The hub of Edhi activity has been the ill-fortuned city of Karachi: a coastal city on the Arabian Sea, hosting beaches, palm trees, and tropical birds, belted in by the Thar desert. But this geographical paradise is bursting at its seams, with a burgeoning population of 20 million marred by political, ethnic, and religious tensions, poverty, and a thriving underworld. Few cities can stake a better claim for the need of such a saint.
Edhi’s drive for social service may source from his Muslim faith, but his motto in charity is nonexclusivity. “No religion is greater than humanity,” he states. His organization provides services to people of all walks of life and affiliations. And in a society where drug abuse, prostitution, abortion, premarital sex, and even domestic battery are taboo subjects, Edhi opens doors to those whose own kin have turned them away for fear of social ostracization. Today, countless Karchiites credit Edhi for their survival. In an interview conducted by BBC’s Mobeen Azar, one heroine addict vows, “he’d be in a box of rubbish down the street” if it was not for Edhi.
With limited resources, the Edhi Foundation’s various centers do their best, and still manage to outdo many well-funded aid organizations. Training for nurses is provided by the Foundation itself, but trained doctors who are willing to work at little to no compensation and often under risky and dangerous circumstances, are difficult to find.
It is a pity that the organization and the man have not yet received due attention from the international development community. The organization runs solely on charitable donations, and has repeatedly refused government assistance to ensure no political affiliation can be attributed to the organization, crucial to retain the trust of a population that has seen its fair share of corruption and mismanagement.
If international aid programs were to leverage the Edhi network, funding impacts would be instantaneous and concretely measurable. According to the Foundation’s website, in Karachi alone, Edhi runs 8 hospitals providing free medical care, eye hospitals, diabetic centers, surgical units, a 4-bed cancer hospital and mobile dispensaries, and two blood banks. In addition to these, BBC recently reported on the Foundation’s rehabilitation centers, thought to be the world’s largest, yet regularly overwhelmed by the number of heroine addicts in a city facing a drug epidemic. Added to this are several maternity centers, and the world’s largest ambulance service, with service extending to the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia. Impressive accomplishments for a man who had little more than $50 dollars in his pocket to begin and who, to this day, cannot read or write.
Perhaps the most humbling service provided by the Edhi Foundation is the graveyard and burial service for the thousands of unclaimed corpses left behind by the violence that has become a regular part of the city’s life. In 2011 alone, 6738 bodies were buried by the Edhi Foundation. Were it not for Edhi and his network of staff and volunteers, the ravens would be pecking at these perished souls.
Though aging and frail, Edhi continues to remain active in social welfare in the city he made his home. Just a few weeks ago, he sat amongst his volunteers on the bare streets, accepting charitable donations from passers-by in a time when economic downturns have made charity difficult to extend for many. In 2007, then Prime Minister of Pakistan Youssef Raza Gilani nominated Edhi for a Nobel Peace Prize, though to the dismay of many he did not receive the award. Not that he craves it – the man is as humble as any pious saint, known only to own two sets of shalwar kameez for himself. An international spotlight on the Edhi Foundation, however, could spearhead greater good in the communities it serves. Perhaps there remain a few more services to be added before Edhi’s true contribution to humanity can be acknowledged globally.