July issue 2016
The Good Samaritans: Volunteerism in Pakistan
Last year, in one of the worst heat waves in living memory, 2,000 people died in Karachi due to dehydration and heat stroke in what was a massive civil administration failure. It was civil society — students and housewives — that volunteered in droves to help beleaguered hospitals, and the suffering masses, with their care, time and donations. It always has been all hands on deck in times of crisis, whether during the heat wave in Karachi or in times of national disasters such as the 2010 floods and the devastating 2005 earthquake. Locals organised themselves en masse to volunteer and join hands with non-profits or governmental organisations for relief efforts.
For all our ills, contributing money towards the less fortunate is one of our more positive attributes. The Edhi Foundation and the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital are institutions that grew out of generous donations. However, philanthropy and donations should not be confused with volunteerism — the latter is essentially about donating one’s time.
Mohammad Ayub, a firefighter from Islamabad, is an outstanding example. Every day after work, he cycles to a park, where some 200 children wait patiently for him to begin their lessons. Ayub found his calling some 30 years ago when he decided to utilise his spare time by teaching impoverished children from the surrounding slums. Taught by him in his impromptu park school, some of the thousands coming from diverse backgrounds — Muslims as well as Christians — went on to give the government exams and secure jobs. Now, not only do some his former students join him to teach other children, many are parents themselves and bring their own kids after school to be taught by Master Ayub.
After 33 years as a practicing psychiatrist, Dr. Shifa Naeem made a conscious decision to pay back the profession that gave her a successful career. Since winding up her practice four years ago, she began voluntary teaching/training in the field of mental health. She now devotes her free time to train and work with people who are serving the under-privileged. They range from post-graduate trainees of psychiatry at the Jinnah Post-graduate Medical Centre to community-based mental health workers and teachers at government or community schools. Her students learn from her vast experience in psychiatry as she conducts sessions and presentations on counselling skills, stress and anger management, coping skills, violence prevention and mental health promotion.
There is no dearth of volunteerism in Pakistan, be it in an individual capacity or through participation in a social initiative or local organisation, but by and large it remains scattered and disorganised. Some institutions, such as the Aga Khan University, Behbud, Dar-ul-Sakun, the Indus Hospital and SIUT have been tapping into volunteerism as a resource for years and announce annual internships, summer or winter volunteer programmes and regular ones on their respective websites. Dar-ul-Sakun has a long tradition of working with volunteers who come there and work with people with disabilities. Now, more and more organisations have become active on social media to connect with people and offer them a variety of volunteering opportunities.
Not much is needed to start volunteer work. Earlier this year, siblings Shireen (aged 12) and her brother Hasan (aged 15) started their impromptu volunteer work. They simply put up a few tables and chairs near Cafe Clifton in Khayaban-e-Shamsheer in Defence Housing Authority and started teaching the street children who either begged, or sold flowers or tissue boxes around traffic signals. The duo devoted about two hours a day, six days a week, teaching as many as 25 street children the basics — counting and the alphabets. It attracted the attention of a government schoolteacher, who joined them and people started donating juice boxes for the children and a stipend of Rs 50 each to keep them motivated.
In Shia communities, particularly among the Ismailis and Boris, the concept of community service has existed for generations and children are introduced to it at an early age, giving them a sense of social responsibility towards their community. Their local jamaat khaanas are not just places of worship and festivities, but also act as community centres where volunteers provide services such as education and health, to members who are in need. Over decades they have devised their own social service system.
The desire to be of service to others was visible at this year’s Karachi Literature Festival where, at a booth by the National Volunteer Programme, about 300 individuals of all ages registered. In the first ever Women of the World (WOW) festival held in the country at the Beach Luxury Hotel, PILER, a rights-based organisation, curated a session on `How to be an Effective Volunteer’ to a packed audience.
Explaining why they felt the need to hold such a session, PILER moderator Zeenia Shaukat said, “We have seen an immense eagerness, especially among the youth, to engage in volunteer work. For our workshop, we outlined the concept as a serious responsibility that required understanding, commitment and an organised approach. Unfortunately, because of a lack of structures in the city, community polarisation and inadequate mobility, people prefer episodic volunteerism compared to a regular commitment. During emergencies people overwhelmingly come out in support, but as soon as the crisis subsides, they also withdraw.”
Zubeida Mustafa and Seep Akhtar, experienced volunteer workers themselves, imparted clarity to the concept of volunteerism and how one could adopt it as a part of one’s everyday life. Mustafa, a veteran journalist with a special interest in education, has been volunteering at a garage school near her home for the last two years, teaching children from low-income localities. She explains that the true essence of volunteerism is that it doesn’t involve money — it is offered free of cost. It is all about donating one’s time to a worthy cause that benefits a community, an environment or a group without deriving any personal benefit.
A structure for volunteerism is preferable, even essential. In the big cities, only certain hospitals, non-profits and educational institutions have designed volunteer programmes based on their needs. But because of insufficient information or options, people who want to volunteer are unable to connect with them and organisations are unable to recruit, train and tap into a volunteer’s efforts. For women especially it has become increasingly difficult, given the hostility of the prevailing environment.
Before stepping into volunteerism, seasoned volunteers like Mustafa feel it is essential to examine one’s own skills and capacity. It is important to recognise the extent of one’s own commitment. Managing one’s own time and priorities comes first and the volunteer should work in an area of personal interest or extend help to a cause that would be most beneficial to others. Along with having a structure, it is just as essential to regularly follow through, just as one would in a job, and not abandon it halfway.
She gave an example of her old neighbourhood, where the trash was piled high and the roads were badly maintained. A lady determined to rid the surroundings of garbage took the time and organised a group of women from the neighbourhood into a small society. She also took her tiny group to the KMC office. Because of her motivation and persistence, for the first time that neighbourhood saw a KMC garbage truck turn up to collect the trash. And whatever money her society collected was used to buy garbage drums for their area. “This is something everyone and anyone can do because in Karachi there is garbage spilling over in every street.”
Mustafa, however, warns of a self-serving trend in the name of volunteerism — she found many youngsters volunteer with the intent of getting a certificate as extra credit, either for their school or for applying to colleges abroad.
Keeping this in mind, institutions like the Aga Khan University, the Indus Hospital and Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) have adopted a more systematic approach to their volunteer programmes. Their week-long training comprises patient care and community service. The hospital organises a 30-hour course thrice a year for students — one batch during winter vacations and two during the summer. Earlier this year, the SIUT, completed training their 42nd batch of the students’ volunteer programme, comprising 180 students from various schools and colleges.
Many of the participating students find it a life-changing experience as they are forced to face the ground reality of patients’ suffering. So far, over 4,500 students from various educational institutions across Karachi have been part of the programme.
Even students who come with the intention of just attaining a certificate get a reality check. When she started training volunteers Seep Akhtar observed that three out of 10 youngsters realise how important volunteerism is for a community. She says, “When they see so much suffering, they are more considerate, caring and think of health as a blessing.” She describes volunteer work as giving one’s time as a waqt ki zakat and taking the time out to volunteer is just as easy as for shopping, attending weddings or for recreational activities and it plays a great role development of one’s personality.
There are some expectations a volunteer should have from the organisation they choose to work for, such as safety and security. Secondly, volunteers should be facilitated in their work. For instance, a doctor should avoid showing irritation at being given the responsibility of training hospital volunteers. Volunteers are inclined to get discouraged and it may drive them away.
One also has to safeguard against disappointments. Mustafa had noticed that despite her best efforts in the garage school the children were not picking up the lessons, which disheartened her. “But when you see a person who is in a worse situation than you, you feel inclined to try harder.”
Being equipped with the right information is also preferable to avoid any mishap. During last year’s unprecedented heat wave, doctors and volunteers were giving liquids to heatstroke patients at the Civil Hospital. Some were given cold water or sherbet, and others a mixture of salt-and-sugared water. An uninformed volunteer almost gave sherbet to a diabetic patient who may have had a diabetic attack – which is why a planned volunteer training is essential.
A private cooperative social responsibility initiative, the National Volunteer Programme (NVP) started early this year in Karachi, recognising the need to act as a go-between between prospective volunteers and those who need their help. In their first phase they are focusing on signing up volunteers from the corporate sector. Later, NVP plans to take on volunteers from the student community, and still later, opening it up to volunteers from the general public.
The concept of community service or volunteerism is very common in the USA and Europe. The United States has the world’s largest volunteers’ population and the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency, has over five million Americans working in its community-based service projects. The object is to produce a self-sufficient, effective and well-trained community to manage their day-to-day challenges and during crises and disasters.
The purpose is also multi-pronged, firstly to give first-hand insights to youngsters into the various issues of a community and groom them into contributing members of the society. The long-term aim is to prevent the vulnerable falling prey to crime, violence, drug abuse or social ills, especially those born out of poverty. This helps to cultivate a sense ownership between the individual and society.
As community service, Pakistan has the Pakistan Boy Scouts Association and Pakistan Girls Guide Association programmes. With more than 60% of the population comprising youth, if may prove beneficial to revamp these programmes and introduce community service into educational institutions as an extra-curricular activity, and develop it into standardised community service management. It will also help to instil the concept of payback, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth,” remarked `The Greatest,’ world boxing champion, Mohammad Ali.
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.