Remembering Edhi: The Great Pakistani Humanitarian

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The world, in particular the Muslim world, has suffered a great loss. I speak of course of the recent death of the great Pakistani humanitarian, Abdul Sattar Edhi, who passed recently away on 8 July 2016 due to kidney failure. In a different world, Edhi’s name would be as universally recognized as that of the late Mother Theresa, who is now venerated by the Church as a saint. He would have long won the Nobel Peace Prize and the international stature that goes with it. Instead, Edhi’s name is not unanimously familiar even among the Muslim countries. His achievements for the sake of humanity and particularly for those underprivileged poor will likely be more recognized after his passing in the years to come than during his lifetime.

For over six decades, Edhi has almost singlehandedly managed the Edhi Foundation and Edhi Trust, which includes the world’s largest ambulance service operation 24/7. While centered mainly in Karachi, Pakistan, it has provided relief work in many countries around the world. It provides free healthcare and other services to women, child, drug addicts, orphans and those in critical need. In a city with notoriously bad traffic, his ambulances were known to be the first on the scene. Across the entire country, the Foundation ran over 300 welfare units. Through his tireless efforts, countless lives have been saved.

What was most remarkable about Edhi’s contributions was the environment in which he achieved them. In Pakistan, the government healthcare system, depending on where you are, is either non-existent or in a shambolic state with few exceptions. A lot of the burden of the healthcare responsibilities is taken up by the private sector with little support from those in power. In this capacity, Edhi was exceptional in generating donations from all sectors of society and managing these resources in a smooth and professional operation that puts the government to shame. Edhi also tapped into a strange paradox that exists in Pakistan society, which is that the people have one of the highest rates of giving charitable donations than other countries but also one of the highest rates of tax avoidance. In essence, Pakistanis often turn to private actors, exemplified by none more so than Edhi, rather than put their trust in the often inefficient and corrupt politicians who run the government services.

Pakistanis revered Edhi and he was considered a national hero. His motives were considered pristine and his voice would be heard at a level beyond the petty chatter of politics and current affairs. His life was dedicated almost completely to service at the cost of material pursuits. For a country mired in constant in-fighting and civil strife, he was one figure who commanded universal respect.

As someone of Pakistani origin, I have occasionally noted with sadness that despite his accomplishments, Edhi’s fame would almost always be relegated to national borders. This was because of his religion (he had the appearance of any sincere bearded Muslim) and nationality (Pakistani, never great for publicity unless your first name is Malala). But perhaps now is not the time for regrets, but to celebrate his life and the spirit of giving which he always demonstrated.

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