Moving Stories of Service to the Poor from Pakistan’s Edhi Foundation

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August 26, 2011; Source: Washington Post | The Washington Post published an article last week about Abdul Sattar Edhi and his eponymous Edhi Foundation that is quite inspirational. Edhi’s longtime mission is “to serve poor Pakistanis who are shunned by society, while trying to shame the elites that ignore them and to change the traditions that condemn them to suffer.” The article is excerpted from a new book about Pakistan by writer Pamela Constable. The reporting seems to be reliable and hopefully not subject to the starry-eyed blindness that inflicted the U.S., Pakistan, and Afghanistan with Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” story.

The octogenarian Edhi is a social activist in Pakistan denounced by some as “an infidel, communist and madman.” Once a member of the Pakistani parliament, Edhi has devoted himself to his foundation’s work since the 1960s. It may be most well-known in Pakistan for having established free ambulance service for the public, but the particularly touching stories were the Foundation’s work in “helping social outcasts, from unwanted infants to the unclaimed dead,” developing programs, schools, and homes, for example, for abandoned girls and AIDS patients. According to Edhi, “Some people strangle illegitimate children. Others just dump them to die. We believe there is no such thing as an illegitimate person.”

A little exploration of the international news reveals the Edhi Foundation to be known and admired. Recent stories talk about the Edhi Centre’s Islamabad facility’s function of a “jhoola” servicefor parents to drop off unwanted children, Edhi ambulance drivers picking up the bodies of victims of gang violence in Karachi, and the Foundation’s assistance to seven Pakistanis released by Indian authoritiesafter they were jailed for illegally crossing the border, two of the seven described as mentally challenged and at least one unable to remember where he came from.

The article isn’t clear on how Edhi finances his operations, though it seems like he eschews hitting up the rich for charitable donations. He said, “I decided not to knock on the door of the industrialists and the landlords, because they are the root cause of all our social problems.” Why establish his own foundation? Constable says that Edhi “rejected organized charity as placating rather than empowering the poor.”

Edhi’s approach is something like Gandhi’s. He “practices poverty,” Constable says, and demands “that his acolytes give up even small luxuries.” And like Gandhi, he isn’t talking about charity, but a social movement of the poor, designed to alter the political and economic landscape of Pakistan.—Rick Cohen