PART TWO OF A TWO PART SERIES
Meet Agha. He told his story, as a street child who collects garbage and works hard to survive in Lahore, in one of the films featured in the RSA Pakistan Calling project that is reporting on the challenges that country faces and promoting the people looking for solutions. Filmed in Lahore’s Ferozpor Road in 2010, it is not known what has become of Agha today.
Agha is, sadly, not alone. Pakistan has one of the world’s largest populations of street children, estimated by the United Nations in 2005 to be 1.5 million, with an average age of 9. Probably now near 2 million. Most will die before their 18th birthday.
The deprivation faced by Agha and other street children is not an isolated problem in Pakistan. Over 60 million people in Pakistan live in poverty; half of adults, including two out of three women are illiterate; 1 in 11 children die before their fifth birthday; about 12,000 women die in childbirth every year; and half of Pakistan’s children suffer from stunted growth, which affects brain development. The sectarian and terrorist organisations that plague Pakistan, feed on this poverty, alienation and despair more so than any supposed cause they claim to represent.
What we don’t hear enough about either in the media, or international development circles, is the role that the civil society, welfare, education and human rights organizations of Pakistan have played in meeting human need and stopping Pakistan becoming a failed state. (It’s certainly not been the military, religious, feudal and political elites that run Pakistan or some Western interventions in the region.) It is these informal welfare networks, that have just about prevented Pakistan from becoming a failed state.
I spent a day in Karachi recently with the Azad Foundation, which provides food, shelter, health care, education and counselling to Pakistani street children. It was a difficult day. I was given chapter and verse on how exploitation of children is built into the very fabric of how cities in Pakistan function, from refuse collection, to workshop and domestic labour, trafficking and street begging operations, run by powerful criminal networks with the state turning a blind eye.
The Azad Foundation was set up was a group by students, teachers and alumni of Karachi University that wanted to deal with social problems in Pakistan, such as the thousands of children stranded in the streets. They operate through limited project funding from donors and individuals. They can only help a tiny fraction of the street children of Pakistan. RSA Pakistan calling is working to increase the profile of the Azad foundation and raise awareness of the plight of street children in Pakistan.
As well as the Azad Foundation there are other incredible Pakistani organisations such as the Edhi Foundation. which manages hundreds of hospitals and ambulance fleets and The Citizens Foundation, which runs over a 1,000 schools in the poorest communities in Pakistan. Both organisations are funded primarily through individual donations from Pakistan and diaspora communities and are independent of the state. The Citizens Foundation has now, due to its excellence and track record, become recognised by agencies such as DFID and the Skoll Foundation who are now supporting its work.
Yet this voluntary social safety net is being stretched to breaking point. Pakistan is on course for a population of 360 million, in two generations – a crisis for Pakistan and the region unless there is significant planned sustainable investment in health, education, trade, commerce and infrastructure.
Pakistan needs a new generation of philanthropists to meet these growing needs. But Pakistan is a priority for few international donors. That is why I believe that the Pakistani diaspora has a vital role to play. The Samosa project www.thesamosa.co.uk was set up in 2010 by volunteers, including British Pakistanis to reflect and build activity in the British Pakistani community, supporting health and education work in Pakistan.
Many British Pakistanis are involved in groups such as The Citizens Foundation and many others especially the older generation support the Edhi Foundation. But we need to do much more. The British Pakistani community doesn’t have a presence in international policy networks. Yet diaspora communities can bridge trade, economic development, and global networks between the West and developing South Asian communities and help conflict resolution.
The diaspora can do things that other NGOs cannot. For example, there is anger about minority rights issues amongst British Pakistanis. What is happening to Pakistan’s minority Ahmadi, Christian and Hindu communities is heart-breaking. It is pure hatred, sectarianism, thuggery and a crime against humanity. The rule of law, civil rights and equality are fundamental principles that no state has the right to withdraw. People need to speak up. The Samosa supports the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to raise issues about the persecution of minority communities. Because many British Pakistanis have deep roots in villages in Punjab and Kashmir, via our parents and grandparents, our voices have weight and access in Pakistan, that others’ simply do not.
The RSA Pakistan Calling (www.thersa.org/pkcalling) project is committed to engage the 1.2 million British Pakistani citizens on issues around human rights, development, education, welfare, conflict resolution and minority rights in Pakistan and link with the work that groups such as DFID, Oxfam and World Health Organisation are delivering.
We live in a globalized ever more inter connected world. Projects such as RSA Pakistan Calling can contribute greatly to health, education, economic and welfare development in Pakistan. A more prosperous and peaceful Pakistan also greatly benefits the rest of the world in terms of stabilizing the region, providing trade opportunities, and improving relations with the Muslim world. It impacts positively on education and integration in Britain, helping awareness about our history as part of the commonwealth, our historic links with South Asia and giving role models to young British citizens of the stories of incredible social entrepreneurs and welfare organisations working in Pakistan.
We have made a good start with the support of the RSA, we now need to do much more and we need support. Pakistan is calling. Please listen.