“I thought this was a dead nation, but the earthquake has woken us up. Everybody is doing what they can. You can see collection points on every chowk. Even children are collecting door-to-door and contributing pocket-money,” commented my dentist, a few days after the earthquake.
An NGO executive had a different perspective: “People have been surprised at the activism of ordinary Pakistanis in the wake of the earthquake. But we have known this for a long time; indeed, we’ve relied on the activism of civil society. Our paid staff can only do so much; we wouldn’t be able to run national grassroots campaigns without our volunteers.”
The October 8th earthquake galvanised many. All around are tales of faceless heroes. Nevertheless, the efforts of some can be viewed as indicative, if not representative, of traits of Pakistan’s urban civil society. Little has been published regarding the volunteer activism of people in Pakistan’s urban centres who were not directly affected by the earthquake. In part, this media silence is due to the reticence of the volunteers themselves. “If we get coverage, the danger is that the work becomes secondary to the workers,” responded the founder of Survivors Support Group (SSG), one of Lahore’s post-quake civil society groups as the management committee debated the pros and cons of media coverage. The group agreed to talk to The Friday Times under condition of withholding their names.
SSG’s founder, a practicing doctor at Lahore’s Defence National and Fatima Memorial hospitals, was moved to action the morning after she met her first patient from Kashmir, less than a week after the earthquake. “She was a pretty 15-year old girl, studying for her matriculation,” recalled the doctor. “She was lying in bed and extremely cheerful. All she said was, ‘I’m fine. I’m here for surgery and I’m going to be alright. I’m worried about my bruised eye.’ My heart sank when I checked her MRI and learnt that she would never walk again. We don’t know why this happened, but I firmly believed that we would not be forgiven if we did not get involved.” This girl is now at the GOR Behbud Complex, one of the spinal-injury rehabilitation centres set-up by the SSG in collaboration with other groups.
“That night, I listened to my son’s quiet breathing as he slept, and was filled with gratitude,” the doctor told me. “The following morning, I messaged people and while at work, quickly made a 12-point agenda. I was surprised at the number of people  who attended the meeting that evening. I included rehabilitation in the agenda and those who came thought it too ambitious. But we managed to achieve much more.”
Perusing newspaper reports, the doctor realised that injured and traumatised patients and their families arriving at Lahore’s hospitals would need emotional and psychological support. Sharing this realisation with friends and colleagues, she tapped into the latent and dynamic energy of well-endowed ladies of Lahore, professionals and students. The group organised workshops for those willing to counsel patients and their families. Within a month, SSG had trained nearly 450 volunteers. About 80 per cent of these volunteers were women, aged 17 to 55. People heard of SSG by word of mouth or had been recruited from educational institutions. One volunteer recalled addressing a classroom of 32 students. “We expected maybe half of them to turn up for training, but 34 people showed up on the dot at 10am on a Sunday morning!”
Sociology students from the University of the Punjab were amongst SSG’s most dedicated volunteers in the Lahore hospitals. Learning from newspaper reports that survivors and their families in Lahore’s hospitals had no sehri or iftar with which to open and close their fasts, the students distributed meal packs “sometimes until sehri”, combining their volunteerism with data collection for research.
SSG profiled over 900 patients and 2000 of their relatives in Lahore’s private and government hospitals and provided them with empathy, food, toiletries, clothing, bed linen, stoves and an SSG helpline. SSG arranged five months accommodation for 20 families and transportation for 50 individuals leaving Lahore.
Further afield near Muzaffarabad, SSG established a clinic and a school for a new tented village community set-up by another volunteer organisation, and provided sewing machines for the community to stitch new uniforms. In Abbottabad, SSG set up a physiotherapy department at the DHQ Hospital.
For Lahore’s 56 spinal-injury patients and amputee, SSG raised Rs 1.5 million, facilitated the transfer of patients into speciality hospitals, and persuaded two rehabilitation specialists from the USA to volunteer in January. SSG envisions facilitating vocational training for these patients, micro-financing and schooling for the able-bodied.
SSG’s activism may not have gone far had it not enjoyed privileged connections. As administrations wearied of unidentified people walking through their hospitals, it became necessary to establish credibility. SSG approached the Governor of the Punjab and was introduced to the Punjab Secretary of Health, which in turn led to introductions to the administrations of government hospitals.
With the privilege also comes confidence to act. It is neither the SSG founder or University of the Punjab’s student leader’s first foray into volunteerism. The daughter of a retired general regularly does pro bono work. The politician’s nephew uses his social capital to assist community members in their troubles with the water and power utility. This may explain why full-time professionals and students outshone mid-level salaried NGO activities in the earthquake relief efforts. Relatively few NGO employees enjoy direct links with government officials and, to an extent, are trained to wait for orders instead of feeling empowered to initiate action.
“Yes, there is a lack of confidence, a lack of trust, a lack of coordination,” agreed the founder of the SSG. “But I believe there is good in everybody, you just have to tap into it. A national volunteer programme might give citizens the required direction and confidence. The volunteers of SSG believe in self-accountability.”