It is almost impossible to think of a welfare system without state resources and intervention. But one man, Abdul Sattar Edhi, is single-handedly responsible for creating an unparalleled mini-welfare state system within the state of Pakistan.
In the early 1950s, a young Edhi started begging on the streets of Karachi to buy a battered old van to be used as an ambulance. In 2016, the non-profit Edhi Foundation had over 1800 ambulances stationed across Pakistan – all via public donation. Most Pakistanis will call an Edhi ambulance, rather than a private or state run service in case of an emergency. Edhi’s air ambulances were the first responders when an earthquake struck northern Pakistan in 2008. The reach of Edhi services during emergencies also extends to other parts of South Asia such as Nepal after the recent earthquake.
Over the years, Edhi expanded his work across many areas. His foundation runs homes for women, rehabilitation centers, workshops for skills based learning, dispensaries, soup kitchens, orphanages, welfare centers, missing persons services, refugees assistance, animal center, morgues and burial services including graveyards, child adoption services, and homes for mentally challenged across the country. Thousands of Pakistani children have Edhi and his wife Bilquis Edhi as parents on their official documentation. Edhi services are accessible and open to all but devoid of religious and governmental support in any monetary form.
In Pakistan, more people will trust the Edhi Foundation with their money than the state with their taxes. Donations come in different forms and from many economic strata of the Pakistani society. Many individuals who enter the job market will donate from few rupees to thousands from their first salaries as an initiation to economic and civic life – this pattern continues for many. It is not unusual for children to donate money to Edhi services out of their pocket monies or eidi (money given to children on Eid by their parents and relatives). Edhi single handedly inspired a culture of kindness, giving, volunteering, and civic mindedness in society often marred by economic or political plights.