.

“Some institutions, particularly in the health sector, have evolved their own teams of professionals to manage public image and conduct fund-raising campaigns effectively. Others engage media management companies. They work on donation-sharing formulas”, an insider informed.

“I know of a company that works for 15 per cent. It means it pockets 15 per cent of total donation collected in the name of philanthropic brand it promotes”, he added.

The distribution of Zakat, Khairat, Fitra (forms of Islamic charity) during Ramazan probably gives the affluent Pakistanis an opportunity to extend their social bonding beyond their own class.

The goodwill so earned cultivates a pool of obliged people ready to pay back with their only asset — services if required. The feel-good factor is a bonus that an act of kindness evokes.

An informal survey of bigger charities brought to fore two distinctive features.

One, their reluctance to share their financial status with public; two, their frustration over less than expected flow of funds during this year.

According to several people, most popular are the organisations running free kitchens for the poor. Many serve food by the roadside under public gaze at least in Karachi.