Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Light a Candle, Don't Curse Darkness
"It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." Adlai Stevenson, 1962
It is important to repeat these golden words to exhort people to positive action. But it takes more than words to make social service and volunteerism become normal part of every day life for ordinary citizens. The message to be proactive to solve society's problems has to be combined with early education of our children, and followed by appropriate rewards for good behavior. The school curricula need to teach civics and social science lessons by demanding that students participate in specific civic activities to receive credit. Volunteering for charity organizations such as Edhi Foundation should be encouraged. Extra credit should be reserved by teachers for those students who go out of their way to volunteer to teach the illiterate or raise funds to feed the hungry. Parents and teachers should act as role models for their children by voluteering their own time for these activities.
The incentives for social and community service must continue beyond high school. Beyond good grades, the college admission criteria should include demonstrated service to community. Programs at colleges should encourage students to perform specific community services as a requirement for graduation. Such programs can be modeled after Americorps or Peace Corps in the United States. National Volunteer Movement in Pakistan appears to be an attempt to create such a program.
As the young people join the work force or start their own businesses, they need to continue to help their communities with the support of their employers and businesses. Private businesses should do their part as good corporate citizens to support the communities they do business in. Various civil, business, religious and political leaders, popular celebrities, and wealthy individuals can and should become role models to inspire citizens to do their part in making a difference in the lives of the less fortunate in society. This kind of leadership is particularly crucial as we see increased suffering of daily wage earners in Pakistan's current economic downturn.
As people clamor for democracy in Pakistan, they need to clearly understand what it means to be citizens of a democratic nation. Just voting and selecting the rulers by free and fair elections is only the beginning. While civil society advocates, human rights and citizen watch-dog groups, and various other NGOs are helpful, they are no substitute for organizations and individuals providing direct, tangible services to the most vulnerable members of society. True democracy requires active participation by its citizens, willingness to contribute time and money to organize volunteer efforts, and to help fellow citizens in need, rather than reliance on the government to solve all of the problems. Instead of complaining about dirty neighborhood streets, petty street crime, or under-performing schools, neighbors should get together and volunteer to solve these problems. On the continuing power cuts, people in various neighborhoods should find local solutions using alternative clean power as a community. Pakistani financial institutions and foundations should support social entrepreneurs to help solve the problems of lack of microfinance, clean water and clean air.
Having lived and raised a family in the United States during the last thirty years, I have had the opportunity to see the American society and democracy in action. I have observed how ordinary people get involved to tackle issues of education, poverty and crime. It is not uncommon to see active participation by Americans in PTAs (Parent-Teacher Associations), neighborhood watch or the food bank for the poor. I have seen how companies participate in helping communities by offering money and their employees' time. Annual United Way campaigns, with matching corporate contributions, are a common feature at many major US companies. In this post, I have shared some of what I have seen in the hope that others can learn from my observations.
As a member of the Muslim community in Silicon Valley, I have seen how people come together to build mosques, community centers and schools. And how they offer time and money to complete and run these projects, in spite of their busy lives with their regular jobs and the needs of their families.
Here are a couple of quotes from Alexis De Tocqueville, a French philosopher who traveled across America in the 19th century and captured his observations in his book "Democracy in America":
"The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens."
"Americans of all ages, all stations of life and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand types-religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute."
Here are some examples of self-help in Pakistan I can highlight:
Greg Mortenson, an American, has been working with the local villagers to help build schools and promote education in northern Pakistan. While he has raised funds from various sources, Mortenson has insisted on community involvement in his efforts. Because of community 'buy-in', which involves getting villages to donate free land, subsidized or free labor ('sweat equity'), free wood and resources, the schools have local support and have been able to avert retribution by the Taliban or other groups opposed to girls education.
Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan is the force behind Orangi Pilot Project to help residents of Orangi Town, a katchi abadi (shanty town) in Karachi to help themselves. It has helped in a number of projects to build better low-cost housing, improve sanitation and establish schools with the participation of the community. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Acclaimed social scientist Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan used to reference this well-known proverb (according to his son, Akbar Khan), as it quite fittingly represents his philosophy on community development.
While the problems faced by Pakistan are huge, I believe that a serious and organized initiative by a tiny percentage of Pakistan's large middle class of at least 40-50m people can begin to make a difference. Pakistanis owe it to themselves and their poor brethren to step up and take responsibility for improving the situation of the most vulnerable citizens of their country. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But we must persevere by taking one step after another until we see results.
Here is a Skoll Foundation video on social entrepreneurship:
Orangi Pilot Project
Three Cups of Tea
Volunteerism in America
Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan's Vision