The Unrealized Potential of Volunteerism in Pakistan



Fayyaz Bhidal is a CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellow at the Atlantic Council

Saturday, October 8, 2005 was an unfortunate day in the history of Pakistan. The entire country was ravaged by an earthquake that registered 7.6 magnitude on the Richter scale. The tremor devastated the entire Kashmir region, razing almost every building to the ground. It also damaged large parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces and caused a high rise housing tower to collapse in Islamabad. The loss, both human and material, was colossal. The death toll surpassed 100,000, and 3.5 million people were displaced. The injured were numerous and everywhere.

This earthquake in Pakistan, just like earthquakes anywhere else in the developing world, caught disaster response institutions off guard. They were unprepared, lacked the essential rescue equipment, training, and resources. On top of that, road and rail networks were no longer usable without major repairs.

In the face of this massive catastrophe, when the state institutions were stuck in a state of panic, the responsibility fell to common people to take it upon themselves to do whatever they could to save their brethren pinned under the rubble and debris. Their efforts rescued over 138,000 injured stuck under collapsed buildings, and saved many more women, children, and elders who lost their families in the calamity. Had it not been for their efforts, most of the injured would have died by the time government rescue teams reached them after a delay of 78 hours.

Attending a panel on ‘Disaster Protection through Preparation‘ at the Points of Light Conference in Atlanta, and learning about the role volunteers played in Nashville in saving people and properties during the 2010 floods, and later on helping the city clean up and recover, I could not help but think about the role volunteers played during the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. They not only helped minimize the damage and sped up rescue, recovery, and rehabilitation efforts, they also left the affected communities more united and self-reliant.

However, a major difference between the incidents in Nashville in United States and Kashmir in Pakistan was that volunteers were better prepared, connected, and organized in the former case. Though the incident in Pakistan ensured the creation of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), it is more of a government body, and doesn’t actively allow volunteer organizations and individuals to play a role. Had the NDMA created an active pool of volunteers, it would have exhibited better performance during the floods in 2010 that inundated two-third of Pakistan, and of course during the on-going war on terror that has killed over 50,000 civilians and military personnel so far.

While at the conference, I was also amazed by the vastness of the concept of “volunteerism” employed by almost all kinds of community services in the United States. Contrary to Pakistan, where it mostly relates to disaster response, volunteerism here includes a wide range of social services including health, education, youth counseling, unemployment, poverty, civil rights, and many more. I now realize the huge potential difference that volunteer efforts can make in these sectors in Pakistan.

For societies like Pakistan and South Asia at large, where social differences are stark, volunteerism in any and all capacities should be taken and promoted as a collective and individual obligation. As a local saying goes, “If you know it, (teaching to) those who don’t know it is your duty. If you have it, (feeding to) those who don’t have it is your responsibility.”

CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellowship brings talented young professionals with strong research backgrounds to shadow researchers and experts at leading U.S. think tanks for six months. Fayyaz Bhidal is part of the Fellowship, serving at the Atlantic Council