Pakistani Paradox

Originally published in Dawn.

By Irfan Husain

PAKISTAN is a country of paradoxes: while we rank 105th in terms of Gross National Income (GNI), we are placed fourth in the world for the amount we give to charity as a percentage of our per capita income.

As a result, some 45,000 not-for-profit organisations flourish across the country, making life a little less unbearable for millions. One of them is the Rasheed Memorial Welfare Organisation, located 35 kilometres north of Hyderabad towards Mirpurkhas.

I visited Rashidabad, the organisation’s ongoing project in the heart of lower Sindh’s mango belt, a couple of months ago on the urging of an old friend who works there. Iqbal Samad is an ex-general manager of Pakistan Railways who, together with his wife, have made the community their home.

Donors come once non-profits have established themselves.

When I entered the walled township, I was amazed by its cleanliness: there was not a scrap of paper or a plastic bag in sight. This to me always indicates an attention to detail that is sadly missing in most of our public spaces. While showing me around, Iqbal bent down to pick up a candy wrapper in full view of a group of schoolchildren.

The project is the brainchild of a retired air commodore, Shabbir Ahmed Khan, who lost his son, flight-lieutenant Rasheed, in a tragic flying accident. He and a group of his colleagues and friends established RMWO in his memory in the late 1990s. Since then, they have raised an astounding Rs1.6 billion, or over $150 million.

They started off by gradually buying 100 acres of land, and then established the infrastructure as donations poured in from organisations and individuals from around the world. The RMWO model is simple: buildings and facilities are created for organisations working in the fields of education, health, environment and socio-economics.

Thus, several established and well-known organisations like the Layton Rehmatullah Trust and the Citizens Foundation have begun operations in these well-designed facilities. Housing has been built for staff, and a clean and healthy environment makes Rashidabad a very attractive place to live in. A notable feature is the fact that all the buildings have been designed free of cost by well-known architects.

A school for deaf children is being run by the Family Educational Services Foundation. When I visited it, scores of kids were on a break, and waved cheerfully. The head teacher was conversant in sign language and showed us around, taking great pride in the facilities which included a computer lab.

It was the same story at the Citizens Foundation school where a very self-confident young principal recounted her pupils’ many accomplishments. Again, everything was spick and span, and the students wore immaculate uniforms.

A technical training centre teaches a range of subjects ranging from air-conditioning to motorcycle repairs. Students here are sponsored by corporations. A microcredit bank has bought sewing machines for 41 women after training them in the vocational centre.

I was delighted to learn that RMWO is building a large facility for Karachi’s Darul Sakoon. When completed next year, it will have space for 250 special children and 100 senior citizens. This remarkable organisation has been looking after kids, mostly abandoned by parents as they are mentally or physically challenged, for many years.

When I was running a private university in Karachi a few years ago, I urged students to devote part of their weekends to spending time with the children of Darul Sakoon. And Tabitha, my youngest stepdaughter, came from England to work here as a volunteer in her gap year. I was also able to find generous donors who enabled the selfless Sister Ruth of the Franciscan Order to buy a van and instal a lift. So this charitable organisation has a special place in my heart.

Although most of the institutions and organisations working under the RMWO umbrella offer their services free of cost, or charge a nominal fee, the SST Public School is not cheap. Run by the Old Boys of the PAF Public School at Sargodha, this is a fully residential institution whose pupils have excelled at A-levels. Professionally run with extensive facilities, this school meets the highest international standards. A quarter of the student body is on full scholarship.

A number of other organisations are doing outstanding work here, but space does not permit me to describe them all. As their work gains wider recognition, I have no doubt more people will come to benefit from the RMWO’s wide range of services. Luckily, the planners have kept space for growing demand.

Over the years, I have observed that when those behind charitable ventures have established their credibility, getting donations is no longer a problem. Thus, people like Edhi and Dr Adeeb Rizvi have continued to expand their free operations despite the exponential increase in demand.

Pakistan is fortunate in being home to so many generous and dedicated spirits who make up in small part for the government’s neglect of its citizens.

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