One of the most admired men in Pakistan, Abdul Sattar Edhi has made a career out of helping those in need. For over half a century, the foundation that bears his name, has been at the forefront of charity work in the South Asian nation. From humble beginnings in 1951, as a tiny dispensary in Karachi's downtrodden Mithadar neighbourhood, the Edhi Foundation has expanded into a national organisation. The foundation runs a wide range of services including ambulances, clinics, maternity homes, mental asylums, homes for the physically handicapped, blood banks, orphanages, adoption centres, mortuaries, shelters for runaway children and battered women, schools, nursing courses, soup kitchens and a 25-bed cancer hospital. It provides employment to thousands.
In an interview with IRIN, the 75-year-old shared his views on what drives him as a person and why the Edhi Foundation has proven to be such a success.
QUESTION: You have been described by many as a hero of the people. What drives you as a person and as a humanitarian?
ANSWER: I do humanitarian work for the common people, which is why people like me. In short, I work for the suffering of the common man, something I am very proud of and will continue to do. I believe in nature and humanity and am here to serve the common people of Pakistan. There is a great deal of suffering in this country and I'm here to help.
Q: What is the mainstay of the Edhi Foundation's activities?
A: The mainstay of our activities is the ambulance service. [Currently the largest private ambulance service in the world]. We provide a broad range of services for the poor and destitute - even when it comes to burying the dead. Our motto is ‘from cradle to grave.’ Unwanted babies are delivered to us through our cradle programme, where we work to find new homes for them for parents desiring children. In addition to our healthcare programmes, we also have a programme for burying the dead, meeting all the necessary expenses for those who are unable to do so.
Q: Of all your programmes, which are you most proud of?
A: I'm most proud of the ambulance service. This is emergency work. Many times Edhi ambulances are the first to arrive and save people's lives. I'm very proud of this.
Q: Your operation is quite broad-based. On a daily basis, what does it cost to run?
A: Our daily running costs are around 1.2 million rupees a day [approximately US $20,000].
Q: How are you funded?
A: I want to create awareness amongst the common people of Pakistan and I generally appeal to the Pakistani people living here and abroad for help and they provide me with the necessary resources. It is my principle never to accept any donations from any government or any foreign funded organisation. I do this work for the common people and part of that work is creating a general awareness of such problems as they exist because my work is beyond class, religion and creed.
It is because of my principle that people continue to give. One time there was a student at Punjab University in Lahore who came down with cancer and his friend came to me for help. I stood outside on the street in Lahore and asked the people in that city for help. Within four or five hours, I received more than 40 million rupees [more than US $670,000]
Q: If there is a secret to fund-raising, what is it?
A: The 'secret' as you say is in my work. People, the common people, can genuinely see what I'm doing. Moreover, people know that I have adopted four principles in living my life: simple living, punctuality, hard work and prudence. These are the four principles I adopted at the very beginning and continue to use until now. People see this and give me donations.
Q: What in your view are the most pressing problems impacting Pakistan today?
A: The basic problem affecting the country today is human rights. Islamic fundamentalists have no roots among the common people and while they are pushing hard for religious fundamentalists to take hold, the common people still seek change through humanitarian and common human rights law. This is a big problem in this country. The common people don't believe this kind of religion because first and foremost they want to solve their basic problems, including human rights and economic.
Q: Many of the activities you are involved in are activities that the [Pakistani] government actually should be doing. How does the government react to your work?
A: The attitude of the government is very good. They have been very supportive and we haven't had any problems.
Q: How do you see the humanitarian spirit of Pakistan today?
A: The attitude of the Pakistani people is very good. Whenever I release any statement or deliver any kind of speech, they respond favourably.
Q: What has made the Edhi Foundation the success that it is?
A: Hard work and human rights...what more can I say?