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Economy

Pakistan's Edhi Foundation looks forward to becoming dispensable

For now, its 1,800 ambulances and other welfare services are crucial

Faisal Edhi, who inherited the Edhi Foundation from his father, with an ambulance in Karachi (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

Edhi Foundation, Pakistan -- Winner for culture and community

Representative: Faisal Edhi, Managing Trustee

KARACHI -- Gently, with his fingertips, Faisal Edhi held the coin engraved with a portrait of his late father. "Abdul Sattar Edhi - an era of humanity," read the inscription at the top, with "1928-2016" at the bottom. Despite the ceaseless hum of traffic in Pakistan's biggest city, the scene at the Karachi headquarters of the Edhi Foundation was almost tranquil, as a son reflected on the mission he inherited from his father.

Abdul Sattar Edhi, who died last July, is the fifth person to be featured on a commemorative Pakistan rupee coin, after prime ministers and other luminaries. The government issued it in March, recognizing his achievements in building the foundation. What started as a 6-sq.-meter free clinic in 1951 is now the world's biggest nongovernmental welfare organization and an essential provider of emergency services in Pakistan.

The Edhi Ambulance Control Room in Karachi receives 3,500 calls a day. Ten staffers field the calls in 12-hour shifts, with virtually no time to rest. Ambulances painted with the emergency number 115 and EDHI come and go.

The free ambulance service began with one British-made vehicle in 1957. Today, 1,800 ambulances dart across the country. The Edhi Welfare Center, which has 335 locations, not only provides emergency transportation but also searches for missing people. Twenty Edhi Home locations, meanwhile, house 9,000 orphans and the elders. The foundation runs five mortuaries as well. 

Born in India's western state of Gujarat before the country attained independence from Britain, Abdul Sattar received early lessons in the spirit of charity. Every morning before school, his mother gave him two coins -- "One for yourself and one for somebody poor." If he still had the second coin when he got home, she would scold him, saying, "Look at the greed in your eyes."

This upbringing "sharpened my instincts and enabled me to differentiate between the needy and the lazy," he once wrote in his autobiography.

In 1947, when Pakistan separated from India, Abdul Sattar moved to Karachi. Numerous charitable organizations were created in those days, amid the chaos of the new country's birth. But most were exclusive to specific communities or religions. Abdul Sattar resolved to set up a foundation that would not discriminate.

Steadfastly apolitical

Despite Abdul Sattar's tireless efforts to help the poor, dealing with the powerful has not always been easy. Faisal cannot forget the events of December 1994.

The military tried to set his father up as a presidential candidate, as part of a coup d'etat attempt. Abdul Sattar declined to cooperate and fled to the U.K. As rumors swirled that his father was a spy for India, Pakistan's archenemy, a 17-year-old Faisal held down the fort for a month. "We were all afraid that this organization would have to close and we would be arrested," Faisal said. 

The foundation is now working on a 120-bed hospital project in Karachi. The goal is to foster nurses and other emergency workers.

To this day, the foundation relies on donations. Of its annual budget of 1.5 billion Pakistan rupees ($14.3 million), interest income from its endowment accounts for 40-50%, with the remainder coming from individual Pakistanis and companies. To avoid being tainted by politics, the foundation refuses funds from the government and overseas charities.

Another reason to rely on donations is that they help gauge its raison d'etre. If donations decline, Faisal said, it means society is relying on Edhi less. "Then our organization should shrink."

He sees ambulance and welfare services as basics that "can be provided by the government once it becomes a welfare state." He looks forward to the day the foundation is not needed, but said, "It will take a lot of time -- 20, 30, 40 years -- not in my lifetime."

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