How expatriates can help

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP), set up in 2001 as a non-profit support organisation to facilitate philanthropy, has published a report titled Philanthropy by the Pakistani Diaspora in the USA. Based on a survey it conducted in North America in which 631 Pakistani expatriates participated, this report confirms some trends that have been observed over the years.

It also makes some recommendations, though it is not at all clear if the obstacles faced in channelling philanthropy into an institutional charity in Pakistan can be overcome very easily.

Let us take the findings first which have been reported in more generous terms than how they emerge when read with a measure of objectivity. The PCP report describes the Pakistanis in North America — mainly professionals, quite a few being physicians and surgeons — as a “generous, giving and active community”. They donate 250 million dollars in cash and kind every year apart from 43.5 million hours of volunteered time which is given the monetary value of 750 million dollars by the PCP.

The report describes this amount (a total of one billion dollars) as “very impressive”. This is arguable. The cash and kind donations come to barely one per cent of the expatriates’ income. The time volunteered works out to 1.6 hours a week per head for the 500,000 migrants. It would be slightly more if you exclude the children.

But what cannot be denied is that in absolute terms the amount given as philanthropy is quite a big sum. It has, however, not made much of an impact nationally for several reasons. First, only a sum of 100 million dollars (40 per cent) actually comes to Pakistan. Secondly, most of this amount goes directly to individuals in need and not to institutionalized charities.

Hence the question to be asked is why are Pakistani expatriates not willing to give more generously to the country of their origin when they are in a position to do so? The most important factor is, to quote the report, “the chronic lack of trust in the civic sector in Pakistan; over 80 per cent of our survey respondents believe that such organisations are inefficient and dishonest; over 70 per cent feel that they are also ineffective and inattentive to the most pressing problems in Pakistan.”

One cannot deny that corruption is a bane in Pakistan and donors living in Pakistan also like to check before loosening their purse strings for an institution collecting donations. But that does not mean that there are no honest and efficient charities operating in the country that deserve to be helped.

What is understandable is that people living thousands of miles away find it difficult to obtain information about the performance of various institutions, hence they tend to be wary about giving. Information has never been the Pakistanis’ forte.

Another constraint faced by Pakistani Americans is the structural hurdles in transmitting money to Pakistan. After 9/11, American regulations were been tightened and are at times ambiguous about charitable giving abroad. Neither are there any convenient mechanisms to transfer funds to this country or to obtain information about a charity operating in Pakistan. Small wonder the kundi system has been so popular — its success can be attributed to its convenience and informal method.

Charities have also not been able to go about effectively in their fund raising mission. Some of them seeking donations from the expatriate community do not do their homework. They do not obtain exemption from taxes on donations — a powerful motivating factor — and that discourages many would-be philanthropists.

Experience shows that where an infrastructure is in place, funds flow in more easily. For instance, a few charitable organisations, which have representation abroad, are better known among the expatriates. They also manage to attract funds more easily. Thus the Layton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust and the Edhi Foundation have successfully mobilized the Pakistani expatriate community for philanthropic causes. But this approach would benefit only large charities for small institutions cannot afford to have a representative in every country where Pakistani expatriates live.

In this context, the PCP offers some suggestions. The three key areas that must be addressed are

• Building confidence in Pakistan’s civic sector

• Facilitating mechanisms for charity giving

• Improving outreach on the achievements of the civic sector in Pakistan

Individual organizations can improve their prospects by adopting transparency in their working to inspire confidence in the public. They will also have to disseminate information about themselves. Many are already doing this yet they have failed to reach out effectively to many expatriates abroad given the considerable scope of the work involved.

The report suggests that the PCP could play a facilitating role by developing mechanisms for philanthropy. If the organization is not to become the conduit for funding — which it should not if it doesn’t want to lose its credibility — it should confine its role to being a clearing house of information and one providing guidance to philanthropists. Thus it should study the laws of different countries on the transmission of funds by the Pakistani diaspora to guide philanthropists on how to proceed. The organization could emerge as an important source of knowledge by giving essential but authentic facts about the various charities operating in the country. For instance a donor could be guided on how to do a quick check on a charity he wants to support. Some of the guidelines would be:

• determine the trustworthiness of a charity by checking its documentation

• obtain audited financial information

• study the profile of the organization

• look up the number of beneficiaries, their socio-economic status

• ask for the sources of income — are fees charged

This information should be enough to enable any intending expatriate donor to decide where he feels most comfortable about sending his donation.

The centre steps on sensitive ground when it speaks of the newly coined term “non-profit organization” (NPO). Does this suggest charity in the conventional old fashioned sense when people gave donations on humanitarian grounds? The idea was to help meet the basic needs — for food, health, shelter, education and livelihood — of a person who was unable to sustain himself on account of the failure of society to provide him social justice. But today organisations charging exorbitant fees for their services show themselves as NPOs because they show no profits in their accounts — their earnings being shown as their expenditure on keeping themselves functional. Are they deserving of philanthropy?

There is need to define ‘charity’. Under Indian law it is defined as including ‘relief of the poor — their education, health care and the advancement of any other object of general public utility’.

The PCP would do well to study the Indian diaspora’s giving pattern. India has a long tradition of philanthropy and its diaspora has made a big impact on India’s national life. Cultural traits determine a person’s approach to philanthropy and the Muslims of South Asia have not been known for it. A beginning could now be made.

The Pakistani diaspora in North America should be encouraged to make donations to the institutions that really cater to the needs of the poor. Many Americans of Pakistani origin have made a mark in life after graduating from public sector universities in Pakistan. Should they not repay their debt and help these universities in some way?

The health professionals who studied at the public sector medical colleges and are now doing so well in life should be helping their alma mater. After all, these are the institutions that really cater to the needs of the poor. One has to visit them to believe it.

As for the time the Pakistani diaspora volunteers could make an impact if people, especially health professionals and teachers, would return home every year to work for a few weeks to teach and train their own fellow professionals who are not affluent and could never hope to pay for good education abroad. The expatriates could finance the studies of a student who cannot pay for himself.

As for the PCP, it should encourage expatriates to play a direct role in supporting such institutions that really benefit the poor. The problem is that the rampant commercialism, that has overtaken the social sector in the hands of private entrepreneurs, has marginalised the poor. Even philanthropy seems to be sidelining them.

Tags:Education, Health, Expatriate