An unemotional look at Edhi

 By Zubeida Mustafa

85-13-01-1995ABDUS SATTAR EDHI has been in the news ever since television brought him into the limelight with a programme on him in 1988. Pictures of him standing on the roadside to collect alms (bheek, to use his own word) are quite familiar to newspaper readers. Unfortunately, the maulana (as he is fondly called because of his shaggy beard) was forced to leave the country recently when he felt threatened. His statements accusing unnamed agencies of trying to eliminate him politicised him, which is not something good for his work. One only hopes the row will blow over.

The fact is no one has ever questioned this old man’s love for thpoor. His work for the destitute has not only brought him recognition and laurels (including the coveted Ramon Magsaysay award). It has also won for him the confidence of the people. The faith the public has reposed in him is central to his work. For Edhi’s huge network of welfare organisations depends entirely on voluntary donations worth over Rs two billion.  According to the same calculation, the maulana needs another 210 million to invest and bring returns to meet his day-to-day expenses. But he has other ambitions too. He wants to set up a chain of welfare centres 25 kilometres apart all over the country.

For a semi-literate person with hardly any political or social clout to mobilise massive amounts through voluntary donations, at times by simply standing on the roadside collection box in hand, is so remarkable. More so, because the donations come from a society so notorious as ours for tax evasion. It is difficult to believe that people who go to all extremes to cheat the government can be so generous when it comes to giving donations for a charitable cause.But the army of beggars which subsists on public philanthropy, the langars set up outside mazaars and other congregation spots to feed the poor, and the scores of appeals for assistance (which are presumably answered) from organisations is working for public welfare are testimony to the generosity of the Pakistanis.

It goes to Edhi’s credit that he has managed to tap this source of funds. The seeming ease with which he collects voluntary donations from the public should put to shame any Finance Minister struggling to raise revenues and reduce the budget deficit. All the more so if it is recalled that many of the big donors are also the tax evaders.

Why this paradox? Of course, in absolute terms the amount raised for charity cannot compare with the billions the administration collects in taxes and duties. But what is really significant is that the donations are all voluntary. Unlike the tax-collecting machinery of the state, Edhi has no army of tax collectors with coercive powers to generate funds.

Obviously the people are prepared to pay if they are convincedthat their money will be put to good use. Nobody wants to finance corruption and ineptitude, which have reached monumental proportions in the public sector and have disenchanted the people. After all, who wants to pay road tax to fill the coffers of the contractors and their accomplices in the municipal bodies while roads lie in a state of disrepair? The idea of paying bills for telephones which do not work and for water which you do not get in your pipeline is not very attractive.

But the same person is happy to send in huge amounts to Edhi and expect nothing in return, at times not even a receipt. Why? Because he feels reassured that his money will benefit the needy. The general absence of a sense of responsibility and community spirit notwithstanding, people are mindful of their social and religious duty to help the poor. Whether they are prompted by superstition (to ward off the evil eye) or the fear of the hereafter (wash off their sins), Pakistanis are generous in giving charity. They will cheat, they will rob but they will donate for a cause. What better outlet can there be for giving charity than an organisation that works. And Edhi is, after all, producing results. His ubiquitous ambulances which appear in no time wherever there is an emergency, his welfare centres linked by wireless, shelters for the homeless, institutions for the handicapped are living testimony to the judicious use of public donations. Furthermore, the maulana has been prudent enough not to erect grandiose structures which are seen as a monumental waste of good money by donors. The centres where the ambulances are parked

Its capacity to perform and produce results is the Edhi Foundation’s secret of success. Coming from the Bantwa Memon community, Edhi from early childhood could boast of inherent financial skills. Though ostracised by his community for extending his horizons beyond the confines of his people, the maulana did not reject its unorthodox and down to earth management methods. He keeps a strict and personalised control over his staff, and his accounts. For instance, he unseals all the donation boxes himself every month, personally -counting the cash people have dropped in them. He says he has his own method of detecting any fraud his staff might have indulged in. If any ambulance is misused, he knows for he has a fairly good idea of how much fuel it will consume for a trip.

‘Small wonder there are no computers in his office (a Pakistani expatriate in America has now offered him one). His records are kept in a primitive style and modern methods of accounting and book keeping are generally not visible. He claims that he gets his accounts audited but refuses to disclose them to anyone. He nonchalantly declares that he preferred to keep out of this dhanda (racket) of preparing reports and statement of accounts. “People can see what I am doing with their money. Dena hai to do, nahin dena hai to mat do (If you want to give, donate, if youdon’t want to then don’t),”he says. But he is punctilious about issuing receipts for the cash received and also has a system of double checking. A donor is issued two copies of the receipt with a self-addressed, stamped envelope with the request to post one of them to the head office. Each donation thus comes in the maulana’s knowledge.

Given his performance, it is strange why the maulana has so far not taken any step to institutionalise his working. True, most organisations collecting public donations do not disclose their budget. This was confirmed by random phone calls to a number of big names in the field. The two organisations which were found to be most transparent were the Layton-Rahmatullah Benevolent Trust which runs a number of eye hospitals for the poor and the Society for the Patients of Urology and Transplantation, Civil Hospital, Karachi. They prepare an annual report and a statement of account every year which any one can see on demand.

But many others are not so forthcoming. Requests for a statement of account from the Fatimid Foundation which is running a blood bank and helps children with thalaessemiaproduced a surprised response. “No one had made such a request before,” I was informed.

Maulana Edhi rejects the concept of transparency in his financial transactions. Under the law of the land, he is not even obliged to disclose his accounts, since his Foundation is registered as a trust and the deed does not require him to do so. He reassured me that his unconventional methods worked. “On the contrary, the system you have in operation here is designed to meet the needs of the vested interests. I keep my accounts in good order but I do not want to show them to anyone. That does not make me dishonest. If I were a part of this system I could have published my accounts and yet cheatedwithout anyone ever knowing.”

The key factor in the philanthropy business is of course confidence. Our people do not care about accounts and other such complex operations which most of them in any case do not understand or even try to. If they are assured that they are not being swindled, they do not worry about the details. For them it is more important that results are produced and not how they are produced.

But the public’s confidence does not absolve an expanding agency of the responsibility of stepping out of a personalised system into the process of institution building. The need is always there to devise a methodology so that the working of an organisation becomes systematised and is not dependent on an individual. After a time an organisation should be able to run on its own momentum under the supervision of anyone who cares to understand its mechanics. Thus alone can an organisation become a model for others and its method and structure can be replicated by other institutions. When asked what will happen after him, the maulana replies with a sigh of resignation, “Allah Maulik” (God is the Master”).

In view of the disdain with which Edhi treats anything connected with modern management systems, one cannot be certain that his pivotal organisation will survive him. He was away in self-exile for a month or so and there was a drop in the inflow of donations. That is what the desperate appeals for donations indicated.

Source: Dawn 13 Jan 1995