Making it happen

The Friday Times | Dec 16, 2005

Imaduddin Ahmed

The key to mobilising civil society is faith in the power of Pakistan‘s citizenry

“I thought this was a dead nation, but the earthquake seems to have had a silver lining. The nation has woken up and everybody is doing what they can: you’ve noticed the collection points for supplies on everychowk. Even children are conducting door-to-door canvassing drives and contributing pocket-money,” commented my dentist, a few days after the earthquake.

On the other hand, the executive director of a prominent NGO introduced a panel discussion reviewing earthquake relief efforts with 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.”

It is clear that the October 8th earthquake galvanised Pakistanis and moved many citizens to varying degrees of action. All around us are tales of faceless heroes; perhaps only those who have devoted their lives to the task can document the story of every individual or group. No society can be generalised as a homogenous entity. Nevertheless, the varying degrees of dynamism and the efforts of some groups and individuals can be viewed as indicative, if not representative, of traits of Pakistan’s urban civil society.

Little has appeared in the press 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 workers themselves. “If we get coverage, the danger is that the work becomes secondary to the workers,” responded the founder to the 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. Eventually, the group agreed to talk to The Friday Times under the condition of withholding their names.

The founder of the SSG, a practicing doctor at Lahore’s Defence National Hospital and Fatima Memorial Hospital, 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 was 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.” 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 I 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’ve included rehabilitation in the agenda and the people who came to that first meeting thought it too ambitious. But we have managed to achieve more than the original goals.”

Through the perusal of newspaper reports, the doctor realised that injured and traumatised patients and their families ‑ then arriving at Lahore’s hospitals ‑ would need an emotional and psychological support programme. Sharing her vision with close friends and colleagues, she tapped into the latent and dynamic energy of well-endowed ladies of Lahore. The result was a motivated collective of doctors, educationists, lawyers and citizens, and the group quickly organised workshops for those willing to counsel patients and their families. Within a month, the SSG had trained nearly 450 volunteers. Approximately 80 per cent of these volunteers were women, representing widely diverging socioeconomic backgrounds and ranging in age from 17 to 55. People had heard about the group by word of mouth, text messages or had been recruited from educational institutions. 70 volunteers, including students and faculty members, attended the training session at LUMS and an SSG hospital coordinator who had addressed a psychology class of 32 MAO Government College students recalled that, “We were expecting maybe half of them to turn up for the training later, but 34 people showed up on the dot at 10am on a Sunday morning!” The SSG identified and profiled over 900 patients and 2000 of their relatives in Lahore’s private and government hospitals, including the National, Doctors’, Services, Ganga Ram, Jinnah, General, Mayo and Sheikh Zayed Hospitals.

Meanwhile, students from the University of the Punjab’s Sociology Department had embarked on a similar endeavour. Having learned from the newspapers that earthquake survivors arriving at Lahore’s hospitals had noiftari or sehri, the students started preparing meal packets funded by their own pockets, the Department’s Golden Jubilee Celebration Fund, and donations from individuals and the SSG. “We would distribute and fill our surveys during the day and then work on new data methodologies to assess the patients’ needs, sometimes untilsehri,” reported a 23-year old Sociology BSc student from Gujranwala, the group leader of 22 volunteers from the University of the Punjab and the Oriental College of Arts. “We gave my mobile phone number to the patients so I was on call for their needs 24 hours a day.”

Meanwhile, the ever-expanding number of SSG volunteers visited the hospitals with varying regularity, providing patients and their families their empathy and private offerings ‑ food, toiletries, clothing, bed linen and donated stoves. An SSG helpline number was provided to most patients and their relatives.

To date, the SSG has provided 1200 ‘relief bundles’ (bedding and toiletry materials, warm clothes, dry food and a tent) to individuals who have left Lahore and arranged transportation for 50 of them. The rent of 12 families has been taken care of until March, the money having been paid directly to the landlords. For 42 earthquake survivors, some of whom travelled from the north to join their families in Lahore, free housing has been arranged at hostels in Johar Town and Thokar Niaz Beg.

In Meratanoliyan near Muzaffarabad, the SSG has established a clinic and a school for 1065 registered people in a tent village set up by its sister organisation, Ehsaas. At the same time, sewing machines have been provided to women who have been commissioned to stitch school uniforms for 391 registered students. In Abbottabad, the SSG has set up a physiotherapy department at the DHQ Hospital in collaboration with theFatima Memorial Hospitalwhich is now serving patients in Abbottabad and outlying areas in Mansehra. Said the founder of the SSG, “I want to clarify that all the Lahore hospitals did great work in housing the patients and providing them free treatment for the length of the stay; many doctors and hospital administrators have done a lot of relief work in the north.”

The work didn’t end here. The intensity of the earthquake left large numbers of paraplegic and amputee patients and in this regard, the SSG has raised Rs 1.5 million from private donations. These are being channelled through the Saeeda Zubaida Memorial Foundation and none of the funds are being spent on administrative costs. The SSG is now establishing contact with international donor agencies, facilities and medical specialists ‑ including the physician who took care of Christopher Reeve ‑ and groups providing prosthetic limbs. Three facilities with rehabilitation programmes have been established for paraplegics: at the Behbud Complex, in collaboration with Fatima Jinnah Old Graduates, the Bali Memorial Helpline and the consultative units of the hospitals where the patients were originally looked after; at the Mumtaz Bakhtawar Hospital in collaboration with Mumtaz Bakhtawar Trustees and the Sheikh Zayed Hospital; and at the Ganj Baksh Spinal Research and Rehabilitation Centre.

The SSG has also facilitated the transfer of patients into Hijaz Hospital and Gulberg Lions Hospital, which are working independently. So far, there are only 56 spinal injury patients and 6 amputation patients in these Lahore facilities, so offers from other private hospitals have not yet been availed. Two rehabilitation specialists from the US have committed their participation in January, while the SSG also envisions facilitating vocational training for the patients, micro-financing and schooling for the able-bodied.

Declining offers of employment in NGOs in the wake of their volunteer work, some students from the University of the Punjab are working on establishing their own NGO: Abyari is currently looking for donors which will allow it to help rebuild the lives of the earthquake survivors. Abyari’s group leader is planning to pursue a Masters degree in Public Administration, contrary to the wishes of his family who want him to return to the family’s oven factory. “We [the students] kept each other motivated,” he commented. “Obviously, our grades suffered; but seeing the patients every day and being asked for help meant we couldn’t stop. My father supported me greatly but the family demanded that I come and visit. Of course, the initial urge was inspired by what the Quran taught me as a child, but a lot of it was simply humanity.”

The founder of the SSG, however, cited humanity as an implicit and faith as an explicit motivation. “We may have our own little cribs at the end of the day, but these people have lost everything – forget their homes: their family, their limbs, their ability to live independent lives,” she mused. “We don’t know why this happened, but I firmly believe that we will not be forgiven if we do not get involved.”

A similarity that draws these two civil society leaders ‑ the founder of the SSG and the University of thePunjab’s student heading Abyari together is that their post-quake activism was not their first taste of volunteerism. Aside from other activities, the founder of the SSG volunteered her time at government hospitals and free clinics. The student leader used the social capital of his family name to help community members address their problems with WAPDA, and learnt data collection techniques under the aegis of the NGO Bargad, which focuses on youth empowerment. A deeper look reveals that the two civil society leaders’ self-confidence may also stem from family backgrounds: one is the daughter of a retired general, the other is the nephew of the nazim of UC 38 inGujranwala.

The activism in the hospitals of Lahore may not have gone far had the SSG not enjoyed the appropriate connections. As administrations wearied of unidentified people walking in and out of their hospitals in the early weeks following the earthquake, it became necessary to establish credibility. The SSG approached the Governor of the Punjab, as a result of which the group’s relations with the Punjab Secretary of Health and government hospital administrations were facilitated. “The offices of the Governor of the Punjab, the Secretary of Health and the Federal Relief Commission were very helpful,” I was told by the SSG doctor. “We didn’t want to criticise them, so we weren’t a threat. We didn’t want to become part of their machinery, and we didn’t want publicity, otherwise we’d have become prisoners of that publicity.” Subsequently, offers of help in interfacing with government departments have been made to the SSG by the Chief minister, the Punjab Relief Commissioner, the Secretary of Social Welfare and the District Nazim.

The founding SSG members’ confidence that they had the government connections necessary for smooth relations may, in part, explain why certain sections of the civil society outshone salaried NGO activists in the earthquake relief efforts. Relatively few NGO employees enjoy direct links with government officials and, to an extent, are trained by their supervisors to wait for orders instead of taking spontaneous action. Indeed, one of the SSG’s hospital coordinators wonders how active most of the less-connected students and NGO workers would have been, had he not approached them, “Of course they wanted to do something, and that’s why they joined the effort,” he commented, “but I don’t think that they had the direction or confidence to take the initiative and start something themselves.”

What is needed is increasing initiative and civic participation from people of all socioeconomic backgrounds; that would entail bolstering the confidence of those who do not come from families with power. It is easy to bemoan the real and perceived lack of justice in Pakistan, corruption, insufficiencies of infrastructure and the lack of work ethic, all of which combine to hinder activism. On the other hand, one could try and take charge of one’s own actions: “Yes, there is a lack of confidence, a lack of trust, a lack of coordination,” agreed the founder of the SSG. But I believe in the goodness of people. There is little point in being needlessly cynical or critical; there is good in everybody, you just have to tap into it. The national volunteer programme might give citizens the required direction and confidence. The volunteers of the SSG believe in self-accountability, not just the self-righteous accountability of others.”

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