By Bina Shah
February 13, 2014
Given its dependence on foreign aid and its high level of foreign and domestic debt, Pakistan has always been seen abroad as a country with a begging bowl around its neck. In 2008, for example, $3.6 billion in foreign economic assistance flowed in, but about half of it was needed to service debt.
Meanwhile, according to Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, chairman of the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy, charitable donations by citizens equal what the government spends on social welfare, which last year was estimated at a bit short of $2 billion, or about 1 percent of gross domestic product. One reason: Only 2 percent of the population actually pay taxes in a land where per capita income averages $2,900, and where the United Nations says nearly half the people live at or below the poverty line.
Is this how a modern country functions?
In Pakistan, poverty is not sanitized; it’s on full display. What helps save the society is a culture of giving, interwoven into the fabric of how people live and worship. The World Giving Index for 2013, compiled by the Charities Aid Foundation from Gallup polling data, reported that 38 percent of all Pakistanis donated money to charity in 2012, and that 51 percent found some way to help a stranger. For those Pakistanis with money to donate, it’s nearly impossible to decide which cause is most deserving; after all, the great mass of the population could be labeled “less fortunate.” It’s also hard to know whom to trust.
The focal point of philanthropy each year is the holy month of Ramadan, when Islam’s obligation to give to the poor intensifies. Those who miss the daily fast, for example, must feed a poor person. All month, organizations like hospitals, schools, associations for the disabled, education foundations and Islamic charities vie for contributions on billboards, fliers and newspaper ads. And on an announced day, the government collects 2.5 percent from most savings accounts to distribute to approved private charities. This is meant to enforce the Islamic obligation of charity, known as Zakat; in the 2008-9 fiscal year, it yielded about $167 million.
But while Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam, many Pakistanis prefer to give it privately, to charities of their own choice. They either seek an exemption or draw down their accounts before the withdrawal date — a tactical move that speaks less to their religious inclinations (or to whether a promise to give will be kept) and more to their scorn for the corruption that plagues Pakistan; there have been too many reports of mysterious disappearances from the government’s Zakat withdrawals.
Mistrust of the government is also the root of tax noncompliance. Even as critics point out that the government has little trouble finding money for the military, officials blame meager tax collections for their low spending on social welfare. The gaps are left to an incredibly strong and active network of Islamic social welfare agencies to fill — educating two million young Pakistanis in their free schools, for example, and providing relief after floods and earthquakes.
The Islamic charities consider service to others in the name of God the highest form of worship. But some have been accused of fostering terrorism under the guise of philanthropy, and the government has been accused of a failure to track the charities’ activities and sources of money. A number of madrasas and mosques with foreign funding that propagate extreme right-wing religious ideology have come under the most criticism.
Still, most charity in Pakistan is free of controversy. In fact, the religious mandate to help the poor is just the starting point for a culture of philanthropy that Prof. Christopher Candland, co-director of South Asian studies at Wellesley College, has called “everyday humanitarianism.”
Pakistan also has a strong network of philanthropy that includes the Aga Khan Foundation, corporate-sponsored projects and the Edhi Foundation. The latter group runs a vast system of orphanages, air and road ambulances, women’s shelters and drug rehabilitation centers.
Mr. Kassim-Lakha attributes the commitment to giving to a regional culture that includes Islam, but also predates it. “Both the Hindu culture and the Buddhist culture, which were here before Islam ever came here, are cultures of giving,” he said.
Still, Pakistan’s private sector has work to do to turn this generosity into large-scale social development. The Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy is encouraging investment in schools, hospitals and shelters, while seeking legislation to encourage more efficient use of donations. Under a certification system that it developed, those who donate 20 percent of their income to certified organizations, or corporations that donate 10 percent of before-tax profits, receive tax exemptions and other benefits.
Pakistanis give because their culture has imparted a deep need to help the less fortunate. But even as their dependency on foreign charity is often blamed for stunting economic development, a parallel problem may go largely unrecognized — that Pakistan’s internal benevolence may encourage the poor to rely on handouts rather than seek economic independence.
Mr. Kassim-Lakha captures the spirit of the culture, and the dilemma, when he asks: “We have the capacity to be self-sufficient. After all, how long can we continue to rely on external benevolence?”
Bina Shah is the author of several novels, including “Slum Child,” and short-story collections.