A Pakistani Philanthropist’s Uphill Mission

When I wanted to meet Pakistan's best- known philanthropist, Abdul Sattar Edhi, naturally enough I thought I would make an appointment. My friend Owais just laughed. "If you want to meet him, you go there. If he is there, he will see you. If he is not there, go anyway, it is worth it."

photos by A. Lin Neumann Insisting that Owais give me a number, I called Edhi, the country's leading provider of charity for the poor and the displaced. He answered his own phone at the headquarters of his foundation in a poor district of Karachi. "Come anytime. No more English," he said.

I pressed for an appointment, none was forthcoming and so I flew to Karachi and did what everyone does who wants to see this legend of social work in Pakistan: I dropped by.

I was escorted to Edhi by a man I found at random when the cramped and perplexing streets inside a marketplace near the Edhi headquarters finally gave out and my driver shrugged in confusion. Karachi is supposed to be dangerous for foreigners but this was easy enough. All one has to do is say the name "Abdul Sattar Edhi" to find the way.

Inside an unguarded office sat an old man smiling and fielding telephone calls. This was Edhi, who rose to shake hands and gestured for me to sit while he summoned an interpreter. He neither asked my name nor my business. He just kept smiling and apologized for not speaking English fluently. "Speak only Gujarati," he said haltingly. It is the language of Bantva, his birthplace in India, where he was born some time in the late 1920s, long before Pakistan and India would be separated in 1947 in one of the great tragic movements of humanity of the 20th Century.

While partition continues to define Pakistan's tense relations with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir, it also defines the life's work of Edhi and the remarkable institution he founded.

Sitting alone in an office decorated with a picture of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Edhi's traditional grey robe, black skull cap and long white beard give him the appearance of a mystic or a holy man.

But Edhi is anything but religious. A dedicated and hard-nosed secularist like Jinnah, who was his friend he has been pursuing a dream of helping to lift his country out of poverty since its founding. He pours scorn on the mullahs of Pakistan and religious leaders of any stripe who assert any special claim to truth. He distrusts governments, refuses to accept anything but private donations and has spurned large offers of aid from the United States because he felt there were political strings attached.

Most importantly, at a time when his country is torn by conflicts between secularists and a rising tide of Islamic fervor spurred by Pakistan's role as Washington's ally in the War against the Taleban and al-Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan, Edhi says God or Allah - or whatever name you choose - has nothing to do with serving humanity.

"There are five big religions," he says after the interpreter arrives, raising his hand to tick them off. "Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. They have all become business shops and they divide the people and exploit them. All the bad things in the world grow from religion."

The good things, like the Edhi Center and a companion foundation named after his wife, Bilquis Edhi, are motivated by a simple love for humanity, Edhi insists. "My religion is humanity," he offers, his voice almost a whisper. "So I keep my distance from persons who are exploiting and are terrorists. Religions make terrorists. If you are religious you are narrowminded."

Edhi was my contact with reality during a recent trip to Pakistan. Visiting the country on a US Embassy- sponsored tour to lecture on journalism in the capital, Islamabad, and Lahore, I had been cosseted in a cocoon of American security since my arrival. Edhi was an excuse to get away from the armed guards and armor-plated Toyotas and get down to Karachi, the country's sprawling and chaotic commercial capital. The city has been virtually off limits to American personnel since a suicide bombing in March outside the US consulate killed four people, including an American diplomat, just before US President George W Bush visited the country.

My embassy hosts in Islamabad reluctantly agreed that I could risk my life by going to Karachi since my seminars were over. It was not a good idea, I was told, because Karachi brims with Islamic radicals, bombings are not infrequent and it was the city where American journalist Daniel Pearl was murdered in 2002, when his beheading was put on a videotape called “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl.”

"But all this security is just isolating us," lamented one diplomat, who acknowledged that American officials are losing touch with people in Pakistan because they have to hide behind the walls of the embassy and consulates and rarely venture out.

I had seen enough of luxury hotel rooms when I found Edhi, whose international network of supporters have helped build one of the largest private charities in the world with an annual budget of around US$35 million (HK$273 million). In a poor country with few resources devoted to social welfare, Edhi has created a nationwide ambulance network, homes for the mentally ill, orphanages that anonymously accept abandoned infants, a cancer research institute, a blood bank and even a home for unwanted animals.

The 280 Edhi emergency centers scattered across Pakistan, in virtually every city and town, offer a place of last resort to people whose families cannot care for them or who have fallen through the cracks. Beggars on the street, children born with birth defects, and the mentally ill are all welcome for treatment and eventual settlement in a larger facility free of charge. The centers provide social services to women who are victims of abuse and rehabilitation for drug addicts. Edhi's fleet of 1,200 ambulances can be called on a toll free number nationwide by anyone needing care. These ambulances also patrol the streets of Karachi and other big cities looking for dead bodies, which are then shrouded and given a proper burial.

After last year's Kashmir earthquake, Edhi dispatched some 300 ambulances to the disaster area. If there is a suicide bombing anywhere in Pakistan, chances are that an Edhi ambulance will be first on the scene. Workers also seek out babies sometimes left in garbage dumps outside Karachi and take them to a central nursery where medical and nursing care is provided.

"The reason behind all of this is poverty," says Edhi, whose parents were merchants in India and who started the centers with small donations from friends in 1949. "When I came to Pakistan, I saw there was no help in the health field and so many people were poor. This is why I started my work."

He was inspired by the example of his mother, he adds, because she taught him simplicity and a life lesson - if he had two pennies, he should use one for himself and share the other with a needy person. "Not with a professional beggar," he cautions, "but with a needy person. You must help people."

Later, I ride in one of Edhi's simple ambulances - many of which are purchased in China because it makes the cheapest vehicles across Karachi, from the downtown headquarters to a center for mentally ill women and children in the far north of the city.

Anwar Kazmi, Edhi's personal assistant who has worked with him for 45 years, shows me around the facility and explains the details.

The woman at the front desk in the sprawling tile-covered reception area, for example, is too shy to talk to me and runs away when she is called over. "She is very good, very good," explains Kazmi as the woman scurries into a nearby office. "She was married once and lived in the United States. She worked there. Then her husband divorced her for another woman and she came back to Pakistan. She came here 10 years ago and she is still a little psycho. Her family did not want her."

Walking the halls of the center, which is built around a square courtyard, it is obvious that the institution is well maintained. "It is Mr. Edhi's design," says Kazmi, noting that cross ventilation is provided by openings in the brick walls on all sides and that the tiled floors are easy to clean.

"This is important," Kazmi says, "because crazy people sometimes cannot care for their hygiene. They soil their clothes." The ventilation and a daily change of clothes and bedding ensures that the women, no matter how incapacitated, maintain their dignity. Other such facilities have a cramped and fetid odor. This place smells clean.

"It is important that people maintain their dignity and do what they can to care for themselves," Kazmi says. The residents do all the cooking and cleaning, they handle intake of new patients and largely run the center. The efforts are augmented by a staff of doctors, psychiatrists and nurses.

It is not a cheerful place. These are displaced people at the very margins of society, but it is decent and orderly. The looks on the faces of these women may often be vacant and crazed but they are free of the desperation of the street. Every resident also has a case file noting their condition, how long they have been living in the center and whether they have family members who visit.

They are patients and residents not detritus, Kazmi maintains. The principle is that anyone who needs help receives it, making the Edhi Centers, by virtue of their size and the absence of a government welfare infrastructure, the nation's de facto public health system.

Edhi says some 12,000 people are cared for in the 17 large Edhi homes nationwide. Most of the hundreds of emergency centers the foundation maintains also have jhoolas - baby cradles that take in unwanted babies. Controversial when it started many years ago, the Edhi jhoola service is now Pakistan's leading adoption agency and is seen as responsible for a drop in the infanticide rate. Started by Bilquis Edhi, it has placed some 80,000 babies with new families.

Careful not to offend sensibilities, babies are offered for adoption only to Pakistanis living here or abroad, and the center will allow Christian or Hindu families to adopt a child only if it can be proved that the baby's birth mother was of those religions.

In a country as poor as Pakistan, where about one fourth of the population of 160 million lives on less than a dollar a day and more than half are still illiterate, there are obvious political questions that arise from Edhi's work.

The country's military ruler, President General Pervez Musharraf, prides himself on possessing nuclear weapons and a large standing army. His relationship with Washington in the so-called "War on Terror" is so deeply unpopular that Pakistan has become dangerously unstable.

The continuing rise of radical Islam here, most people believe, is a direct result of the unpopularity of the United States - especially continuing allegations that American forces carry out raids against suspected Taleban targets on the Pakistan side of the porous mountain border with Afghanistan.

The violence in Pakistan and the deteriorating situation across the border in Afghanistan make Edhi's work of providing for human needs seem almost quaint, a product of a time when social welfare was the duty of new nations.

"I know there is corruption," Edhi says almost wearily when asked to comment on why his country remains poor and needy, but he refuses to engage in political discussions. "I just concentrate on my work. I am doing everything in an effort to serve humanity and suffering people," he says.

His views on religion are well known, however, and he will not tolerate any interference in his operation by mullahs or preachers of any sort. "I am a member of one of those religious shophouses," is all he will say of his own beliefs. He notes that Jinnah's vision for Pakistan was secular and that catering to religious parties and the growth of fundamentalist schools is a new phenomenon.

But while others shrink from engaging the mullahs, Edhi goes about his work. "If anyone criticizes him, he doesn't answer," says his friend Kazmi. "That is his policy."

And security is nonexistent. Edhi's door really is always open. He sleeps with his wife on a simple bed next to the office and rises early for a breakfast of bread and milk each morning. He eschews all vices and lectures his staff to avoid tobacco and tea because they are a waste of time and money.

"This is who he is," says Kazmi. "If anyone doesn't like him or wants to harm him, they could. He is always available."

More information on Edhi and a continuing campaign to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize is available at:


A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Standard in Hong Kong.