Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of the Edhi Foundation, is unarguably the most renowned philanthropist in Pakistan. He began his work in 1951 with the opening of a free, one-room medical clinic in Karachi. Currently, his foundation runs 250 centres across the country and houses more than 2,000 children at any given time.
The centres also provide free burial of unclaimed bodies, free health care and dispensaries, rehabilitation of drug addicts, free assistance for the handicapped, and family planning counselling. Over 6,000 destitute, runaways, and mentally challenged individuals are also in the foundation's care. The Edhi Foundation has also managed to raise the largest single fleet of ambulances in Pakistan, providing transportation to over one million persons annually. The foundation is also involved in relief efforts for victims of natural and other disasters on a national and international level.
Dawn.com speaks with Edhi to gauge how the foundation has been affected by the ongoing political and security situation.
Q. Your foundation is involved in a range of activities. How do you decide what projects to pursue?
A. My work involves supporting those who have no one to look after them. That also involves looking after the dead bodies and arranging a respectable burial for them. I cannot say no to anyone.
Q. Is there any part of the country where your organisation has encountered problems owing to the security situation?
A. We have never had any serious problems with anyone. There have been incidents reported by our workers and volunteers regarding hide-snatching [during Eid-ul-Azha] in the past, but we are operating as we always have. In fact, we are also planning to establish centres in Tank and Hangu. Even the Taliban haven't made any trouble for us; they donated money to the foundation and said they did so because I was helping those who couldn't help themselves.
Q. The foundation has accepted donations from the Taliban; does that mean that you agree with their ideology?
A. No, I do not. I also told them that I do not agree with all the violence and destruction and the effect it has on people's lives. To that, they said they were not behind the attacks that targeted civilians and ordinary people.
Q. What is it that makes your angry?
A. I don't get angry - it's not in my nature. Sometimes [my wife] Bilquis and I have arguments, but that's all.
Q. Do you think philanthropic organisations such as yours cause the state to further abscond from its civic responsibilities?
A. If the state can ensure that all who are subject to pay taxes do so, that would be a good enough start. If people were to honestly pay their taxes and also give charity, it would solve more than half of the country's problems.
Q. In 2008, eight children were abandoned by three women at an Edhi Foundation centre. The foundation later paid the families Rs. 100,000 each to take the children back. Are pay-offs of this kind effective when the root causes for children being abandoned are not addressed?
A. Pay-offs are, of course, no solution, and we normally do not hand out money like that. Usually, we give shelter to children whose families abandon them, primarily for monetary reasons. The day people stop abandoning their children at our centres, I will believe that things are changing in Pakistan. But that does not seem to be happening. It is also quite clear that the government does not get actively involved, so I have no hope of people getting support from the state.
Q. No hope? Isn't that a fatalistic position to take regarding the state machinery?
A. It is. But how can I have hope in a state that is being exploited by the current system - a system that is itself being manoeuvred by groups with no commitment to the people of this country. The whole political frame as it currently exists has to reinvent itself before we can even begin to hope for change in Pakistan.
Q. Have you ever been approached by political or other groups for support?
A. Once, I was approached by General Hamid Gul, Imran Khan and few others, mostly military and intelligence officials, who were conspiring to overthrow Benazir Bhutto's second government and wanted me to get involved. I declined because I am a social worker and not a politician. I also did not want to tarnish the credibility of my organisation by getting embroiled in something that obviously seemed quite disturbing. Eventually, I was made to feel threatened enough to temporarily leave the country.
Q. How do you see the future of Pakistan?
A. I will continue to do my work and serve the people. However, Pakistan is now at a critical make-or-break stage, and if the system does not undergo a major overhaul, I am afraid that the country may even break up. Given the current conditions, it will take nothing short of a calculated, studied revolution to change things and save Pakistan.
The writer can be contacted at email@example.com