Asia Program

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Islamic Charities and Human Security in Pakistan

May 12, 2010 // 4:00pm5:30pm
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Pakistan, insists Christopher Candland, is neither a failed nor a failing state. Key institutions—such as the military, judiciary, and legislature—are all strong and growing even stronger. However, the Pakistani state is failing to provide basic services to its 180-million strong population—one in which, according to Candland, 32 percent subsist below the poverty line and more than 65 percent "struggle to survive" on or below $2 a day.

Speaking at a May 12 Asia Program event, Candland, a 2009-2010 Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow, argued that Pakistan's Islamic welfare associations—charitable organizations motivated both operationally and financially by the Muslim faith—play an important role in providing for the country's most needy. In fact, these charities make a major contribution to Pakistanis' human security (a term Candland described as "the capacity of the individual to protect oneself from harm," which requires access to quality health care and education).

Candland began his presentation with a discussion of Abdul Sattar Edhi, a Pakistani philanthropist and arguably the nation's "most celebrated" charitable worker. Edhi began his work in Karachi in 1947, providing free burial services. He eventually launched the Edhi Foundation, which has grown into the nation's largest welfare organization (boasting more than 300 centers across the country), and specializes in ambulatory and many other services. According to Candland, Edhi's success points to several trends that apply to Pakistan's Islamic welfare sector as a whole. One is the "power of volunteerism": Edhi has inspired millions of volunteers and receives "tens of millions" of dollars each year in unsolicited funds. A second trend is the importance of action over talk: Edhi "communicates faith through deeds, not words."

Candland described three categories of Islamic welfare associations in Pakistan. One is state-based. In a country as "religiously diverse" as Pakistan (a nation with a significant Shia Muslim minority and high numbers of adherents of Deobandi and Sufi Islam), Candland explained, state intervention in the Islamic sector invariably provokes considerable mistrust among the populace. The fact that state-affiliated Islamic charities generate revenue through tax collection—whereas non-state-based charities depend on voluntary contributions—also fuels mistrust.

The second category of Pakistani Islamic charities is partisan. It is comprised of both Islamic political parties (such as the Jamaat-i-Islami) and political parties that feature Islamic welfare systems. It also includes the likes of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity many believe to be a front for the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. According to Candland, these partisan charities focus largely on education, and mostly support Westernized schools. It is a "common mistake," he noted, to say that these Islamic charities exclusively support Pakistan's madaris (Islamic boarding schools). While these partisan associations mainly focus on education, Candland stated that the third category of Islamic charities—nonpartisan associations—mostly emphasize health care.

Commentator Madiha Waris Qureshi has a long association with The Citizens Foundation (TCF), one of Pakistan's largest education nonprofits. Taking issue with Candland's assertion that nonpartisan Islamic charities in Pakistan focus mainly on health, she argued that their emphasis is now extending to education as well (as reflected in the work of TCF, a nonpartisan, private organization). Increasingly, she explained, education is perceived as "the true path" to reform in a nation with such a variety of societal challenges. Qureshi also underscored the potential for Islamic charities "to do good work" overseas (both she and Candland noted the Edhi Foundation's strong presence abroad).

At the same time, Qureshi acknowledged that not all Islamic welfare associations in Pakistan are successful—and many of the less successful groups tend to be those promoting women's rights. She advocated for better measures that can enable troubled charities to build up their capacities.

By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
 

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